Digging for Gold in the Hospitality Industry

Did your hotel check you out before you checked in?

Bellhop Button, © Dietmar Höpfl | Dreamstime.comTravel + Leisure recently featured an article titled “What Your Hotel Knows About You” which examined data mining by hotels in order to anticipate guests’ needs and personalize their experiences. The timing was interesting; I was traveling and was a bit surprised to find my newest Twitter follower was the very hotel I had just checked into.

The article detailed hotels creating dossiers on guests based on past stays, internet searches, social media and, in some cases, software programs designed to collect guest data, then using that information to cater to that guest and create a custom experience. With so many sources of information, though, who’s to say which are valid or off limits? Nothing beats first-hand knowledge; something as simple as noting that I had asked for the Wall Street Journal on my last visit and providing it before I ask on the next. Some believe everything on social networks is open territory, while others think it’s best to stick to professional networks such as Linkd In. Meanwhile, some customers wear their hearts on their Status Updates while others make you dig to discern their tastes. Even when the information is out there for public consumption, if it’s apparent that your customer is private about their preferences, you don’t want give the impression that you’re stalking them. (We are customers, not prey. There is a difference.)

There is also danger in misinterpreting what can be found on-line, falling for misleading profiles or just plain getting the wrong guy (hint: though we share the same name, I am not an accountant, attorney or pianist). A degree of anonymity in social media can prompt people to exaggerate a bit, if not create a whole new persona. It’s likely we’ve all had an awkward experience of sarcasm not playing well on-line and, in the vacuum of cyberspace, it’s too easy to have content without context. For example, you can see what I searched for but not know why. Amazon is still recommending albums by a band whose CD I was trying to sell because I don’t like them. With my luck, I would check into a suite stocked with everything I hate simply because I searched for them “this one time at band camp.”

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Included in the article is a story from New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, author of the book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, in which he tells us a hotel had set a framed picture of his family (found on the internet) in his room. While he found that touching – it happened to be Father’s Day – to me it approaches the border between creepy and creepier. Another of the magazine’s quotes came from a hotel manager who said the goal is “to act on that knowledge without calling undue attention to it.” It’s a thin line to walk and it obviously will vary from guest to guest, leaving the hotel to figure out how much is too much. From my Facebook or Twitter account, it’s not hard to figure out that I’m a coffee fan (“Addiction” is such a strong word!) and that, if you slide me a Starbucks card with my room key, you’ve got me. This is particularly true if there’s a crappy mini-coffee maker with generic filter packs in my room. That much would be appreciated but I’m not expecting a personal relationship with a hotel, which is where things could get a bit awkward.

So, perhaps the staff had done some research prior to arrival. Was there a black folder filled with facts and figures designed to maximize my stay and get me to return? Did they already know I would order bacon for breakfast (wait…doesn’t everybody?) or Bailey’s before bed? As it turns out, my experience tells me they did almost no research on me. Or, if they did, none of it was put into action aside from following me – which very well could have been coincidence. In speaking with fellow travelers, those who suspect the hotel did their homework were staying at boutique and smaller hotels while I was booked into a major national brand. This is not necessarily a bad thing – I stay at this brand pretty consistently because they are pretty consistent and that, for me, is a great perk. I can rely on a comfortable room, well maintained and spotlessly cleaned. With hundreds of guests coming and going each day, I would be surprised if anyone other than VIPs got a dossier and the level of attention that goes with it.

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Craft Beer Box from Francis Marion Hotel

Many hotels have custom amenities available, but more are finding a bit of research paired with complimentary goodies builds a personalized stay and a repeat customer. (Photo: Craft Beer Box from Francis Marion Hotel, Charleston, SC)

Like most travelers, I would welcome small touches that personalize my experience but hoteliers (and others) should remember: the real value for customers is in consistently exceptional service.

Feedback How do you feel about data mining to provide personalized service for your next hotel stay? If you’ve experienced this, did it truly enhance your experience or was it more intrusive than endearing? Leave us a comment and let us know! Click here to read the Travel + Leisure article “What Your Hotel Knows About You”.

Bellhop image © Dietmar Höpfl |

Update, July 2013

As “Big Data” becomes ever more pervasive and companies find more and more ways to collect, examine and act on that data, this topic gets…well, creepier, as evidenced by an article in Hotel News Now titled Hoteliers: Don’t get creepy with my data by Jason Q. Freed.

The article cites Hyatt’s “Hotel of the Future,” which features ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage; a great perk for guests but also unparalleled access to guests. The hotel would be able to “see” where you are in the property at any given time (provided you’re connected to Wi-Fi) as well as what you’re doing online. From the industry’s point of view, it’s business intelligence. The hotel can use the tracking capability to improve performance and profitability; e.g.: turn down Wi-Fi in areas nobody goes, improve it where guests congregate, and measure where guests go, how long they stay and what they do there. As a guest, that’s good to a point, and the author illustrates some benefits and pitfalls of tying these insights together.

As access becomes easier and more complete, the slope becomes ever more slippery. I think, in the end, hotels will have to find the limits by trial and error as consumer book where they are most comfortable. If Hyatt becomes known for “spying” on guests through their Hotel of the Future, and sees bookings decline, negative press and a Social Media backlash, the industry will take note and likely back off. It will be interesting to watch – and be a part of – this new aspect of the relationship between hotel and guest.

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