Red Roof Inn—the lodging chain usually reserved for a quick night’s sleep on a road trip—is changing its brand to attract millennial guests, investing $150 million to upgrade some of its properties from shabby to chic. And it’s all thanks to consumers.
"Consumers complained of smelly rooms, so we changed the floors to wood. They wanted clean surfaces, so we put in granite surfaces," says CMO Marina MacDonald. She says she often uses consumer feedback to better inform the chain’s investment decisions. "Simple things go a long way."
Red Roof Inn isn’t alone. From airlines to rental car companies, the travel and hospitality industries are making big customer experience investments to keep pace with an evolving landscape. Competition from peer-to-peer startups like Airbnb, FlightCar, and others are giving travelers new ways to get from point A to point B—and new experiences once they reach point C. Unhappy flyers now tweet their travel gripes in real-time. Above all else, today’s travel customers simply expect more.
For travel and hospitality brands, loyalty—and favorable reviews—are earned not when customers’ expectations are met, but when they’re exceeded. The brands earning that loyalty—through innovation, renovation, and conversation—approach the customer experience as one that demands ongoing collaboration with customers.
Designing better experiences for customers requires an always-on approach to innovation. For this purpose, Marriott International set up a war room in the basement of their headquarters. Part of the hotel’s 10,000-square-foot Innovation Lab, the war room is a dedicated space for collaboration. Hotel customers, employees, execs, and designers visit to test and refine ideas and concepts for the co-created hotel of the future.
Other hotels, like Swissôtel and Westin, have their own versions of Marriott’s Innovation Lab. Employees can find plenty of ideas outside the lab, and in actual guest interactions that are helping to upgrade the hotel guest experience. To access first-person accounts of what's happening at their 1,200 properties around the world, as well as innovative ideas on how to enhance the localized guest experience, Starwood Hotels and Resorts engages with a private community of its own employees.
"Our employee community connects our portfolio to enable dialogue," says Matthew Valenti, Starwood's vice president of guest experience. "Together, hundreds of general managers and property leaders from around the world raise questions, solve problems, and share best practices."
"This forum increases our ability to be active listeners with each other and with our guests," Valenti adds. "Coupled with our Starwood Preferred Guest community, we align feedback from both to improve our guest services and experiences."
As an industry, car rental companies—traditionally known for poor customer service—rank near the bottom of the 2014 Forrester Research Customer Experience Index .
Yet, National Car Rental has pulled away from its peers. The company partners with a private, online community of 300 frequent business travelers who share ideas and stories, and make recommendations to help National innovate their customer experience. Considered the eyes and ears of the National team, community members are valued as strategic and creative partners who have a say in nearly every decision the company makes, and help co-create new enhancements like the National mobile app.
These advancements in customer experience won National a 2014 CX Innovation Award—the latest in a growing collection of customer experience accolades—increasing Emerald Club loyalty program membership by 27% in four years.
There are some unique innovations geared toward improving the in-flight experience. There’s the double-decker arm rest, for example: a two-arm design meant to end irksome passenger battles over elbow room. There’s also the B-Tourist, a sling-like device that attaches to the seat in front of you and gives passengers privacy while watching Netflix on their iPad.
Unusual prototype enhancements aside, major airline companies are turning to their most-valued customers for fresh ideas on how to innovate the flying experience.
When Etihad Airways, the flag carrier airline of the United Arab Emirates, sought to design the most luxurious commercial passenger experience in the world, the airline’s senior management collaborated alongside consumers and designers in a series of co-creation workshops across four continents to imagine—with no restrictions—the perfect flight. The result? Eighty percent of consumers’ ideas were incorporated, making Etihad's new Airbus A380 the world's first completely co-created aircraft.
Across every class of the airline’s new A380s are updated seating configurations and cabin interiors, and an enhanced in-flight experience. But the jewel in the crown is The Residence by Etihad. By October 2014, The Residence will be on select A380 routes and will offer passengers a three-room, 125-square-foot living area complete with en suite shower, custom linens and upholstery, a five-star chef, and even a personal Savoy Academy–trained butler.
In today’s travel market, there is no margin for error. Consumers have too many choices. When a car rental experience goes awry consumers will turn to Zipcar, and if a hotel does not meet expectations they’ll switch to Airbnb. Established travel brands can no longer afford to rest on their laurels, or five-star reviews. In an industry where the experience is everything, consumers are increasingly relied upon to provide insights and ideas on anything from app design to hotel check-in procedures. These incremental innovations are powering the future of travel and hospitality, and consumer creativity is making it possible.
—Charles Trevail is CEO at Communispace.