June 20, 2017

A Valuable Journey: Digital Transformation at Choice Hotels

Digital transformation is not a one-off effort. As much as marketers would love to flick a switch and digitise their product offering, customer communications and user journey, digital transformation is an ongoing, evolving process, which continues long after a brand has made the decision to “go digital”. But what is it like to be a late bloomer in the digital space? Tess Mattisson, Director of European Marketing at Choice Hotels, spoke to Figaro Digital ahead of her appearance at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference on 20 July, about how the brand is working smarter rather than harder to offer its guests the best possible service.

“Where Are We Strong Today?”

“We’re a franchise organisation, so previously our marketing has been focussed on providing marketing services to our franchise; proofreading the collateral, providing the marketing support material. Now we’re making a 360 degree change in focus, and concentrating on digital and customer acquisition rather than marketing services,” explains Mattisson. In order to best understand the customer experience and be able to service those needs, Choice Hotels looked at the whole customer journey, dividing it into sections and assessing its impact and challenges faced at each key stage. “We divided the customer journey into dreaming, planning, booking and experiencing phases, and then asked ‘where are we strong today?’ We found that while we were strong in the booking phase, we weren’t strong at all when people were dreaming up their next weekend trip, or planning their next journey.” Working back through the customer timeline, Choice Hotels decided that developing valuable content was the answer to their customer needs- enabling them to be front of mind at that key aspirational stage early in the customer journey.

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Choice Hotels invested their efforts in the creation of a new content hub, traveltop6.com which provides potential customers with information about their travel destinations. “The difference between what had been done previously was that while we are still focussing on our product – our hotels – we are now focussing on adding value to people way before they’re considering where to stay, by providing long-form articles about the destinations where we have properties.” Covering important decision-making information such as restaurant recommendations, local attractions and events, the content hub allows potential guest to browse the options presented by their dream getaways, before directing them back to the Choice Hotels website to secure a booking.

The Trip Of Your Dreams

This direct link between the aspirational, planning stage and the booking platform enables Choice Hotels to have more control over the route of the customer journey, but also improves the overall customer experience in an efficient way. “One of the challenges we’re having is that we’re arriving 10 years late to this party. But it’s now so much easier for brands to become a publisher in digital than it is in the physical space,” explains Mattisson. The ease at which brands can produce and distribute content has increased exponentially in recent years, and nowhere is this truer than in the leisure and hospitality industry. Social media, influencers and blogs have created a particularly saturated space, so coming up with unique, useful content was a challenge. “Our priority was working smarter rather than harder; with the kind of content we produce, understanding where we can add value, and where the grey spaces are. We’re not looking to be the next TripAdvisor or Guardian- we need to find an area where there is an opportunity for us as a brand to add value to existing and potential guests of our franchises.”

Working In Harmony

So what is it about the TravelTop6™ site which drives engagement? Is it convenience? The efficiency? Or is it the element of human interaction? Perhaps a little of all of these. Choice Hotels’ editorial content strikes the balance between human interaction and digital convenience. Reading a real person’s reviews of a restaurant or attraction is a reflection of the very oldest form of marketing there is: word of mouth. The simplicity of a recommendation crossed with the accessibility of a digital content hub creates the human interaction that consumers still prize. “I think across the service industry, we look at either human interaction or digital. At Choice Hotels, we approach it as not either/or, but AND,” continues Mattisson. “How can we add value and services that a person can see? The chatbot for example, isn’t replacing a phone call or the physical meeting between people – it’s added value, an added interaction point. Technology is not here to replace people, it’s here to make our lives simpler.”

Indeed, the opportunities offered by some of digital marketing’s innovations will be key to enabling marketers to refocus their efforts on user experience and improving the customer journey. Choice Hotels’ most recent development in this area is the creation of their new chat bot concierge. This futuristic addition to the brand’s product offering is a bold step into the unknown in terms of improving customer experience, but Mattisson argues that daring to be unique is a key driver for cut through in a vibrant and busy sector. “We believe we must also look outside our industry to pick up on trends. One example is the global man vs machine trend, where companies are implementing machine learning and bots within their infrastructure. We currently have a team working on a Facebook messenger chat bot to serve as a digital concierge for people who will be visiting the destinations where we have hotels. This is a small-scale project that we are launching as an MVP, to see if this will contribute to an enhanced user experience, especially on mobile, for our guests.”

What About The Human Touch?

But do the values of digital align with the aims of the hospitality industry? Does the customer expect an automated response from say, a heritage or luxury brand? Or does this actually detract from a brand’s personality? “Every single guest that we welcome has different needs and different preferences. If we say that our guests don’t want to interact through digital, we’re saying that all of our guests have the same preferences- which they don’t,” says Mattisson. “It’s up to companies to set the bar for customer interaction now. It’s not just a problem within the hospitality industry. People are incorporating digital into their everyday lives. It’s not about saying we do or don’t need digital for our customers, it’s about catering for the many different needs, offering physical and digital services. It’s ‘and’ rather than ‘either or’.”

Transformation, Not Just Translation

So how can brands go about implementing digital transformation within their business? How can they make sure that their brand purpose stays aligned through this evolutionary phase? “Everyone wants a digital strategy, and there’s no such thing. You either have a business strategy that is digital, or you don’t. We need to look at our business strategy first, and ask what opportunities and challenges we have. Marketers are putting a ‘digital layer’ on top of their current strategy and thinking that will solve these challenges – but that’s digital translation, not digital transformation. That’s doing what you’ve always done, just in the digital space.”

So what are Mattisson’s tips for implementing digital in a sustainable and productive way?

  • “Start from business strategy and work backwards. We tend to start with our customer touchpoints and guess how we can incorporate these into the strategy, rather than considering from a strategic point of view first, and then looking at the channels.
  • “Don’t try to split your resources over every possible channel, select a few and focus on being a rock star on them. Have a clear channel purpose, measure and pivot every single week, or month, or quarter, or whatever it might be at your organisation.
  • “Find what sort of communication makes sense based on the native behaviour on the platform, not based on what you as a marketer want. Look at what you want to achieve, and ask what platforms would make sense based on the current behaviour of its users.
  • “There’s a tendency to think: ‘If someone else is doing it, I need to do it too’ and the trick is that you don’t. If it doesn’t make sense to you as a business and it doesn’t make sense within your strategy, you don’t have to do it just because everyone else is.”

If you want to hear more about Choice Hotels’ smart digital transformation, Tess will be speaking at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference on 20 July. Join us and 500 of your digital marketing peers for a day packed with the latest marketing insight and innovation. Click here to find out more!