Gilles Bonaventure is the Corporate Director of Guest Experience for Centara Hotels & Resorts. He has visited 93 countries and stayed in over 1,500 hotels, and his main expertise lies in providing solutions to hotels and Corporate Offices to improve their operations, in turn improving overall guest satisfaction. Gilles has worked in pre-opening teams, rebrandings, and operations of hotels and restaurants worldwide, in addition to founding his own company, and has amassed over 20 years of experience – which he now shares with us in this interview.
Tell us a bit about your background and the company you started, Hotel IQ.
I graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in hotel management and went on to work for Disney World in the United States, which wasn’t for me, as in a company that big, any ideas you have will take too long to be implemented. So I moved to Asia and began opening hotels, with 11 properties just in Thailand, and worked in different capacities at a number of properties.
Before joining Centara, I created my own company, Hotel IQ, which does audits and consulting for hotel businesses. It was quite successful, and we worked with big-name clients such as Jumeirah, Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons, Banyan Tree, and more. This gave me the opportunity to work closely with corporate offices and understand their needs and wants, as well as to accumulate good experience in operations and a clear definition of what good service is.
You’ve been the Director of Guest Experience at Centara for a while. How have things been for Centara in the later phases of the pandemic?
Every country in the world has been hit pretty hard by the pandemic, and people haven’t been able to travel, go out, or eat out the way they wanted to. Because of this, our clientele has decreased by 75% since tourists were not allowed to travel, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. So what most hotels, us included, have done is rely on local markets. Now that Thailand is slowly reopening, we see an increasing number of tourists coming our way, but they are different than in the past and are still reluctant to travel due to many reasons. First of all, they don’t know what the future holds in terms of how the pandemic is going to play out. Secondly, many have been laid off and don’t have the money to travel right now, or are cutting back on what are deemed superfluous expenses. On top of that, the cost of traveling has been almost unbearable, with plane ticket prices increasing three-fold in some cases, partly due to COVID and partly due to the war in Ukraine. Additionally, we see a lot of industries using these circumstances to increase their prices as much as possible, even when their products are not exactly impacted by these factors. In France, for instance, the price of butter is going up and increasing meal prices, but that’s an item that comes from France itself and isn’t directly impacted by what’s happening in Ukraine, which is a little odd, and also has an impact on people’s travel patterns. Lastly, travel is also affected by airports in certain parts of the world that are experiencing flight cancellations due to a lack of manpower to handle luggage and other processes.
As a result, we at Centara went into survival mode and tried to adapt as much as we could. We are lucky to be owned by the biggest retailer in Southeast Asia, which is pretty solid financially and is able to provide some support, but at the same time we have a lot of managed hotels whose owners aren’t part of that, and some properties had to close temporarily owing to the financial pressures caused by lack of guests. Now we are back to some kind of normality, with about 98% of our hotels reopened.
What are the different parts of the Guest Experience, in your mind?
There are so many parts to the guest experience, as it starts as early as the search for a hotel, and not only from check-in onwards. It goes from the moment you think about going somewhere to the moment you come back home. It’s everything that comes before the actual stay, and everything that comes after, as even the destination in itself is part of the experience. When you travel somewhere and walk on a public beach that is dirty, you are going to blame the destination and, ultimately, you’re going to blame the hotel.
With that in mind, we aim to make the booking process as smooth as possible, as well as the arrival, the check-in, the stay, all the way to the post-stay with a guest survey to follow up. It’s all part of an entire experience, rather than treating guests as single-stay customers.
What’s very important to understand is that hotels are spending a lot on OTAs, travel agents, and other indirect booking methods, but in order to reduce the amount spent on fees, hotels need to be able to inspire loyalty in their guests, especially when it comes to local markets. When guests are happy with the experience at a brand, they will likely stick to that brand wherever they go. And if they’re happy with the hotel, they will want to go back to that destination. A tourist from a country like Canada, for example, may not visit Thailand 25 times a year, but if a guest is local and travels around the country or to other destinations where we have hotels a number of times a year, it’s paramount to be able to inspire as much loyalty in them as possible so they will book directly with us instead of through an OTA. This kind of loyalty is achieved based on their experience and satisfaction with the stay as a whole – which we can gather from stay surveys and reviews.
What have you learned from reading guest reviews?
I have been using ReviewPro for eight years now, even before joining Centara. I had a vision of what our product should deliver, and as all hoteliers know, as busy people we want to achieve our visions by using uncomplicated, accessible, straightforward tools. This is especially true for small operators, who don’t have the option of employing large teams that can analyze this information and compile reports and insights gleaned from guest reviews.
When reading reviews and surveys, I can listen to what my guests are telling me. However, it’s not enough to have people telling you things, you also need to witness them. To that effect, twice a year I visit each of the brand’s hotels and experience them as a guest would, using their feedback from the reviews to observe specific areas of the experience and speak to staff about it, so that I can find out the reason for each issue. Essentially, I conduct audits supported by actual guest reviews that guide me to the areas that need the most attention. Reviews are how guests tell us about problems they experienced, and it is up to us as hoteliers to find the root of these problems so that the solutions will definitively fix them. But just reading the reviews and analyzing figures isn’t enough to tell you what’s happening at a hotel. For instance, if guests say breakfast is too slow, possible causes may be a lack of manpower, but it could also be work standards, or it could be how the buffet is laid out.
How do you determine brand standards when it comes to guest experience since experiences can be so subjective and personal?
I have written brand standards for different brands across multiple countries, and basically what you need is to understand the expectations of the guests for each particular destination and for each hotel, and usually, these are roughly similar according to nationalities or where the guests come from. Keeping that in mind is also important when designing the product. For instance, Asians generally tend to prefer bedrooms painted in lighter hues, whereas many Westerners like slightly darker or less bright colors, such as gray. But changing the product is very complicated, therefore what can be done is to find out, in terms of service, what your guests like and dislike.
Speaking to your marketing department will tell you what’s the target market, so you can adapt your offerings to their preferences. It can be a process of trial-and-error and A/B testing, but the more research you do on your guests, the better your chances of getting it right faster. What we learned during the pandemic is that unless you adapt your business to your clientele’s requirements, you will go belly up.
Similarly, you must assess if what you want to offer is feasible – do I have the proper equipment or enough manpower? – what it will cost the company, whether or not it generates revenue if the hotel will be able to consistently deliver it at any occupancy rate, and lastly, what impact it will have on guest satisfaction. If you introduce something that has zero positive impact on the guest’s satisfaction, that offer is an unnecessary waste of time.
How can technological solutions enhance guest experience?
Apart from guest review analysis tools, I believe that this differs between city hotels and resorts. At a city hotel, there are fewer encounters with your guests as typically they use the hotel as a base for their trip, a place to eat and sleep before attending meetings, exploring the destination, or other activities, so technology probably has a bigger role in these properties. When it comes to a resort, you need to create a complete experience, and having, say, a robot that delivers coffee does not amount to that. It may improve your PR value, but guest satisfaction is created by how the staff interacts and deals with any guest issues during the stay. Tools that facilitate or improve how we communicate with our guests can enhance satisfaction, such as scanning QR codes to obtain information or messaging channels to make requests. These decrease the likelihood of misunderstandings due to factors like language barriers, for example, and allow the staff to prioritize tasks when dealing with guests. Automations can do the same by eliminating certain repetitive tasks, but it is very much a human business, so technology aspects are supporting tools to enhance the experience.
Have you noticed in guest reviews any “magical” moments caused by hotel tech?
Most of the fantastic stays guests comment on are attributed to staff members, like when kids are offered candy by a receptionist at check-in, or naming a particular team member who made their stay memorable. I notice that, mostly, having the right technology in place allows hotels to keep up with their guest’s growing expectations, such as proper systems that enable staff to deliver services professionally, like a quick and seamless check-in. It’s usually back-of-the-house synergies that make it possible, as opposed to something guests interact with directly. Deciding on what technologies you actually need to keep up with the expectations is a balancing act of investment costs to the company versus what impact it is going to have on the guest’s satisfaction. Again, that’s why knowing your clientele is so important, instead of blindly adopting tech merely to keep up with what other hotels are offering. Installing smart locks on each guestroom door, for example– will that add to my efficiency and professionalism of the service or will it just be an added cost? And most importantly, will it have a positive effect on guest satisfaction? Otherwise, you’re just incurring costs and not adding anything of value to your guest, and may even be causing them frustrations with overly complicated technology.
Ultimately, you need technology for back-of-house processes, design, even for improving the sustainability efforts of your building, but it is mostly operations related rather than guest experience related. For tech that actually does impact guest experience, you must always ensure it is relevant and you’re not spending money for anything, and focus more on the human aspect of your product.