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BW Businessworld

Flexi Check-in And The Art Of Personalisation

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At a recent press interaction Starwood's Chief Brand Officer Phil McAveety talked about trends influencing hotel stays. One of the trends he touched upon was the need for hotels to put in place a flexi check-in option rather than the rigid 12 noon check-in and check-out policy. After all, the new vocabulary of marketing is personalization, and offering a customized 24 hour hotel stay would go a long way in delighting the guest.

I am glad that Mr McAveety brought up this issue, and it’s great to hear that Starwood is experimenting with this at some of its hotels, because this is really a sore point with most travelers I have talked to.

Yes, we in India are fairly lucky as many traditional hoteliers here who are not part of any branded chain have always been extremely accommodating on this count, but increasingly due to competitive pressures hotels are getting inflexible. The last few times I have travelled, for instance, I have had to bear the brunt of this rigid approach. Imagine arriving after a long haul transatlantic flight (16 hours non-stop) at 5 am at a city and finding the hotel you are booked in refusing you a room until 2 pm.  At least that journey was on a reasonably sanitised aircraft and through fairly comfortable and clean airports. Imagine doing overnight train trips across India on business (solely in order to maximise a work day), negotiating filthy stations and arriving in a sooty state at a city early morning desperately in need of a shower, only to be told that one needs to pay extra for those four hours of a hotel room.

Oh yes, the hotel staff are always faultlessly polite and sweet and offer to keep your bags while you wander around or urge you to have coffee or a meal (you are paying, of course) but they are absolutely rigid on the count of giving you your room. Either you pay extra, or you wait. It's a bit like the airline's baggage policy. Every extra kg is added revenue. Here, every extra hour is added revenue for the hotel, and rather opportunistically several now offer the four-hour check-in stays – especially for airline crews. That option actually in some cases is a good thing though it seems to be on offer only during the day. If you arrive at 11 in the night and check out at 6 am barely staying 7 hours at the hotel, you still pay for a 24 hour stay.

There’s also the cleaner’s schedule that hotels work to and many have unionised staff to contend with so I suppose flexi check-in is indeed a logistical nightmare for them (though in India with its abundant labour that should not be a problem).

But this whole flexi check in issue has got me thinking about the new jargon of marketing that is being flung around – personalisation, customisation , treating each customer as unique. The words are right. But are those incorporating it in their service lexicon getting the context and delivery right? Here are some stray thoughts:

Are We On The Same Page? - Why do hotels and airlines think all guests will feel thrilled if you greet them by their name? A big deal is made about it and also about sending personalised mails getting the appellations right. But imagine if you are an introvert who just wants to be an anonymous traveller and the stewardess arrives calling you Ms Narayanan and proceeds to give you a lecture on the services, dropping your name after every sentence. My reaction at least is to sink lower in my seat and covertly shoot haunted glances at fellow passengers hoping no one is listening. Instead, if the airline were to give me an unsweetened yoghurt on my breakfast tray because that’s my preference, I would consider it great personalisation.

Wowing Women – Yes, one third of the millionaires in the world today are women, and hotels and airlines well know it’s time to cater to this segment. And a start has been made – but how about looking at some details? Take the toiletries and amenity kit provided – most women I know are extremely particular about what they use given the different skin and hair types and, frankly, would travel with their own shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer (even my teenager is rather prickly about her dermatologically approved face wash and carries it everywhere). Personalisation, in my book, is asking women their skin and hair type when they check in and trying to offer tailor made stuff. Or sticking to giving utility products like combs and toothbrush and toothpaste (which most of us forget to pack, and incidentally is rarely seen in  hotels – the number of times I have had to buy a hairbrush or toothpaste at exorbitant prices from the hotel shop is not funny).

Lighting - Walk into a hotel room and the warm glow of all those lamps is welcoming and comforting. For the first half hour, yes. But if you are over 40 and afflicted with presbyopia just try reading in that light. Hotels – even business hotels or especially business hotels - seem to suffer from a strange notion that all their guests have romance in their minds (what else can explain those transparent walls in the bathroom and the two washbasins – and who knows, they may be right given the whispers one hears about ‘business trips’) and try to outdo each other in creating the right ambience with apps to change colour and dimness. But, please for those of us who only want to get to the end of that page turner of a mystery, can we also have the option of some bright light as well?

Are You Doing The Unexpected?  Often times it's the small things that delight. Ramada Jaipur (part of the Wyndham group) recently did that when within five minutes of hitting the pay button on a hotel room, I got a call from the hotel enquiring if I would require a car pick up, how I would be arriving and so on (most hotels offer this service, but the difference is usually one has to make this call to avail of it). On the train, an hour before I was scheduled to reach Jaipur, I was further delighted to get another call from Ramada asking me if train was on time and giving me precise details about the cab (even though an sms alert had been sent). And, oh, this was one hotel that allowed me to stay on for a further two hours after check out time without a quibble! 

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