Trent Freeman had a challenge. His hotels had topped the charts of guest satisfaction. "That's a very difficult place to sustain," he told us. In this case study, we're going to dive into how he got there, the challenges of maintaining consistent excellence, and how he overcame them through listening to guests through technology and motivating his team.
First, a bit of context. Trent is the Corporate Director of Operations Development and Quality Assurance, Valencia Hotel Group. Based in Houston, Texas, Valencia Hotel Group is a hotel management company specializing in the development and operation of full-service luxury hotels. Named a leading hotel developer, owner, and operator by Smith Travel Research, they consistently deliver profit generation rankings in the top tier of all U.S. full-service hotels. Valencia Hotel Group is also a preferred resource for development and property management services for upscale hotels owned by third parties.
A unique aspect of Valencia's properties is a focus on creating a local, outdoor experience with large courtyards, frequent live music, and fire pits in the evening. "We're taking that experience and making it a luxury experience at the same time," Trent told us. "Our aim is to give people a reason to travel because staying in our hotels is an experience in itself. It's very unlike the thousands of other options out there, where you wake up in the morning and may forget what city you're in. It's pretty hard to do that in our hotels!"
Valencia Hotels have won Traveler's Choice Awards and consistently achieves customer satisfaction ratings above the 90th percentile. But therein was the challenge.
Challenged to maintain excellence
"It's difficult to sustain being number one," Trent reflected. In his experience, rallying staff around a common goal of reaching a high guest satisfaction score or position on a review site is tough, but unites the teams. It's even more difficult to sustain that level of excellence day after day.
Doing that requires coming up with ways to re-energize the team. "Over time, unless people find new motivators, they lose focus."
Framing is important here. "I always say it's not my team, it's not the general manager's team, it's not anybody's team. It's everybody's team, and everybody is just as important as each other." This encourages each individual, regardless of their position, to dig deep down and find that energy day after day to deliver the experience to the guests and to their fellow associates. "It can be challenging sometimes, but at the end of the day we always have a way of figuring it out and moving forward."
The key to doing that? "We had to take a step back, take a deep breath, and then really figure out how to continuously improve. We can't really rest or take our foot off the gas."
Part of the process of continual improvement was listening to and acting on guest feedback. And doing that in a timely manner.
The importance of timeliness
Time is always of the essence in delivering exceptional hospitality.
"People don't like to wait, and especially nowadays, with all the technology, everything has to be immediate," Trent observed. Hearing back on an issue days later doesn't cut it. "When something's bothering you, you dwell on it. And every moment that goes by, every moment that you're waiting, you start to think about everything else that you're not happy with. Those things grow. And if we didn't get ahold of them immediately, they probably would have told all of their friends."
The nature of social media and online review sites has only increased the impact of this. "We used to say if a guest is happy, they'll tell one person, and if they're unhappy, they'll tell 10 people. Well, now, it's like 10,000 people. Every moment that goes by can really hurt our reputation quite a bit. Managing that reputation by being immediate and not having the guest wait is crucial."
Trent sees timely guest communication as both crucial while a guest is on the property and once they've left. "It's a very important part of the hospitality experience. We may make mistakes, but it's crucial that we respond to reviews and surveys in a timely manner."
Listening well and responding in a timely manner is where technology can help, but Trent and his team had a challenge.
Challenged to track guest experience
The Valencia team was using a legacy guest experience management system previously and noticed issues in a number of areas. "I don't think I've ever started looking for a new platform unless there was some dissatisfaction with the service. What got us looking for a new product was the support we received from the platform that we were on."
Integrations were the first issue, both in collecting data and syncing it with their systems.
"The whole purpose for the guest feedback platform is to collect all that review data in one place." Trent was finding feedback on some websites wasn't being collected. "If it doesn't integrate with the different sites out there, then we don't have all the information."
Equally important was the integration with their property management system (PMS). "The PMS integration is important for getting surveys out to our guests on time," Trent added.
Important metrics and data weren't present in the old tool. And without this key data, many on the Valencia team were hesitant to use it.
Overall, it felt as if their previous technology provider didn't understand or respect the needs of Valencia Hotel Group. "We had multiple issues and it started to feel like we didn't matter. It was really hard to get ahold of someone, and we felt like our calls were being ignored. It came down to just not having confidence that if we had an issue, it would be addressed."
Finding a better solution
Trent and his team knew a change was needed. At Valencia Hotel Group, evaluating and buying technology is a group effort.
"We have a technology committee with our corporate directors and don't make any decisions when it comes to changing technologies independently," Trent shared. This group is cross-functional to ensure all stakeholder needs are met. "Our revenue management director and our vice president of information technology were both heavily involved in this, along with several others."
The company had built a strong relationship with Shiji previously, which made them an obvious place to turn for this part of their business. "They're very responsible, very responsive, and they go out of their way to take care of us in any way they can. So anytime we're entertaining the idea of looking at anything they cover, they're my first call."
After speaking with the Shiji team, Trent and his team at Valencia decided to move ahead with Shiji's guest engagement technology product line, ReviewPro.
The process went quickly and didn't require a lot from the Valencia team. "The switchover was probably the least painful that I could imagine for such a complex integration with so much information going back and forth," Trent recalled. "We had a few calls, and it was up and running. I'd say it was painless and completely unmemorable. And in this case, that's an amazing thing."
The benefits of working with Shiji's ReviewPro
After a fast onboarding, the improvement was noticeable immediately. "Shiji's ReviewPro has all the bells and whistles. Once we moved over to them, we started to realize a lot of the other things that we just weren't getting before, like the Global Review Index TM."
The team was also using the tools this time. "People aren't reluctant to go in there and surf around and find information because they feel more confident with it. I can tell my team is actually looking at the reviews and responding to the reviews and using the matrices that ReviewPro has, to identify opportunities and run with them."
"It's so much easier to navigate ReviewPro's platform," Trent shared. "Our team is more efficient. And if we're more efficient, then we can spend more time on the floor, managing by walking around, talking to the associates. That's where we all want to be. That's why we're in the hospitality industry."
Support has remained a strong benefit of working with the Shiji teams. "If I were going to speak to why I am so happy with ReviewPro, it's the support. I can call my representative, and it's usually within minutes that I get a response. If there's a fix that's needed or some enhancement that we need, it's done in hours. They are very, very quick to respond."
The ReviewPro offerings have played a key role in helping the Valencia team recover from the pandemic. In the words of Trent, "Everything's on reset, and the last two years are a blur. ReviewPro is essential in getting our feet back on the ground and continuing to move forward."
A quick look at the stats confirms this. The Global Review IndexTM already climbed 2.2% just a few months after implementation from its already high rating. Net Promoter Scores are an incredible 32 points higher. Management response rates to feedback is over 99%, and the vast majority of prospective guests reading those responses found them useful. Importantly, volatility in quality scores has evened out significantly since implementing ReviewPro, with the portfolio maintaining consistent excellence and ranking increasingly higher than their competition over recent months.
The goals of technology: freedom, motivation, and empowerment
According to Trent, technology should make the lives of hoteliers easier and free up time. "If we wanted to be stuck in an office, we probably wouldn't be in the hospitality industry - especially not in operations."
This freedom to focus on serving guests - and their associates - gives Valencia Hotel Group a competitive advantage. Empowering associates with Shiji's ReviewPro tools has helped with retention, morale - and helping them serve their guests.
According to Trent, having technology that quickly and easily collects guest feedback provides fresh ways to recognize and motivate team members. "We can say things like 'Hey, Dorothy, you did a really good job. This guest left you a raving review online.'" The more feedback they can get, and the more timely they can get it, the more they can share the positivity and create a positive atmosphere with the team.
"Empowerment is crucial. It's one of our primary principles in the Valencia Hotel Group. It's beneficial to us on so many levels because it makes each team member feel like they're a part of something. They're not just told to respond to the environment around them and take orders. They have the ability to actually be part of what we do, and their opinions are respected."
This sense of empowerment is also helpful for developing future leaders in the company. "The more they're empowered, the more we can see their decision-making skills, the more we can develop those decision-making skills, encouraging them to make mistakes and to learn from them. And so, that we actually have more of a bench to pull from when we open new properties."
Today, Shiji's ReviewPro suite is an integral part of how Trent and his team at Valencia are able to maintain consistent excellence. "Every hotel has mishaps from time to time," Trent observed. "When we identify issues, we analyze where we could improve. We change our processes where needed, and we follow up and train accordingly. A lot of it comes back to retraining and developing our associates, and then they will always step up and continue to fine-tune their services."
Valencia Hotels receives so many positive comments and now it's easier than ever to share those with associates. "People enjoy recognition, so if we make sure we go out of our way to find and share that, it really encourages our team members to seek it out. When they see others being recognized, they're also encouraged to do the same thing because everybody wants to be a part of that."
A key part of working in hospitality is the feeling that you're a part of something that has meaning. "If I were going to suggest a reason to people to get into the hospitality industry, I would say it's to be a part of something that matters. Anybody that gets in this industry, whether it's a housekeeper, front desk agent, server in the restaurant, bartender - they can all be a part of something that means something."
"Hospitality is about serving people," Trent shared in closing. "One of the biggest shortcomings that we have as a society is knowing how to treat each other. We shine the light on that in the hospitality industry. We really set the bar for how to treat other human beings, and it's no small feat. I think it's very important."
Shiji Group is a multinational technology company that provides software solutions and services for enterprise companies in the hospitality, food service, retail, and entertainment industries, ranging from hospitality technology platform, hotel management solutions, food and beverage, and retail systems, payment gateways, data management, online distribution and more. Founded in 1998 as a network solutions provider for hotels, Shiji Group today comprises over 5,000 employees in 80+ subsidiaries and brands in over 23 countries, serving more than 91,000 hotels, 200,000 restaurants, and 600,000 retail outlets.
About Valencia Hotel Group
Based in Houston, Texas, USA, Valencia Hotel Group is a hotel management company specializing in the development and operation of full-service luxury hotels. Named a leading hotel developer, owner, and operator by Smith Travel Research, they consistently deliver profit generation rankings in the top tier of all U.S. full-service hotels. Valencia Hotel Group is also a preferred resource for development and property management services for upscale hotels owned by third parties.