As the final days of slip away, how interesting it is that Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Year” for 2023 is “Authentic,” meaning it was the “most searched” on their site. Because I failed miserably at learning a second language, I have become somewhat of an Etymologist, so I was eager to see how Merriam-Webster defined it in their announcement. “Authentic has a number of meanings including ‘not false or imitation,’ a synonym of real and actual; and also ‘true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.’”
To me, this year’s announcement seems even more interesting, since 2022’s most searched word was “gaslighting,” which Merriam-Webster defined as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.” Perhaps this year’s word represents the beginning of what I’ve always said was coming to consumerism, which is a sort of “tech backlash” and a desire to return to human engagement.
While I am not saying that consumers will be giving up their smartphones, deleting their apps, or that AI will soon be turned off, I do think that as tech results in fewer human interactions, each one that remains becomes that much more important.
Yet In the business world, across just about every industry other than perhaps massage studios, customers are increasingly forced to engage with companies by way of more tech and fewer humans.
This is certainly true in the hotel and lodging industry. Especially when it comes to the conglomerated hotel brands, the big push seems to be to remove humans wherever possible. When you hear leaders speak to this, the messages seem to focus on “making guest service more efficient,” and that “these Millennials (and now GenZers) prefer tech to humans…,” and “Tech allows us to provide more personalized service. We can drop their first name into the start of an email campaign or put it in a welcome message on their TV!” Whoopee, what a thrill! That warms my heart about as much as an automated birthday message from my car dealership.
As an example, today I needed to book a room at a Marriott, but I had a special request that could not be added online. So, I managed to find their reservations line, which in itself was no easy feat, as it required 3 Clicks, then I needed to grab my glasses to read a very small font size because the number was not hyperlinked to click to call. After speaking to the IVR voice, I was surprised to hear this exact message: “I can send you a text message to quickly and easily book your reservation online at www.marriott.com” What? Who put together that Phone Tree process? Did they not realize that most callers probably got the phone number off of that same website?
Well now that I’ve vented, let me return to the topic at hand. When guests (and consumers in general) finally get through to a live person, what we want more than ever is to have authentic conversations. Not to experience scripted politeness based on so-called “luxury standards” made up by consultants who claim to know what guests want.
Is there anyone else who thinks it is ridiculous when a room service delivery person stands waiting at the door asking “Do I have permission to enter your room?” and then who, looking at the ONLY space in the room where a try would logically go, asks “Where would you like me to place your tray?” Sometimes at these moments, the “Good Doug” and the “Bad Doug” who live in my head have a quick debate about what to say next, because “Bad Doug” wants to say, “No, you do not have permission, and set up my breakfast out there in the hallway.”
Am I the only one who finds it annoying that every single staff member I encounter on my last morning of a stay offers luggage assistance? From the PBX operator when I call for luggage assistance, to the bellperson who collects my bag, to the front desk when I waive and say goodbye, and then the doorman or valet parker standing outside next to me, as I stare at the Uber app on my phone, everyone keeps asking me!
Is there anyone else who finds it annoying when every single person I encounter in fine dining asks if I have any food allergies? The receptionist who takes the reservation, the host who seats me, the assistant server, the head waiter, and sometimes even the food runner!
Being an industry insider, I do my best to hide my annoyances, because I know that the worker, just like me, is only trying to do their best to keep a job they really need, so they can support their family, just like me.
Based on the conversations I frequently have with my fellow passengers seated next to me on flights, waiting at the gates, or in hotel lobbies as we wait for ride shares, it seems that what guests really want these days is authenticity. Even more so than a welcome gift, a repeat guest amenity, and certainly more than points or meaningless perks like a water bottle in a brown gift bag, we want to have conversations with staffers who are being “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character” just like Merriam-Webster said in this year’s announcement.
And when we have those conversations, about our children, our pets, the concert or game we just attended, or simply about this crazy weather lately, they are more meaningful than ever before.
Think about all of the apps a traveler has to deal with before they walk into your hotel. They’ve checked in on an airline app, ordered a Lyft or Uber to the airport, pre-ordered their Dunkin’ or Starbucks, selected their car from their Avis app, used Maps or Waze, and probably returned countless texts, DM’s, and emails while en route. By the time they arrived these depersonalized experiences have drained their spirits even more than these apps have drained their cell phone batteries.
Yet the tech companies continue to push automation and the hotels keep buying more. I think it was in 2014 when Hilton announced their initiative to make smartphone check-in go brand-wide. Yet JD Power’s North American Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study, released this past July, indicates that about 30% of hotel guests had the hotel or brand app on a mobile device, and among that group (only) 40% had used it to check in. Interestingly, the same study says that more than 75% of respondents who checked in online still interacted with the front desk staff during their stay.
All this leads me back to the message I set out to share. It seems inevitable that guests will have fewer interactions with our hotel staff, so rather than obsessing on meaningless standards that are only important to hotel inspectors, let’s make 2024 the year in which we obsession on authentic, heartfelt hospitality. It is good for business, and your staff will love you for it because no one wants to work as a scripted robot, and it’s also good for those humans behind the guest room doors, across the front desk, bar, or counter, and on the other side of that phone call.