The impact of digital and the transformational role that it plays in the hospitality business is recognised by the senior most leaders and influencers of the business in India. However, even as digital has impacted all aspects from booking rooms, personalising stays, giving feedback and reviews, for the sector, the game is still about creating experiences, and digital is only part of the picture.
The ‘Leadership’ panel at the recently concluded Indian Digital Hospitality Conclave and Awards 2015 reflected the state of the business in India, where digital players were changing basics but the change was not intense enough yet to change the rulebook.
Nikhil Ganju, Country Head, TripAdvisor asserted that in the last two decades, online reviews had changed in the manner in which consumers planned their trips and shared their experiences. “On the other side, it has also changed the way the business operates. Hotels across the world have embraced TripAdvisor as a force. India is no different and increasingly this has also played a role in hotels raising standards using reviews as valuable feedback. Digital is disrupting travel and hotels are using new channels to increasingly build direct online links.”
Vir Sanghvi, a distinguished journalist and TV presenter, added here that there is an element of convenience that digital brings to the mix. But the all pertinent question for a hotel is how to make the transition. B Hariharan, Vice President-Marketing, ITC Hotels that won three awards including the Marketer of the Year at IDHA 2015, offered a view here.
“As technology and digitisation democratise knowledge it is important to understand how the industry is changing and the changes in strategies that have to be embraced,” he said citing some of the elements where these changes can be seen.
Digital has led for entry barriers and transaction costs to reduce. Power to the consumer is refuelled and customers have increased bargaining power as they choose amongst multiple brands. At the same time, new forms of competition such as Airbnb and Oyo that are essentially technology driven apps have emerged. “There are ways in which digital has disrupted the business but it is not going to be just about digital – all ecosystems will live together,” Mr Hariharan said.
Mr Sanghvi reasserted the importance of the human element here. Even as customers were checking hotels online comparing services and price-points, when they finally decided, they still wanted to book over a phone call. “People like the idea of talking to somebody, and that is likely to continue,” he pointed out.
Making an argument on why digital had yet not disrupted the business, Rattan Keswani, Dy. Managing Director, The Lemon Tree Hotel Company said, “Around 20 years ago, a senior colleague quoted from Cornell University that IT and marketing professionals were going to run hotels. It is coming true and while digital is growing exponentially, it is yet to disrupt it. It is surprising that no one has been able to bring the whole ecosystem together consolidating what now is fragmented into many pieces.”
The other side of digital
Mr Keswani pointed out that between platforms such as Wikipedia, TripAdvisor and social media, any effort to put a structure to presence on digital media could be altered by one individual making the channel that much more difficult to manage. Taking the conversation forward, Mr Sanghvi asked Mr Ganju on how TripAdvisor saw its role as a responsible medium, given the authority that it enjoys.
Mr Ganju informed that nearly 75 per cent of the comments on TripAdvisor were positive in nature. For the other 25 per cent, the platform launched investigation into the comment, and in various cases had comments unpublished too. The same cannot apply to various other social media platforms and that is one reason why various hotel brands have set up structures to respond to social media criticisms.
“We have something on lines of a concierge service that monitors and responds to comments immediately. Our endeavour is to not only respond but also action a call for someone who had any feedback that needed action,” informed Mr Hariharan.
Mr Sanghvi quoted an India-based restaurant and Singapore-based hotel example to point out established companies that either responded faster on social media than in their own hotel staff or were still completely non-respondent, highlighting the difference on how hospitality brands were still lagging the consumer.
Apart from concerns such as over-engagement on digital, and the input cost required to set up a structure for the “high touch and high tech” world, the industry leaders also deliberated on whether social media did make any difference in growing the business. “It has not moved the needle for us,” Mr Ganju stated.
The one aspect where leaders agree is that the digital opportunity is staring at the hospitality business in India. As industry professionals begins to understand how digital works, more steps will be taken to drive the change, and leverage the opportunity to bring a transformational impact on the business.
The Indian Digital Hospitality Conclave and Awards 2015 is a Digital Market Asia initiative, that took place on March 27, 2015 in Delhi.