Daily Trust: In the hospitality industry today, people make reference to the industry becoming one of experience and not service. What exactly does this mean?
Etienne Gaillez: Across the globe, our industry has moved tremendously from being a service industry and now going into an experience industry. Before we were basically rendering beds and pillows, now people are expecting more in terms of technology, interaction with the team members, how much variety we have in our buffet and menus. So it’s really a transformation for us and a continuous evolution. Globally, people through their smart phones, want direct interaction and have instant gratification if I can use the term. It’s all about the experience and we as Hilton have to accompany this with how we make our rooms, what services are available in our rooms. If you look at it, when the hotel opened you made a reservation through telex, then it went to via fax and moved up to emails and now it’s online booking engines from the palm of your hands on a mobile device. The world has indeed moved from rendering services to giving experience. The same also happens with food and beverage delivery. It’s not just a glass of drink but it has to be a special one from South Africa or somewhere, and we have to serve it with something on the side. Requests like these. Five years ago we installed wireless access throughout the whole building so that at no point are you disconnected from the rest of the world or your business. We also included UPS generators so that there is uninterrupted power supply. That’s something special about how we use technology to enhance the experience.
DT: What are the specific characteristics of being an experience industry?
Gaillez: The trend is now for us to have digital check-in. We consider that being at the front desk is an administrative task. Technology today allows us through our application – the customer’s full profile is registered – to facilitate your settling in as soon as you arrive at the hotel. You can check-in immediately if you want, you get a notification that your room is ready and only to pass by the desk, be welcomed and have you are given your room key rather than a request for your credit card and passport and all that. We believe that in the future the front desk as an architectural feature is going to disappear and so you will have somebody waiting in the lobby, recognising that you have just entered and will be providing a completely different experience much rather than an administrative process. From your phone you can open a direct interaction with team members for whatever you want. This is also not about the digital service alone, we have a pool and instead of just doping parties, we’re partnering with some with some world class event organisers, and in March had an event, Jam Rock which was like a musical festival in the evening. It’s exciting how this goes beyond service and becomes an experience even for this new crowd which was there and a learning curve for us too. For example when someone has a birthday, we don’t just bring the cake and birthday card to the room. We now contact the guest and ask when he/she would like to have the cake and if a booking has been made to celebrate with friends. We go an extra notch to ensure it’s something more festive than just a cake and a card and make it an experience. We’re also working on reviving our VIP amenities.
DT: Hilton has been here for thirty years. How are communities around here benefitting from your existence?
Gaillez: We’re partnering with associations on engaging the communities on how we can have small entrepreneurs who can repurpose things like our old bed sheets by dying them and sewing them up in small pockets for phone plugs and all that. So that when they’re in your bag, they’re tidy. We’ll arrange them in colours for specific purposes with the aid of these communities and women there so that we have a community dimension.
We’re moving into where we refer to the world as a triple bottom line where we’re going from purely economic bottom line even though it’s a business. But the business can have different dimensions and that’s where the experience comes in. It would be nice to say this is not just a bag. There’s some history behind it, hopefully some jobs and people in communities empowered through them. Inside the rooms there are more channels and guest can play the content on your phone on the televisions. So people who have Netflix or other providers will be able to play the content on the television in their rooms.
DT: Hilton is a global brand. Why did it take this long to get to this point?
Gaillez: That’s part of identifying new needs of our customers when we see opportunities to do so. Like with valet services, there are people who are now more self-driving and need this service provided. We initially thought peak hours are when our lobby is busiest during the day but during our test period we found out it’s in the evenings people mostly need valet services. More services are coming but it all dependent on technology goes and has to go through a lot of security clearances and all that.
DT: What’s been the biggest challenge for you as GM?
Gaillez: Creating a common vision. Here employees work in air-conditioned environment. We try to enforce discipline, training and so on. But when they go back to their communities, it’s kind of a different world. So you have to reconcile how do we bring some of our best practices to the team members and get them to be active. A lot of our team members have up to 20 years experience but then how do you remain focused and relevant for today’s customer?
This brings me to a bigger repositioning exercise we’re doing at the hotel. In today’s world, people are in business 24/7 and blurring the lines between their professional and private lives in terms of time and interaction and what people do in their personal time. We have to become relevant to what I would call the millenials as part of the UN World Travel Organisation which says by 2025, 50 percent of the world’s travellers will be millenials. They don’t expect to plug their laptop with a cable, they want wifi. All these are changing just as the experience is changing and people are more knowledgeable. The team has to follow and get the training to give this experience. People are more sensitive to their diets; know their culinary preferences and all that. They’re aware of their lifestyle and want a seamless trend wherever they are, so we have to educate our team on these things.
We have different mechanisms for feedback and pay attention to them. We get hit on social media. People post more complain than praise but these keep us on our toes. We interact with our clients and have come up with a project, ‘Make it right,’ where we interact with our customers and we try to do a lot of service recovery and try to make things right.