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​Sabre Hospitality Solutions Q&A with Aileen Gerla, Product Manager, CRM

For over a decade, Aileen Gerla has worked closely with hoteliers to understand the technological challenges they face and help them provide excellent service to staying guests. Her extensive knowledge of trends and technology, both working in hospitality and in the technology space, gives Aileen a unique perspective on CRM in the industry.

Q: Most people know what Customer Relationship Management means in a broad context, but how are we seeing hoteliers defining and implementing CRM?

A: CRM has a broad interpretation. Some people think of it as points-based loyalty programs, some say it's profile match and merge and building clean data, some say it's email marketing solutions. Ultimately, it's all of those things.

There are several key aspects of CRM strategy that Sabre Hospitality Solutions supports. One is the CRM features within our products – profile decisions or loyalty functionality from a product perspective, as well as integration with third-party vendors. For example, hoteliers who are running an email marketing campaign may be sending reservation data to that tool so they can include triggered communications as part of an overall marketing strategy.

Q: Since the industry thinks of CRM in many different ways, how can hoteliers create a customer-centric strategy to build customer loyalty?

A: From our perspective, we believe that CRM is a combination of profiles plus actions. To do any of these loyalty actions or guest relationship actions around awarding points, or giving guests a really fantastic direct marketing experience as they check in on-property, those actions need to be built on a strong image of who that guest is. You can only apply personalized messaging or pricing if you have a clear picture of who you're interacting with. We're putting our efforts into the area of profiles right now, because this underpins any of the CRM actions that hoteliers might want to take.

Q: When it comes to getting that clear, single image of the customer, what are the challenges hoteliers are facing in knowing their customers across different channels – and how are they acting on that data?

A: The challenge is both in identifying a traveler – in this case, by consolidating multiple data sources to provide a single view of the customer – and then mining the data to identify customers in different ways, beyond the traditional segments of business and leisure travelers. In other words, hoteliers are trying to get to the next level of detail. And then, it's a question of taking action with that knowledge to offer different experiences.

If you're trying to establish a single image of a customer, all pieces of the puzzle need to be resolved. You need a way to clean up duplicate profiles, whether manually or in an automated manner. You then need ways to track the production of each of those customers. This means trying to get not just their original reservation, but details of their actual stay.

The architecture behind consolidating a single view of the customer is very important. For example, we might look at PMS data to see what a guest's overall spend was. But, without full PMS integration, we may not know everything there is to know about a stay. For instance, if a reservation originally made for seven days is changed and drops to two, the value we assign to that customer may also change.

Next, there's segmentation – using this information to get insights into a customer's buying behavior, their preferences. These might be explicit preferences, such as where guests have told the hotel that they always want to be on a high floor, away from the lift. Or, these could be implied preferences. In particular, at some high-end properties, staff might Google a person's name prior to arrival, looking up the guest on LinkedIn and Facebook to glean as much information as possible, then apply that information to the guest's profile. This impacts how the customer is perceived going forward.

And then, it's a matter of using this data. The hotelier takes this image of the customer, calculates their total value, and uses this either in the sales process – perhaps offering different prices based on their profile, or perhaps making different offerings on the service side – to interact with them in a slightly different way in the PMS or in the voice channel. When you interact with a loyal guest, you can consciously treat them as a loyal guest, regardless of whether you run a formal loyalty program. If you can see that they've stayed with your chain twelve times in the last four months, you probably want to interact with them differently.

Q: What are some of the systems hoteliers are using to gather all these different profiles and customer insights?

A: We see some data from CRS, from PMS, and from CRM or Loyalty Management Systems that can run a hotel's loyalty program. We might find a separate or integrated email marketing platform. We see hoteliers using opt-in and opt-out information and forms within a company's website – that might be a simple SQL database which might be totally separate.

Really, hoteliers can gather data anywhere the guest touches. You might find some profile information in a spa system or a leisure system. You might see profiles in a membership system that's not necessarily focused on loyalty – for instance, if a hotel also runs a golf course that attracts membership from people in the local area. Those customers may never have stayed a night in your hotel, but they're spending thousands of dollars with you.

Q: When we think of personalization and loyalty, we may sometimes think of primarily luxury or high-end brands. What about value brands?

A: It comes down to this question: What is loyalty? And loyalty shouldn't be perceived as a points-based loyalty program. You may have a guest who's loyal to your brand, who's on the road for weeks every year, and they like the service they get – or the cookies they get on arrival – but the chain doesn't operate a points-based program. There's a benefit to both the chain and the guest to be recognized and treated accordingly, both on property and in the booking process. After all, good service is good service, no matter the star rating of the property.

Q: When it comes to CRM and leveraging customer data, is the hospitality industry ahead of the game, or are we lagging behind other industries?

A: I would say we're somewhat lagging, in many areas, hospitality is slightly behind other industries. Airlines, for example, were doing some of these things ten years ago, starting when revenue management came in. There's definitely a slight lag between these two industries. Beyond loyalty programs, if you look at the banking and retail fields, there are a lot of things happening there that hotels can learn from.

Q: Is there an example of a brand or industry that's doing a lot to leverage customer data for CRM?

A: Outside the hospitality industry, the big example is Amazon. They're tracking your clicks, they're tracking the things you look at, and they're starting to make recommendations within your buying process. If you register for the Amazon Rewards Credit Card, you earn points outside of and cash them in during your Amazon check out. In the hospitality industry, having that kind of information might allow us to recommend different amenities and provide an overall better guest experience at all stages of their journey.

Q: A recent Forrester Consulting study commissioned by Sabre examined the value of building customer loyalty beyond points-based programs. Are we seeing the importance of this approach playing out in the industry?

A: We're finding that higher-end properties want to do recognition, want to do personalization, and may decide to reconsider their standard loyalty programs. I've heard of chains offering special, concierge-type experiences for loyal guests who may receive a chef's table at dinner, or maybe they'll receive an invite – if staying in Chinatown – for a Chinese tea ceremony. They're offering different experiences that are truly local, those types of lifestyle experiences that travelers enjoy. Doing this takes time and effort, and can be costly, but it can really build true loyalty.

We're also seeing a change of perception around loyalty programs. There was a huge rush, five or ten years ago, to begin offering these programs. We're now seeing a reversal of this trend at the higher end of the market, because points could be perceived as "cheap" – if you're a guest spending for a $5,000 room-night, you don't care abou

a 10 percent discount and you might not care about points. You probably care more about the experience on-property.

Learn how Sabre Hospitality Solutions can help you gain better knowledge of your customers and offer them true hospitality. Contact an account manager today.

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