Industry Update
Opinion Article11 February 2021

The Post-Pandemic Hotel Experience from the Experience Expert

By Larry Mogelonsky, Managing Director Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited

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As COVID-19 continues to upend travel and rewrite daily habits, hotels must nevertheless continue to differentiate their products in order to better appeal to guests in the next normal and build revenues. While much needs to be done insofar as safety upgrades and facilitating a contactless customer journey through tech enhancements, it all inevitably comes down to the guest experience.

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And so, I turn to the man himself who coined the phrase 'The Experience Economy', Joe Pine. A thoroughly affable man based out of Minneapolis, his ongoing writing, speaking engagements and work with businesses from all sectors reveal that we mere mortals are in the amidst of a great transformation from the 20th century, service-centric approach to how we treat customers, and into one where time is the key value-add.

As organizations come to familiarize themselves with the psychological principles underpinning the experience economy, it becomes increasingly clear that the future of any company depends on how well they treat their stakeholders and how they can enrich the livelihoods of consumers. While most hoteliers are already well-versed in the need for a memorable guest journey to drive satisfaction, rate, loyalty and return visits, it's nonetheless refreshing to hear it from the commander-in-chief of experiences to see what else brands can do in the face of so much pandemic-generated uncertainty.

Is the experience economy still relevant in today's current COVID-focused environment?
Absolutely! The experience economy isn't going away; if anything, the coronavirus will accelerate the shift from goods and services to experiences as the predominant economic offering. For the pandemic makes us realize that, at least in the first world, we don't need more stuff. We have enough stuff! What we really value are the experiences that give life meaning and experiences with our loved ones, our friends or even our colleagues.

Of course, so very many of those experiences are not possible right now, as anywhere people gather is a place most people don't want to be. But people are social beings and crave experiences. So right now, we are shifting those experiences from 'out there' to 'in here', from the physical to the digital, from the public to the communal. When the pandemic winds down through herd immunity via one or more vaccines, then physical experiences will come roaring back (as they already have to the limited capacity governments allow).

Service culture has been the mainstay of hotels, particularly at the luxury end. How does that work in a world of contactless accommodations?
Oh, the service can work perfectly well in a contactless environment! Many hotel services were already contactless, such as cleaning rooms, setting out amenities, preparing breakfast and so on. Now it will accelerate the trend of checking in and opening guestrooms via an app and other ways of contactless service.

So much of the hotel experience, though, happens in the encounter between guests and staff, and the latter will have to work even harder to make personal connections and create meaningful encounters in a time when people don't want to touch others. They will need to fully understand that their work is theatre, and act in a way that engages guests no matter what distance exists between them. Services are about the 'what' - the functional activities workers perform - while experiences are about 'how' those activities are done. By focusing on how they do what they do, workers can turn any mundane interaction into an engaging encounter.

More of the experience will be delivered digitally, accelerating the trend that started with premium channels on the TV, videos on demand, Alexa voice units in the room, robot delivery and so on. And that will make every personal encounter even more important to the overarching experience.

Post-COVID, what changes do you anticipate the consumer will expect insofar as experiences?
There will be lingering effects for many people, perhaps most, regarding all the hygiene aspects that hotels embraced so quickly - particularly when people realize that they are so much less likely to catch the flu as well. So, they will want to be safe from any sort of virus or 'catchable' disease, which means that part of the experience hotels offer will need to be 'safety theatre'. That is, not just ensuring that the hotel is safe (first for employees, then for guests), but assuring guests by showing that the place is safe.

The other thing I think will become more important as personal encounters are lessened is for the hotel experience overall to be more personal — that is, customized to each individual guest. The guiding light here, I think, is Carnival Cruise's Ocean Medallion program which enables a personal itinerary for each guest (or family) on a cruise. For example, micro-geographically pinged order history data can tell the operator that when you are on the pool deck with your kids your favorite drink is an iced tea with no lemon, then when you are at the bar with your buddies it's a mojito, and in the restaurant with your spouse it's a glass of Shiraz.

What can hoteliers do to recapture the magic of experiences?
Hoteliers should be preparing now for a post-COVID world. First, they should (already!) be refreshing their places to make a great first impression, including the safety theatre I mentioned earlier. Second, they must redesign their offerings, in particular working hard to provide more engaging, memorable and remarkable experiences by making them robust, cohesive, personal, dramatic and even transformative (as we put it in our 2020 rerelease, "The Experience Economy: Competing for Customer Time, Attention, and Money"). Finally, hoteliers should be looking to renew their capabilities to provide new possibilities for the guest experience, in particular digital capabilities.

Anything else that you want to add?
Well, one major trend in tourism right now fits well with the last two imperatives I just mentioned - transformational travel. People are most open to change when they get out of their daily routines, so seeking self-change while traveling is proving to be a big opportunity to which hotels can cater.

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