There is so much to unpack on the topic of Customer Experience in the Hospitality Industry. Realistically, we might need parts 2 and 3 of this post. But, today I'll focus on the factor I consider to have the highest potential of generating the arch-nemeses of the hospitality industry, churn and negative reviews.
Hospitality is essentially catering to customer expectations with the highest precision possible in order to create memorability. And when these expectations are not met, we get a gap, and negative memories (a.k.a. trauma, a.k.a "I'm never going back").
The customer experience expectation gap is when customers' expectations are not equivalent to the company's offerings. And the consequence of this gap is frustration, dissatisfaction and ultimately churn.
Remember the story about the "booking.com vs reality" at a hotel in Vietnam? :-D
Going to hotels, resorts and getaways are a part of our coping mechanisms. It's the way we "treat ourselves" for all our hard work.
The Hospitality industry is directly responsible for creating a haven where we can "get away" from the world, and on this, they hinge their profits.
While I cannot offer the secret sauce to making every hotel stay worthwhile to customers, I can offer insight into how much expectations can affect customers' perception of your business and determine your success or failure.
Let's break down the main customer journeys for the hospitality industry into three categories:
This is probably the most delicate circumstance that requires the highest amount of attention. Why, you ask? Hopes and dreams.
We've all been here at some point. We plan a trip months in advance, set aside money, make sacrifices, schedule time off work, and we count down the days from the confinements of our gray cubicles, dreaming of fresh ocean air and sunshine. At times, fantasizing about our vacation becomes our saving grace; making a bad job, problems at home, or any stressful reality tolerable, because in the end, this trip will make it all "worth it".
This creates an emotional attachment to the trip, the idea of an escape from reality. Therefore, bad experiences tend to carry extra heavy weight for vacationers, since somehow they snap guests out of this fantasy bliss and back into the stress of reality.
It's in the little things, really. I recently took a last minute vacation to Florida with my family for the precious 5 days that we managed to squeeze into everyone's hectic schedules. And since it had been 3 years since our last vacation, the hopes and dreams were slathered on nice and thick. We opted for a decent resort, because although it was above our budget, we'd guarantee quality and service and have the best 5 days of our lives, right? Well, while the structure itself was amazing, the bad impressions started early on: no extra bed was set up when we arrived at 1am with sleeping children; breakfast the next day was a highway robbery and it took the kitchen 45 minutes to prepare pancakes; but the real kicker? We had no room service for 3 out of the 5 day stay. To make a very long story short, ultimately, the concierge refunded part of our stay, but she wasn't able to refund the most important thing we lost. Time.
Suffice it to say, we won't be going back.
Business trips are synonymous with high anxiety and homesickness. Hotels that specialize in business guests have gone to great lengths to insure there is a sense of familiarity in their hotel rooms, so that regardless of the destination, guests feel the comfort of a home away from home. Some hotels are going as far as to creating that feeling of familiarity with scents.
Hilton Hotels founder Conrad Hilton wanted to make sure a Hilton was a "little America" no matter where you went. Roger Eberhard, a Swedish photographer, actually created a project out of Hilton's rooms likeliness in 32 different cities. While this may be considered boring, when traveling for business, guests have come to expect the ease of the predictable experience and floor plan.
On the other hand, Virgin Hotels seems to have mastered the art of the boutique business hotel. Sir Richard Branson in a recent interview said "The hotel team's keen understanding of what guests have been going through just getting to a destination is important. We need to be sensitive to the fact that they’d have to go through security half a dozen times, there’s traffic in every major city, on the way they’re getting emails and text messages so when you arrive - what do you want? You want a place to escape."
The chain has also decided to slash infamous mini-bar prices (!!). I remember as kid, upon arriving at a hotel, the first item on the agenda was a stern lecture followed by death-threats from my parents on why we NEVER eat anything from the mini-bar. And all of this is now changing with the Experience Economy.
To say brides have expectations is clearly stating the obvious. Talk about hopes and dreams right there.
When it comes to getaways and destination events, you have to factor in the expectations of not only the guests of honor, but also the group hoping for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Here's an amazing tale of the wedding gift that just kept giving (negative reviews) from 2015. Not only did the hotel not attend her expectations, their damage control was a disaster.
For brevity, the hotel had renovations underway on her wedding date, and the venue was COMPLETELY compromised. Nothing they promised was delivered, making the entire event an utter disaster for the group who had flown in from all over the globe for this day. But the bride was a blogger and was not going to take her magical day being ruined sitting down.
Her story generated features in newspapers, bridal magazines and other outlets, and years later, the hotel is still dealing with the backlash of bad reviews.
I think the overall lesson here is, that while in some cases, expectation gaps occur due to unforeseen circumstances and/or acts of god, there are plenty that could easily be avoided by simply not playing up the experience beyond that which you can deliver.
Most humans are capable of adjusting their initial expectations to realities such as cost/benefit. The problem lies precisely with the customer getting sold on a perception that doesn't line up with reality (remember the pool in Vietnam?).
Ensuring a perfect experience every time is not an easy feat, but carefully designing the customer journey, finding a balance between advertising and overselling, and understanding the perceptions customers have of your brand can help curb expectations and avoid frustration.