Hilton Worldwide CMO Geraldine Calpin has taken major steps to redefine and reinvent the guest experience. In May she was amed to the Ad Age Women to Watch list, in no small part because of her leadership and innovation in using digital, mobile, analytics, and internet of things (IoT) technology in new and creative ways.
In this exclusive interview, Calpin, who sets the strategic marketing direction for Hilton’s 13 brands, provided insight into the evolution of the guest experience. She also talked about what it will take to outdo the expectations of demanding, digitally connected customers in the future.
Diorio: Every CMO is vexed by how to engage, empower, and delight tech-savvy and always-connected customers. Where does a marketer need to invest to gain sustainable competitive advantage and deliver a superior guest experience?
Calpin: In today’s environment, to deliver a superior guest experience you need to go above and beyond and be obsessive about innovating for the guest–[to] never stop, make things much simpler, eliminate friction in the travel experience, and better recognize and reward your best customers.
Technology gives us an amazing toolkit to redefine the guest experience in game-changing ways. [It gives us] analytics to better understand customers; mobile and intelligent devices to engage, track, and assist guests; and digital and social channels to communicate.
The trick is to use these technology tools to find new and better ways we can deliver white-glove treatment [to our guests], like providing advanced check-in, room selection, and keys to the room right on their mobile phones; helping them find local hot spots or relevant activities to enhance their stay; anticipating their service needs in advance to exceed expectations and avoid problems before they happen; and giving them more control and choice when it comes to rooms, amenities, activities, and environment.
Diorio: To do those things you need to know a lot about your guests. What are some of the ways you are doing that?
Calpin: A direct-to-customer relationship–or digital-direct relationship–is very important because it allows us to deliver a more tailored experience. It helps us be customer-driven. Currently, we deliver a personalized experiences through our app, on our websites, and at our hotels. This is achieved through highly personalized targeting and connecting our CRM database and what we know about our guests’ preferences to each of these end points that touch guests and potential customers. A current example for us is web chat. This is a digital experience but resourced by our call-center staff. It means that people who use chat to speak with us are connecting with one of our hotel experts, just using a different technology.
Diorio: What are some of the ways you are personalizing the guest experience?
Calpin: We’re personalizing the guest experience in several ways. For example, we help our Hilton HHonors loyalty program members better control and personalize their stay through a mobile app that offers digital check-in with room selection and Digital Key. The Digital Key is now live at more than 400 Hilton Worldwide hotels in the U.S. and launching internationally, which means we have been replacing a lot of door locks. In one year, Digital Key has opened more than 2 million doors for our guests.
In addition, we are making prescriptive recommendations to guests based on their preferences, past purchases, and behavior.
Another way we can personalize the customer story: Marketing has evolved from a monologue to a dialogue. A dialogue is a two-way thing. It’s a relationship with our customers. It’s sharing, rather than telling, in a personal way, at every stage of the travel experience–like recommending quicker routes to the hotel, local restaurants, great rooms with great views, local hot spots based on real-time information, and activities that suit their interest.
Diorio: With 13 brands, 4,700 hotels, and many room types and packages, you must be able to offer your guests an extremely wide range of options. How are you able to offer choice without overwhelming your guests?
Calpin: Choice is valuable, but there’s such a thing as too much choice. We’ve learned from testing on our website that there is a point where simply offering a large number of options will actually lower conversion rates.
What we do to solve this problem is to use our knowledge of the customer and the way we present content to make it quick and easy to make a decision. To do it right you need to balance intelligent recommendations with simplicity–but still provide enough detail to support a decision. We use past purchase behavior and learning engines to make an initial set of room and package recommendations that we hope are close to the mark. How you present those options is important as well. They have to be simple enough to scan but detailed enough to answer their questions so they can decide. For example, if guests want to know how many floors there are in the hotel and where their room is, you have to show them. Finally, you need to give them the option to refine their choices so they get exactly what they want.
Diorio: There are so many aspects to the guest experience. I know sensory experiences, such as branded scents, can drive loyalty and satisfactions. The view from a room and the feel of the sheets make an impact. What are some of the other factors that lead to a superior guest experience?
Calpin: There are a lot of ways we are redefining the guest experience–empowering them, better recognizing and rewarding loyalty, collaborating more, and proving better content.
Giving customers control and self-service options adds to the guest experience. We’re testing how IoT technology can turn the smartphone into a concierge and remote control all-in-one and make rooms and products “smart.” So clients can request turndown or room service directly from their phones and directly control the air conditioning, television, and other aspects of their rooms to create the environment they want. Our guests can also give us real-time feedback about their stay in the app, and someone will pick this up and respond within five minutes.
We are also making an impact by using content to enhance their experience, share stories, and help them make decisions. We share content and stories at every stage of the travel experience, like recommending quicker routes to the hotel, local restaurants, great rooms with great views, local hot spots based on real-time information, and activities that suit their interest. For example, we have created digital room layouts so that guests can select the exact room they want; guests now use it once every 2.5 seconds. We partner with Uber to give guests recommendations, like the hot places to have lunch at 1 p.m., based on real-time information.
Acknowledgement and recognition for loyalty are important. The Hilton HHonors mobile app gives us a platform to actively and frequently recognize our most loyal guests with benefits and experiences that go well beyond frequency points and rewards.
Diorio: What types of results are you seeing from your investment in the guest experience?
Calpin: The No. 1 result we are looking for is guest satisfaction. A hotel visit is a personal experience. You are literally staying with us. It’s valuable time you will never get back again.
So from a measurement standpoint, everything flows from happy customers. Voice-of-customer feedback tells us that guests love being able to check in without waiting and choose their rooms in advance.
In terms of more traditional business measures, we look at adoption and loyalty program measures. The customer feedback on the digital check-in experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Ninety-three percent of guests say they’ve felt satisfied or extremely satisfied with the experience.
As a result, the adoption of our Hilton HHonors mobile app has exceeded our plans and is leading more customers to sign up for our loyalty program. This year’s enrollment is up over 100% compared to this time last year, and our app is now being downloaded once every seven seconds.
Diorio: How do you see the guest experience evolving from here?
Calpin: We’re continuing to find new ways to make guest communication with us simpler, service more personalized, and amazing experiences easier to take advantage of. What we’re really trying to do is to solve our guests’ needs before they even have to speak them.
A great example is our real-time chat offering. At 200 of our hotels, our guests can shoot the front desk a text if they need anything–from requesting the room to be cleaned at a specific time to asking if the hotel has an ATM–and we’re now adding real-time chat into the Hilton HHonors app. With it, our team can be more responsive and give enhanced service by anticipating needs. It will help avoid problems before they happen and take the “friction” out of the experience.
We’re also evolving the guest experience by making it more engaging. We’re working on a fun feature that will show guests where the burger or cheese platter they ordered from room service is in relation to their rooms. Guests will be able to literally see their food entering the elevator and moving down the hall to their rooms through icons on their smartphones, like they would on a video game.