Hotel Executive CEO Interview: Dj Vallauri

Human Powered Websites are the Future

CEO INTERVIEW: DJ VALLAURI, LODGING INTERACTIVE FOUNDER & CEO

There is no doubt that, as consumers, we are always looking for solutions that save us time. Time is the one factor in our daily lives of which we never seem to have enough of. Large consumer brands such as Amazon, Best Buy, Comcast, and many others understand this important human factor and take advantage of opportunities to return “time” back to consumers. But how are they doing this and why haven’t hotel brands followed suit?

Recently Benedict Cummins from HotelExecutive connected with DJ Vallauri, Lodging Interactive’s Founder and President, to discuss his vision on human powered websites and why he believes they are the future for the hospitality industry.

Benedict: DJ, your agency has been in the digital marketing space for over 15 years now, offering hotels the tools and services to drive direct bookings via their websites. As it relates to hotel websites, how have things changed in the past few years and where are things headed?

DJ: Hotel websites have come a very long way in the past 15 years. Hotel websites are no longer considered “brochureware” but rather are active sales tools operating on a 24/7/365 day a year basis. Most recently new technology developments have occurred in the area of making desktop websites more manageable and effective on mobile devices. One specific example of this is the responsive adaptive technology. The majority of hoteliers have come to understand the importance in providing consumers with an exceptional online browsing experience via their mobile devices. As a result, the majority of hotel websites today are properly rendering on mobile devices. The hospitality industry has never been known to be on the cutting edge of technology But when Google introduced search engine ranking penalties for non-mobile friendly websites, I believe this pushed the hospitality industry to make the proper investments in responsive website technologies.

Benedict: Yes, mobile technologies have certainly affected the entire Internet and not just the hospitality industry. But is it all about technology or is there more? How do you see the hotel website evolving in the next few years?

DJ: That’s a great question, but let’s step back for a moment. The hospitality industry is all about being hospitable towards people. We’re about the human-to-human connections we have with our guests. We’re about providing experiences our guests will remember for a lifetime and will hopefully share with their network of friends and families either in person or via social media channels. The experienced hotel operator clearly understands this concept of “humanizing” their property. Operating a property with this mindset clearly provides a competitive advantage for those General Managers that “get it.” You see, it’s no longer about the technology. The technology is purely the price of entry today. The hotels that will win over the next 24 months will be those that introduce the human elements of real-time engagement via the technology. In other words, leveraging the technologies available to better engage and build relationships with their guests via human connections. Hotel websites have traditionally been a one-way conversation that hotels have with their potential guests. A website visitor simply clicks around the website to search for the information they need. Sometimes they’re successful but most times they’re not. The website of today and the next 24 months, flips this model upside down and enables two-way conversations between the hotel and their potential guests, in real-time while they’re online.

Benedict: That’s interesting. Can you please elaborate on this?

DJ: The hotel industry has always been slow to adapt new technologies, but what I’m going to discuss is not new technology. In fact it’s been around for over 15 years. I’m specifically referring to live chat technologies. As consumers we’ve been using live chat for many years. When we visit websites like Amazon, Comcast, American Express or nearly any major online retailer, we find online live chat to be very efficient when we’re in need of a little more information than most websites can provide prior to making a purchase. Live chat has always felt comfortable to consumers because it’s certainly easy to use but, most importantly, it allows us to control the conversation and interaction on our own time. As I mentioned earlier, time is one asset that we have very little of these days. Why would someone go through endless telephone IVR prompts only to be put into a holding queue?  Now when you consider how consumers use their mobile devices… today’s consumers are “attached” to their mobile devices nearly 24/7 and certainly their mobile devices are always nearby and within easy reach. And those mobile devices are always connected via broadband to the Internet. It’s only been recently that live chat applications have been made totally mobile allowing consumers to “ask questions” anytime and on-the-go. Such power in our pockets… it’s very exciting.

Benedict: So are you saying that live chat is going to flip the hotel-consumer engagement model?

DJ: Yes exactly. When we researched the market viability for a fully managed live chat service we found that, of 2500 hotels in North America, less than half of 1% had a live chat widget on their website. This equates to only 12 of 2500 hotels that had live chat enabled on their website. This got us very excited as it confirmed the market opportunity for us. It would be our challenge to come up with a cost effective business model and service to address the market need. This is why we developed our fully managed CoMMingle Live Chat service for the hospitality industry. Our model is to license the best live chat platform available on the market and to hire US based live chat agents and put them on our payroll. We certainly looked at outsourcing our live chat agent services to existing companies in the Philippines but felt the quality of service we could provide through them would not be acceptable. So we now have our own live chat agents, on our payroll and part of our company. This decision has proven to be the right decision for us and our hotel clients.

Benedict: So your live chat service is completely managed for the hotel? How do your agents know enough about the hotel?

DJ: Yes our CoMMingle Live Chat service is fully managed and we handle all the live chat sessions for each property. During the onboarding process, our agents are trained on the property information as well as the specific voice and tone the property is seeking in their customer live chat engagements. Additionally, we have other training programs to ensure our agents are as knowledgeable as they would be sitting at the property. Also because our live agents are 100% dedicated to the operation, we have instilled our own core customer service values and salesmanship. The entire process is very efficient.

Benedict: What about all the talk of artificial intelligence and robotic chat bots. Do automated chat bots offer an even more efficient live chat model for hotels?

DJ: Well one thing that became entirely clear to us when we launched our live chat service for hotels was that you cannot automate, nor should you, a conversation between a potential guest and a hotel. We have seen live chat engagements turn from a simple question about the destination to actually making an online reservation and assisting the future guest with spa reservations as an add-on sales opportunity. Our agents are not only working to provide the highest level of customer service while someone is browsing the hotel website, but they also act as what we call “assisted sales agents”. Meaning, our live chat agents can assist in closing business. They share sales materials such as floor plans, catering menus and wedding package information with potential customers via the live chat session. Our agents truly act as a sales support team when someone is in the buying mode. Chat bots can be effective when consumers are looking to book point-to-point air travel, a simple conversational string that can present airfares and flight options. But trying to automate hotel live chat sessions is like trying to automate a telephone conversation; it simply cannot be done. There are too may variables involved just as there are with telephone conversations. Why don’t you try the Expedia Messenger chat bot for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. Their chat bot experience is not so great, and I’m being polite. Besides this issue, try telling a hotel General Manager that a chat bot will be engaging with their potential customers. Trust me, you won’t get far with that conversation.

Benedict: But can hotels just add their own widget for live chat to their website? Why do they need to outsource this?

DJ: They could and many hotels have tried exactly this in the past. But the issue within our industry is having the qualified staff available to handle the live chat engagement and staffing has always been a challenge for properties. We heard from General Managers who have tried to handle live chat on their own and they’ve all echoed the same staffing issue. You see live chat volume will vary from day to day and week to week. This makes it practically impossible to staff at the property level with one or two dedicated people.

Benedict: So clearly you’re very bullish on live chat for the hospitality industry.

DJ: You can mark my words, live chat will become as ubiquitous as the online hotel booking engine has become today. This will happen very quickly, within the next 24 months or sooner. Live chat is what all consumers want and, with zero learning curve, it is even more certain that live chat will become the norm very quickly.

DJ Vallauri, Founder & President of Lodging Interactive, has been proactive and successful in all his social media initiatives over the last five years through CoMMingle. DJ saw the void of participation on social media from individual hotel properties and in 2010 CoMMingle was born.Through his insightful projections, CoMMingle has become a successful division of Lodging Interactive solely dedicated to social media marketing, social customer service and reputation management for the Hospitality Industry. Every industry’s social media needs are different and DJ understands the needs and challenges faced by hotels. Mr. Vallauri can be contacted at 877-291-4411 ext 704 | Lodging or dj@lodginginteractive.com

The Hotel Business Review is a weekly journal of best practices in hotel management and operations and is available at www.hotelexecutive.com. HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review.