Ian Sawh, founder and CEO of OwnOutdoors, chats with The Innovative Hotelier Podcast Host Robin Trimingham about how hotels can leverage a ‘digital concierge’ platform to provide a broad array of individualized add-ons to hotel guests in order to differentiate their product offering, and compete for guests and brand loyalty with an alternative to a pure arms race in physical infrastructure.
At a time when guest satisfaction scores have become a melting-pot of expressions, offering experientially oriented products that are uniquely tailored to the interest of guests is becoming essential to generating higher hotel reviews and Net Promoter Scores as well as increasing more direct bookings.
Robin: Welcome to “The Innovative Hotelier Podcast” brought to you by “HOTELS” Magazine. I’m your host, Robin Trimingham, and my guest today is Ian Sawh, founder and CEO of OwnOutdoors, a digital concierge. And today we’re chatting about the importance of leveraging technology and data driven insights to deliver next level guest experiences. Welcome, Ian.
Ian: Hi everyone. Nice to meet you.
Robin: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I think our conversation is very timely in light of the fact that Deloitte has just released a new guest experience strategy report that highlights the increased level of importance that guests are assigning to the provision of guest experiences as an amenity. So start us off here, Ian, can you give our listeners a little insight into what first got you interested in leveraging technology to connect people with outdoor experiences?
Ian: Yeah, absolutely. So I think from a young age, I had always been interested in traveling the outdoors, anything from camping, fishing, boating, sport, you name it, I love the outdoors. And then, you know, out of college, I really grabbed into the technology arena and I really enjoyed the technical world, of course. I have over, I would say 20 plus years of experience in technology. And I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, right? So I decided after, you know, progressing through my career, I wanted to try to solve some issues in this area. And I decided to connect what I love to do, right, and what I’m good at or okay, but my friends are going to tell you…my friends are going to tell you that I’m better in technology than fishing but… And you know, part of our mission, right, is really connecting the community with the outdoors, keeping them active, keeping the kids away from their phones and getting them more involved in the outdoors, and connecting with folks in that manner, right? So that’s really how this got started and how OwnOutdoors was essentially born.
Robin: I get that. And I love that you’ve found a way to connect, you know, your passion in life with a productive enterprise because that is really the secret to the human experience. Tell me, though, why do you refer to the OwnOutdoors platform as a digital concierge? And how does this benefit the hotel industry?
Ian: Yeah. And it’s, I would say, something fairly new to the industry. What I want to make clear is that when folks hear digital concierge, what it’s not, it’s not taking away from that concierge role. We only look to help or improve that profession. There’s also the part where there’s no existing concierges for independent or boutique hotels, right, that can essentially utilize our system. So at a high level, what we aim to do is obviously enhancing the guest experience through our platform, improving that customer and brand loyalty, increasing revenue and improving that role, but also keeping up with the digital presence. The millennials, the younger generation, obviously love technology, they love to be on their phone and they love to sometimes just browse on their own right? So using more practical examples, I think if we talk about the problem first, it’s going to shed more light for you on how we approach this. But I think…so one of the problems in the industry is losing customers to other brands or short-term vacation rentals, what have you, right? So I think the question becomes, how do I turn that customer into booking my hotel versus that vacation rental? So yes, clean rooms, nice bedding, strong WiFi, all the essential needs or the must-haves, right? But what else? Because that’s not enough for travelers these days. What else can a hotel or the lodging industry do to improve that experience? One of the things that we came to realize in offering top-rated amenities, local experiences, tours at a discount they cannot get in other areas or in the general public, right. So that in itself…and we also revenue-share back to the concierge or the hotel itself. So while that’s not their top dollar amount, the key thing here is increasing that brand loyalty. Now, me as a customer…and I’ll give you an example here, say I’m a race fan of the Daytona 500, I want to go to that race every year. Well, if I’m a hotel and I offer those deep discounts or even a free ticket to the Daytona 500, and I’m starting to compare, you know, do I stay with the Airbnb or do I stay with, you know, the Hilton in Daytona, at that point, if I’m saving hundreds on my Daytona 500 ticket, then I may switch over to…that may sway my decision and I’ll book with the hotel. These are real examples that happen all the time. And now over time, I go to the Daytona 500 every year, my mind thinks of the Hilton, right? And now they keep providing those incentives, the Hilton can start tracking that information, which I think we’ll get into a little bit later. But now, as a hotel, you can start tracking that information and still provide and retarget that customer to come back and stay with you, right? The other part is, you know, budgets are cut, right? So another problem, there’s no budget or space for a concierge potentially, or the concierge walks away, quits, or is away sick or whatever. The situation may be…
Robin: Or just overwhelmed with people. Yeah.
Ian: Absolutely. You see many times there’s lines waiting to speak to the concierge, right? So, you know, the question becomes, how do I offer guests amenities that is typically provided by a concierge, right? So now independent or boutique hotels can do that through our digital concierge. And I’ll speak a little bit here about how it’s done. It’s basically we screen and curate those top rated attractions and activities, and we present that to the guests so they know they’re in the best hands and they’re getting the best service from the best providers in the area.
Robin: So I really love this idea because you’re taking, you know, the original idea of a packaged vacation and you’re turning it into a highly customizable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for the guest.
Ian: Yeah, absolutely, right? We see it as what makes that guest tick, right? What makes them… And you know, as I’m talking, I know we will talk about this later also, but, if you’re writing a review…if you’re like me, I write a review, if something either really bad happens or if something really good happens, right? When something really good happens, I’m writing a review. If it’s something in between, then you’re just at the basic level, right? You may not get a review, right? So how do you move, how do you chip away to get that person that never gave reviews before to now start giving you that positive review, right? You know, and one other problem, I think, is how do hotels keep up with technology and some of them are lacking some of the digital amenities that are now becoming the norm, right? Again, I spoke about the millennials, the younger generation wanting, and that’s the Oracle and Deloitte studies, wanting that digital feel, right?
Robin: Yeah. So I think that Deloitte study said that 71% of millennials approximately highly value this.
Ian: Absolutely. And it’s really going up, right? And so I think that’s key, right? That is a key indicator in how hotels should kind of progress their digital strategy. And we can help with that, right? And then something as small as, you know, the brochure racks that sit there in hotels, you know, you can still keep those but we say supplement it, add to it, you know, you can…and if you did want to get rid of it, that’s fine. But, you know, some folks like to have the brochures still in their hand and everything. But, I think, again, getting away from that manual, kind of more archaic way of doing things into the new way of doing things.
Robin: So you mentioned a couple of minutes ago the idea of using all of this to eventually generate more really high-quality reviews. And I think that’s really the name of the game as the world becomes more and more online. Talk to me now, how can a hotelier use data driven insights from, I’m going to call it your booking system, to get insights into guests’ preferences?
Ian: Sure. So here is an example. We work with some hotels in Wynwood, which is South Florida, in Miami. They’re very artsy districts, right? When bookings happen, then we can track what types of bookings are happening. Are folks going on kayak tours? Are folks going to the art shows or the art museums? What types of activities are they doing? Once that is logged and tracked, then we understand what type of guests we’re attracting, what type of amenities we need to provide to continue to attract that guest, right? So once you take the data and understand these different key indicators, then you can target and retarget those same guests saying, “Hey, you know, we have Art Basel coming up in South Florida. Have you booked your stay yet?” And now they can start doing those, you know, specific targeting for those guests.
Robin: I think that’s a really great advantage because especially if you have, you know, a property that’s new to the area or something that’s been rebranded or something that’s just about to experience a lot more bookings due to, you know, what’s been going on globally with the health pandemic, to be able to look at your data and say, okay, this is who we can target now, I think that’s very powerful.
Ian: Absolutely. And another…I would say the key benefit is that to do this with reduced staff that hotels are, you know, facing today, lack of resources, OwnOutdoors, we help leverage our platform and our relationships with these vendors to help reduce your staff time and negotiating or making sure they’re keeping up with their SLAs, you know, negotiating prices even lower than a concierge would. So we help with that and we also even help with getting a destination fee implemented in the hotel. So as you probably know, the destination fees, there’s many, you know, perks that come with booking and that destination fee. Now, they can also add this to the list, and also, if there’s free tickets that come, let’s say, you know, from one of the vendors, they can also add that to the destination. And, you know, that means it could be millions for hotels at times, a huge benefit there.
Robin: I think that can really be a decision maker when a guest is evaluating, should I stay here or should I stay there? Let’s talk a little more about this whole concept of what’s going on with hotel ratings because it really seems to me that… How are guests assigned a rating? It’s becoming this sort of a melting pot where it’s partially about how they felt about the hotel, but also it’s getting confused because they’re thinking about how they felt about the place that they visited and the experiences that they had. So how can a platform like yours really help a hotel generate a good review?
Ian: Right. And I think it’s back to going beyond the basics, right? So a lot of hotels, what do they call it, what, heads on beds? So, what we help with is essentially that getting beyond the basics, right? Moving that customer…from meeting expectations to delighting them, right? If I am given that free ticket to the museum, a free ticket to the kayak, to one of the top kayak tours in the area, or even a boating tour in the area, and this was delivered by the hotel, and every…obviously, you know, everything worked out for my family and I. Even think about a theme park, right? So if this theme park, Legoland, let’s say, and I’m staying in Orlando and my hotel is able to get me that discount…and this already happens today through concierge, but we also do it through the digital concierge, right? And my kids are…you know, I have a two and a four-year-old, so this is important to us and it’s important for families to save where they can, and if you provide them the platform to do so, I think that’s a huge benefit and getting that good review that you’re seeking.
Robin: So in other words, then, if we’re going to make it very simple, if somebody is looking at a couple of different properties and one of them’s offering free breakfast and the other one has a ticket to an event, you might very well, you know, meet and exceed expectation if you’re the property that has the event.
Ian: Absolutely. And I think we’ve heard that multiple times, especially in the Wynwood area in South Florida, you know, the Art Basel, the Daytona, the races and many other venues.
Robin: We only have a couple of minutes of time left here. I’m sure some people listening to all of this are going to say, yeah, but there’s going to be, you know, an integration cost and this is going to take time and resources to manage and to oversee and analyze. What would be your response to a hotelier who’s thinking that way with regard to how this could increase revenue in an overall perspective?
Ian: Gotcha. So, first and foremost, we made it super simple, as easy as possible for the hotels. We do the heavy lifting, there’s no real integration with your systems, it’s a standalone system. So, at a high-level, the implementation process is, we sign you up, we onboard you, and you get a special link that is tied to your hotel and a special QR code. From there, you can either deploy that through your email confirmations, through your website, through sometimes hotels, through window decals, or just the window claims that go in the room. And so how it tactically works, I guess, we would scan the QR code and then it pulls up the curated tours and attractions, right? So there’s really only a communication and training for the hotel staff. So there’s really…it’s super simple from a mobile and tactically how it works. So it’s really just communicating to your staff, this is the new process or this is the process for the digital concierge but… You know, so for prioritization and ROI, probably we’ve seen this as very high ROI for hotels because there’s no time and effort required from your staff, or if any, it’s very minimal, and then the payback is huge. So again, increasing…yes, there’s a 10% commission or revenue share, but increasing the customer loyalty, the cool digital, sexy feel is really where the bang…you know, where you get your bang for your buck, right? So I think the last thing I would say is if we’re hotels, I think the key thing is to keep chipping away at getting to that next level experience for your guests, putting on a roadmap, prioritize it, and let us help you deploy this to get started, get your feet wet.
Robin: Sounds good to me. Thank you, Ian, this has been a very interesting conversation. You’ve been listening to “The Innovative Hotelier Podcast” brought to you by “HOTELS” Magazine. Join us again soon for more up to the minute insights and information specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry.