2016 Look Ahead: MCD Partners Co-Founder & Creative Director

MCD Partners is a digital customer experience agency that released results of a 1,000-consumer survey within three traveler segments—business, leisure, and family. The report indicated that, in return for improved mobile features and overall digital experience, the hospitality industry might gain increased customer loyalty.

To continue our 2016 Look Ahead interview series, John Caruso, creative director, and founding partner at MCD Partners, shared his thoughts on these findings and the overall state of the evolving digital guest experience.

Your company recently released a white paper on “the explosion of digital on-demand services.” How do you think that translates in the hospitality industry and how can hoteliers take advantage of this trend?

We focused on the rise of digital on-demand services, defined as service requests made online (computer, tablet, mobile) that can be immediately fulfilled. With the rise of on-demand digital services that focus primarily on customer experience – i.e. Uber and Airbnb – the hospitality and travel industries are experiencing significant disruption. So they’ve started to offer digitally connected on-demand services to attract and retain customers at a time when the digital experience is an essential differentiator.

Hoteliers should use insights gathered through qualitative research (like our report) and quantitative customer data to adapt useful, intuitive technology that will enhance:

Communication: These features make communications as efficient and effortless as possible with instant messaging, a virtual concierge, in-app requests, etc. They also work to eliminate questions before they’re asked via proactive communications – like the ability to set room preferences and make personalized requests online before arrival. And many hotels are experimenting with key sensors and location services, so they can provide messaging that’s relevant to the traveler’s location.

Convenience: These are services that make the traveler’s entire journey simpler, smoother, better – eliminating wait time between request and completion (i.e. automated check-in to bypass the front desk, late check-out request, scheduling a car, ordering room service/amenities)– all without having to pick up a phone.

Connectivity: These offerings ensure a seamless experience, from check-in to check-out – and everything in-between. Many hotels have created proprietary apps or connected app ecosystems, so that the visitor’s smartphone can order the car to the hotel, check-in, open the room door, order room service, stream content to the television, request an extra toothbrush, find nearby activities, request a late check-out, and order a car back to the airport. That increasing connectedness – one device, doing it all – is the new customer expectation.

Your company released a report, “Seeing Returns,” that explored how receptive modern travelers are to connectivity and technology. Were you surprised by the results? What did you learn from the survey?

We found that 70% of travelers were influenced to book a stay based on a hotel’s website and app; travelers often feel that a hotel’s digital offerings will reflect the quality of the hotel. Business travelers were most influenced by customer experience; they were also most likely to rebook at the same hotel based upon positive previous experiences, as opposed to pricing or rewards points. This also makes them more receptive to add-ons during their stay.

Family travelers were most attracted to hotels that help them efficiently manage their trip; any assistance in coordinating activities and eliminating stress was highly appreciated.

Leisure travelers largely wanted to disconnect, unplug, unwind – but they were eager to seek out new experiences. Hotels can engage with these travelers via digital tools that help them discover new activities and places in their destination, should they opt-in.

And efficiency was a primary factor across all types of travelers. 74% of total travelers wanted hotels to proactively enhance their visit, and 80% wanted the opportunity to set personalized preferences online. Other areas of high interest included easily accessible information like amenities and hours (80%), engagement with maps of the areas they visit (78%), automated check-in (73%) and late check-out requests (73%).

In your opinion, which traveler segment, business, leisure or family, benefits most from the innovation explored in that report?

We found that business travelers were most receptive to all digital offerings, ranging from informative to transactional – using a mobile device to access information, as a mobile key, schedule transportation, make requests, and pay the hotel bill. Since experience is largely the primary differentiator for this segment, digital offerings seem to be the most effective in terms of increasing loyalty and digital investment returns.

 

Consumers want access to information that is fast, simple and streamlined.

That said, leisure and family travelers showed high interest in – and can benefit the most from – digital tools that help them know what’s available nearby, and to help them make plans and stay organized. While device connectivity might be less of a priority, even the smallest shortcuts and easily accessible information would go a long way in terms of appreciation – and advocacy.

Which technologies do you enjoy or benefit from using most during your own travel?

While I find many of the new travel technologies exciting, I often benefit most from access to basic travel needs. For family trips especially, I seek out easy ways to catalog or access all of the information we’ll need—locations, hours, contact information, tips—so that we can spend more time doing and less time planning. Anyone with young kids knows this is a huge win.

In fact, this idea—finding better ways to serve the most basic needs—was one of the biggest standouts in our hospitality research. Consumers love new and exciting, but above all else, they want access to information. And they want it to be faster, simpler, and more streamlined than ever before.

What would you say is the biggest impact technology has had on the hospitality and travel industries within the past 5 years?

One word: Airbnb. The mobile app has significantly affected the hospitality industry by connecting hosts with travelers, fostering communications and relationships between the two, enabling community sharing, and providing seamless online discovery and booking.

But this is not necessarily an end-all threat to hotels; instead, it’s a constructive challenge to traditional institutions to incorporate the appealing aspects of Airbnb. That means more in-app communications; personalized ‘matchmaking’ to different hotel offerings; and a curated end-to-end experience, with more local expertise. A large part of Airbnb’s appeal is its immersion within local communities; hotels can often feel isolated, a sanitized version of the surrounding culture. While this might appeal to some, the option should exist for travelers (especially those in the leisure segment) who want to discover, explore, and share experiences, aided by the hotel itself (and, of course, easily accessible via digital platforms). This particular trend, the desire to immerse oneself in the neighborhood, will only continue to grow in 2016.

How greatly do you think the impact of technology on the travel journey differs depending on age?

We’ve found that in general, most digital on-demand services are decreasingly popular as participant age increases. This could potentially be due to comfort in existing patterns, and unfamiliarity with newer technologies.

However, that finding doesn’t necessarily apply across all travel segments. Age doesn’t seem to be a factor with business travelers seeking efficient trips; according to US Travel Association, the average business traveler is 45.9 years old; 53% of all business travelers are age 45 and older.

 

The desire for authentic experiences within a local community while traveling will continue to grow in 2016.

The average leisure traveler is 47.5 years old; 55% of all leisure travelers are 45 and older. If a digital offering is intuitive and easy to navigate, it should be appealing to all ages – for adult leisure travelers, who want to unplug and unwind but also want nonintrusive assistance in discovering new excursions, and for parents traveling with families, as an organizational, time-saving aid.

What are your predictions for trends or changes that will improve or impact customer experience in 2016 (with a particular focus on hospitality or what these will mean for hotels)?

As we move into 2016, we’ll see more hotels launching customer experience-focused technologies, and we’ll see this merge with the payments space. That’s the next big frontier for hotels to tackle—better integration of mobile payment options—and the technology is there.

I also think we’ll see Instagram advertising becoming more ubiquitous and more relevant. That’s not always something you get to say about advertising. But Instagram seems to be getting it right, and empowering customers to influence the ads they see only makes it stronger.

Then, the natural evolution of this is that we’ll see more experimentation with brand messaging within platforms like Snapchat—content like branded keyboards, brand chats, campaigns, and even customer service—especially targeted towards millennial travelers.