Our Business Development Director, Frederic Van Lennep, interviewed General Manager and Hospitality consultant, Ronald Stilting, regarding his views and experiences on the digitalization in the hospitality industry.
Q Where do you see the main benefits of digitalization?
The core of hospitality remains providing a great experience and digitalization can be an important factor to improve the service quality and guest experience. Making traditional manual and verbal processes, such as check-in or requesting information, faster and easier will help to focus on the real issues that impact the experience. Keycards will be history in a few years and you don’t need to wait in line to check in and can go directly to your room if the property has a good online-check-in procedure. Numerous additional opportunities that make life for the guest easier and more pleasurable have been developed and there is a flow of innovation. We can now replace the boring and standard interaction with digital versions and the real-life human interaction can focus on really “taking care” of our guests. The guests will appreciate the quick answer even if it is given by a chatbot or make the table reservation online if it means he does not need to walk to the reception.
Guest entertainment got a boost when smart TV’s were introduced 7-8 years ago but it has further improved since then as guests can use their own streaming services on the in-room TV. Smart displays and information systems make life for the guest and hotelier easier.
The second big advantage of digitalization is that it makes many processes far mor efficient and will reduce the operational costs. Staff planning and allocation based on business level and smart purchasing supported are just examples. The systems are becoming more and more efficient, and we are now able to -remote- measure and control technical and other systems up to an extent that was previously not possible. BMS (Building Management Systems) have been around for years but are smarter and more efficient than ever.
There is also an incredible boost in the opportunities for Sales & Marketing as CRM systems enable highly personalized marketing efforts and guest communication pre- (online-check-in & creating virtual key on mobile device) and post-stay. Revenue Management systems will get even smarter and help optimize revenue. Integrating a chatbot on your website and WhatsApp as part of your marketing and communication with guests is becoming very popular. Though very common, the implementation of WhatsApp is often haphazard and unprofessional while good solutions and strategies are available.
Q Why do you think that digitalization should be embraced by hoteliers and the implementation accelerated?
Millennials, who still make up a substantial part of the market were the first ones to be confronted with digitalization on a larger scale and -mostly- accepted and enjoyed it. But the younger generations, who are the future market, are digital natives and expect digital solutions wherever possible. They also expect instant replies to requests, as they experience online, and this can be handled by smart systems with prepared answers and chatbots. While Gen Z still prefers eye-to-eye contact, this also includes virtual contact through an online conversation like Face-Time or Zoom.
Q What are things to consider when implementing digitalization?
It is key to choose systems that have a very low user threshold and are self-explanatory so that the user experience is smooth and pleasant. Symbols and procedures etc. should be universal.
Q What do you see as bottlenecks in the implementation of digitalisation in hospitality?
It is crucial to have a strong technical infrastructure as the backbone for any kind of digitalization. Without a blazing fast and redundant network with fast switches enabling numerous application, it is a risk to implement far-reaching digitalization.
Q Are there other hurdles in the implementation of digitalization
15 to 20 years ago we operated hotels with a PMS, a POS and an accounting software. This is the status of numerous independent hotels besides having added a Wi-Fi network for their guests. In some cases there is not even an interface between the PMS and the accounting software. The reason may be that the investors/owners of independent hotels are often Baby Boomers, who are not very much immersed in the digital world and that when funding is limited, digitalization is not on the priority list. In these kind of properties you will still find outdated COAX-based TV-systems with poor quality and a lack of other systems. I have experienced independent hotel owners that became enthusiastic about some aspects of digitalization but become entangled in a mix of defragmented systems that could not, or only with considerable costs, be made to work together. In this fast-developing world, it is difficult to stay well informed of the latest developments and thus take the right decisions. It is therefore important to choose a reputable partner that has a good overall knowledge of many options and solution rather that to talk to various providers of solutions and try to make things work. Promises of integration are made that may be difficult of not possible.
Q What are some of your own experiences with digitalization?
I was quite proud when we installed the first smart-TV’s in a hotel that I opened in Lagos, in a time that screen-sharing from phone or laptop was just coming up and digitalization was in its infancy. We did not install the “bill-view” facility as the interface was expensive and I felt that the navigation with the TV-remote was cumbersome at the time. For the same reason I didn’t believe in the “interactive room service ordering” via the TV. These days the options are better when using the mobile device of the guest, the BYOD functions in Bring Your Own Device, in combination with the TV and an integration to PMS & POS.
My personal biggest achievement in terms of digitalization is the introduction of HotelKit in a large resort in Nigeria, as the first implementation in Africa. This is an amazing internal communication and process management tool with a large functionality that takes care issues are dealt with, trackable and improves guest interaction and much more. This was a “dream come through” for me as a manager. I also improved the technical network backbone to prepare the property for IPTV etc. as the TV-system was outdated.
Q What do you find crucial when implementing digitalization?
The focus should remain the UX User or Guest Experience and thus the integration of the various components is key. There should be only 1 “portal” for the guest to access all services and this should ideally not be an app that has to be downloaded but simply a web application that is easy to access.
Q what do you recommend a hotel owner/investor?
In this fast-developing world, it is difficult to stay well informed of the latest developments and thus take the right decisions, but it is worth spending time to know what is relevant and upcoming. It is important to choose a reputable partner that has a good overall knowledge of many options and solution rather that to talk to various providers of solutions and try to make things work. Promises of integration are made that may be difficult of not possible.
Ronald Stilting has opened and operated several hotels and resorts as a General Manager with great success and he is an advocate of digitalization in hospitality. He considers it a crucial factor for the long-term success and profitability. He is also the founder of the Zebra Hospitality, an African lifestyle hospitality concept that includes digitalization as a key component.