Friday, June 14, 2024

What A Popular Weather Chatbot Can Teach the Hospitality Industry About Guest Messaging

At first blush, the pairing of Poncho (a cheeky chatbot that tells you the weather, with no obvious ties to the hospitality industry) and ALICE (a hospitality messaging product that doesn’t use chatbots) seems an unconventional choice to host a conversation at HX about chatbots and guest conversational interfaces. But, as a lively discussion between the panelists and audience made clear, there’s a lot hospitality can learn from the popular consumer product Poncho, and a lot more to messaging – especially in this industry –  than chatbots.

Here are a couple of takeaways from ALICE co-founder Alex Shashou’s HX panel on Monday:

1. Attitude is everything

Whether your hotel’s messaging is chatbot-driven, completely staffed by humans, or something in between, deciding on a tone of voice that represents your brand is essential.

One of the things that distinguishes Poncho from other weather apps and conversational interfaces is its distinct personality – one that is both humorous and smart. The product’s founder knew what kind of voice he wanted from the product’s inception, and so he hired a team of writers from Upright Citizens Brigade, a renowned improv theater and training center here in New York, to infuse weather updates – something that could easily be dry and forgettable – to something compelling and sticky. Poncho updates its responses every week or two, incorporating current events, and learning from past interactions, to keep its users delighted and engaged.

Hotels starting with chatbots or messaging don’t need to do a lot of soul-searching to find their voice – knowing what tone to strike with guests is integral to a hotel’s brand and likely well established before diving into messaging. The trick is adapting this voice for a new medium.

The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas made headlines earlier this year when it unveiled Rose, its concierge chatbot that you can text for nearly anything you might need during your stay. Digital marketing agency R/GA worked with The Cosmopolitan to “create a spirited personality that reflects the mystique” of the hotel. The result is something that’s both playful and helpful, as well as a bit sassy – perfect for Las Vegas. When Travel + Leisure asked Rose where to find strippers, Rose apparently replies: “I love playing pretend, so I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” followed by the Hear No Evil monkey emoji. She also added “Let’s keep this PG-13 if you know what I mean.”

Whether you’re designing a chatbot or implementing messaging, establishing brand guidelines for the medium is essential to upholding brand standards and honing in on a particularly unique or compelling voice (like in the case of Rose at The Cosmopolitan) can even set your property apart.

2. Chatbots definitely have more buzz right now, but perhaps human-driven messaging, or a hybrid solution, will work better for your hotel.

When Alex asked who in the audience was already using chatbots at their hotel, one hotelier explained how she had intended for her hotel’s messaging program to be entirely automated, but realized it would need to include (and would benefit from) staff-generated messages. Indeed, having automated messages for certain frequently-occurring interactions saves her staff time, but there’s a long tail of possible exchanges that the average chatbot can’t account for. This doesn’t matter much when it comes to weather apps – if Poncho doesn’t recognize a user message he will tell you he doesn’t understand and prompt you to try again – but it’s incompatible with hospitality, which requires every guest request and exchange to be addressed to the highest standard possible. It’s for this reason we think the happy medium for most hotel messaging programs will be a mixture of automated and staff-generated responses. This will save staff time – particularly for a messaging program at scale – but still allow for real, truly personalized human exchanges.

3. Start slow

When it comes to messaging for the first time, many hoteliers fear being overwhelmed by messages and being too slow to respond. Alex understood the concerns but reminded the audience that, before messaging, we were all concerned that we couldn’t engage with our guests on mobile at all. Alex’s advice to those embarking with messaging is to start slow. Pick a handful of guests to roll this out to at the start, see what engagement is like and how your staff enjoy it, and gradually promote the service to more people. As you expand, you’ll learn how long it takes your staff to respond to queries, and how frequently, and at what times of day, guests are most likely to reach out. One thing you’ll learn right away, Alex says, is that facilitating ten guest interactions over text is a lot more operationally efficient than taking ten guest phone calls. Even moving a few of those calls to the front desk to text conversations as you slowly roll out the program will have an immediate impact on your operations.

4. Choose a messaging platform to get all the benefits of messaging with none of the drawbacks of doing it from your personal phone

During Alex’s panel, a hotelier from the audience enthused about the power of text messaging to create lasting and profitable relationships with guests, describing how a guest engagement program born out of necessity (all she had was her phone) eventuated to something far more prized than a collection of customer emails. But what happens when she goes on vacation, Alex asked, or wants to sell the business? All that valuable data and guest history stays with the phone and its user. The same goes for all hotels that try texting guests from staff phones at the front desk and the concierge desk. If a concierge is having conversations with a guest on his own personal phone, none of that guest history or guest preferences gets recorded by the hotel, and none of that information is easily accessible to other staff members during that guest stay or subsequent stays. This is not scalable. That’s why we recommend using a dedicated messaging tool to run a messaging program at your hotel, ideally one that is integrated with the technology your staff uses to manage their work. That way, all guest information is retained and easily accessible, regardless of who on staff is doing the texting.

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