Guest loyalty as we knew it is gone

Just about anybody can think about how they’ve changed their relationship with at least one brand in the last 12 months. Maybe you used to have the next five flights booked with a certain airline, but you’ve lost that rhythm now that you’re no longer traveling for business. Maybe it’s the coffee shop a block away from your office that you’re no longer a regular of, now that you’re working from home.

It’s no different for hotels. And, as a consequence, what we traditionally think of as guest loyalty has changed and is still evolving.

Contributed by Geoff Ryskamp, Global Head of Hospitality, Medallia Hospitality, San Francisco

While most hospitality brands have extended their loyalty programs during this period of social distancing and reduced travel — to ensure points don’t expire and that travelers maintain their status levels — it has yet to be seen what the full impact will be on just what loyalty and loyalty programs will look like in the future.

When it comes down to it, we have to ask ourselves to what extent loyalty programs — once a must-have hotels used to encourage repeat bookings and retention — even have an impact on loyalty in this moment. And what other factors really matter.

In this new moment, the great reveal for hotels is to figure out which guests are actually loyal, without the allure of the points scheme.

For instance, most business travelers who used to have several accommodations on the books at a time — and who have up until now been a huge driver of loyalty rewards program participation — are still not traveling. They might now find themselves wondering, “Did I really actually like that brand beyond the reward points they offered?”

Leisure travelers are starting to dip their toes in the water and travel again during this great loyalty reset. For some, location may be more important than before. Others are seeking out specific amenities. Even guests once married to a certain flagged hotel brand are exploring their options.

Getty Images
Getty Images

That’s why today’s leading hospitality brands are investing their energy and resources to ensure that new and returning guests stay loyal by prioritizing key areas that impact the overall guest experience.

#1: Encouraging authentic customer reviews to help the guest discovery and booking process and drive customer loyalty

In this new area of an influx of first-time guests, hospitality executives are paying attention to ensuring a strong first impression to drive loyalty. And for most customers the very first impression for customers starts with checking out property rankings, ratings, and social reviews on platforms like Google, TripAdvisor and Facebook, which are integral to the buying process.

That’s why savvy brands are taking the time to make sure their property is accurately reflected on these review sites. Just about every hospitality company should ask verified guests to leave a review on social channels or their own website as a natural extension of the customer feedback and guest engagement process. In some cases, up to 50% of the total review volume eceived on websites like Tripadvisor or Google comes from directly asking customers to share reviews.

Encouraging guests to leave reviews on an ongoing basis can give you a leg up on the competition in a variety of ways. First, by offering a valid and accurate picture of what staying at your property is really like. Next, generating a steady stream of reviews is extremely powerful because review sites like Google and Tripadvisor derive placement based on factors like review recency and review volume. By promoting this behavior among recent guests, you directly influence these factors.

After conducting a series of studies on the topic, researchers at The Hotel School, the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, reported in 2021 that when hotels let their customers know that they value guest opinions, not only are guests more likely to share reviews of their stay online, this also can boost guest loyalty by nearly 50%.

#2: Listening to the customer experience to better anticipate future needs and drive customer satisfaction

Beyond social reviews, first-time customers are also exploring your property’s website for the first time and evaluating whether the information provided is helpful — if they’re finding out what they need to, and, if they have any questions, are they able to get the help they need via customer support channels?

That’s another key area where strategic brands are paying attention to the guest journey. Brands are finding incredible insights from customer inquiries. Companies with an early advantage are monitoring their contact centers, mining the conversations for emerging trends, and addressing these head-on with helpful self-service information as part of the digital experience.

Establishing this kind of strong feedback loop between the digital channels and customer support channels enables brands to understand what they need to provide to potential guests to help them book and enjoy their stay, at what points they need to do so during the guest journey, and via which channels to ensure greater conversions and stronger overall guest satisfaction, which, in turn, can drive longer-term guest loyalty.

In the context of COVID-19, in particular, it’s more important than ever for brands to be upfront and set expectations about amenities and what your property may be doing differently and listen in closely to these customer signals about the types of information they’re looking for.

#3: Getting a clear picture of the end-to-end guest experience to measure and optimize for customer loyalty in the moment

Ultimately, brands need an advanced customer profile tracking solution in place to understand what’s happening with loyalty right now on the ground to enable them to interpret and understand the habits of the new folks that are interacting with their brands for the first time.

As guest booking and stay behaviors continue to evolve, having a clear picture of that end-to-end experience through customer journey analytics is more important than ever.

Strategic brands are able to measure not only high-level loyalty KPIs, like guest satisfaction and repeat bookings, but they also have the tools in place to know how different cohorts of travelers or individual super high value customers are behaving and leverage these insights to figure out what’s driving loyalty and optimize for it.