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The sleep/service equation

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaThis Yuletide as hotel shareholders watch their stocks by night we ask travellers whether they really need humans to interact with or would a comfy bed suffice.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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The sleep vs service equation - humans or algorithms?

The traveller's dilemma - sleep comfort or exceptional service? Yes, but did he knock?

LAST Month we looked at the crucial role of general managers in upholding and promoting the hotel brand (Return of General Custer - the case of the disappearing GM) and the increasingly faceless nature of hospitality as interactions move online and backend operations are consolidated creating even more layers of anonymity between owners (now largely stock-watching shareholders) and travellers, ever more steadily divorced from brands.

A host of Letters were received from readers and seasoned general managers alike candidly commenting on the subject with many looking back yearningly at the good old days when the art of hoteliering was most vividly demonstrated on the shop floor with face time, banter, and my-regards-to-your-mother bonhomie.

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Times have changed. But have people? The older generation is a dab hand on the iPad, and Skype calls are very much de rigueur in all but the most electronically challenged family.

{Gone are the days when travellers with names like Pethrington-Thomas lugged large portmanteaux and penned loving postcards to dotty mums in London

Gone are the days when travellers with names like Pethrington-Thomas lugged large cruise-bound portmanteaux and penned loving postcards to fading dotty mums in London waxing about the joys of a Singapore Sling or a Victoria Harbour view. There was no amplification of the ‘brand review’ as Pethrington-Thomas’s mum tore up the postcard and wondered who on earth was sending this random gobbledegook about something called Raffles or Peninsula. Yet, amazing brands were built word-of-mouth and through handwritten letters and lobby handshakes.

Nowadays vast herds of Millennials roam the globe armed with smartphones that upload the most mundane cocktail snaps into cyberspace to attract an instant twittering following. Forget the humble postcard. This is on an industrial scale. And the hotels that benefit the most from this seemingly futile frisson are budget boutiques with quaint doll’s-house furniture that scrapes the knees and tires discerning backs. Their secret? Online pizzazz. And price.

Then there’s the forgotten Generation X, sandwiched in anonymity between the baby boomers and the Millennials. As one irate GenXer fulminates, “We brought the style to lifestyle hotels and helped you realize that floral bedspreads are an abomination. Would a Millennial do that for you? I have my doubts because I’m not sure they’d look up from their smart phone long enough to tell you what you need to hear.”

No matter how many mass e-mails hotel systems generate – cleverly prefixed with your name and a risible informality, “Hey Pethrington-Thomas” – they simply don’t match the warmth and intent of a handshake or eye contact or the scribbled note by the fruit basket in the hotel room. And what would these systems have made of the late Villupuram Chinnaih Pillai Ganesan (who thankfully adopted the stage name Shivaji Ganesan)?

In a November 2018 snap survey we asked readers 1) their response to problems encountered at hotels and 2) factors accounting for their loyalty. For the first question, “If you have a problem during a stay, you normally… (pick one)” we listed five responses: A. Post immediately on social media. B. Call and ask the hotel to fix things. C. Ask to meet the general manager. D. Do nothing. E. Plan not to return to this hotel.

What would you do? Interestingly just 1.6% asked to meet the GM and a similarly miniscule number said they would immediately post on social media. Perhaps all that blogger blackmail that so dominates headlines is an anomaly rather than the norm. As many as 14.1% chose apathy and said they would do nothing; 20.3% declared they would not return to the place; while 62.5% sensibly opted to call the hotel to fix things.

While calling down to reception with a complaint seemed the logical thing to do, what was surprising was the lack of interest in taking up matters with the GM (though in fairness we did not specify how serious the complaint might be).

Yet, on the follow-up question (“You tend to return to a hotel because of…”) it became apparent that people do matter a great deal. As many as 36.5% opted to return due to ‘exceptional staff and service’, just ahead of ‘unbeatable location’ (34.6%), the cardinal lodestar of hotels whose first mantra is location, location, location. A ‘very comfortable bed’ garnered 13.5% while 'great room design' got a paltry 11.6%. Bringing up the bottom was ‘great food’ – picked by just 3.8% respondents.

Comfortable beds were favoured predominantly by North Americans. Indians opted for food, Singaporeans for room design, while those demanding to meet the general manager were almost entirely from the Middle East.

At the end of the day, no matter the age of the traveller or the nationality, everyone values a smiling face and some modicum of personal recognition. People are the not-so-secret ingredient of great hotels and travel experiences. This is what gives hotels such a significant advantage over airlines where cabin crew change every sector. Let’s not replace them with the statistically riveting – but dull – abstraction of algorithms.

Happy Christmas and a rollicking New Year packed with amazing people.

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