Brendan May is the Managing Director of Hotel ResBot, which uses AI to automate repetitive front desk and reservation tasks and assists in crafting replies to hotel booking messages with around 75% accuracy. A true hotelier by education and trade with over 20 years of experience ranging from revenue management to cooking, Brendan spoke with the Shiji team about his passion for using technology to solve daily challenges in the industry and how it can elevate the guest experience.
Tell us a little about how Hotel ResBot came about.
I deeply and passionately believe that the Hollywood movie trope of man versus machine actually pollutes our daily thinking about technology and gives us the wrong idea, because in the end, it’s really all about teamwork. When Garry Kasparov lost a chess match to the Deep Blue supercomputer, he said something to the effect of, “if you can’t beat them, join them,” and went on to create a new type of chess that mixed teams of grandmasters, unranked players, and chess computers playing against each other in various combinations. In the end, the best performing team was that of two guys who weren’t even chess professionals, but who best understood what the optimal tasks for the human players and for the chess computers were.
With that in mind, Hotel ResBot’s solution HERA, or Hotel Email Reservation Assistant, is a digital assistant using what we often call cobots or collaborative robots, a term borrowed from industry 4.0 that denotes a robot working in the same physical space as a human (in our case, the same physical computer) where each party does part of the task. It’s akin to imagining the robot doing the mise en place and the human putting the finishing touches on the meal and getting it out to the customer. It uses AI to help hotel reservations agents scan and reply to email inquiries, read inbound messages and check availability and rates. It also proposes replies and allows for personalization, efficiently creating offers that are appealing to guests and simplify their booking journey.
The idea came about four and a half years ago when I rediscovered that booking emails were still a thing. After sending booking requests to some 25 hotels, I noticed that the quality of replies I received was extremely lacking, with no effort to upsell nor to offer suitable alternatives for me. 80% of them were merely stating “yes, there’s availability, and this is the cost”. The kind of guest experience I received was absolutely terrible, and I couldn’t help but compare it to booking through a website – a much better experience, that allows me to make comparisons and so on – and at that moment I realized that, contrary to my initial thoughts, what was needed wasn’t just a tool to improve efficiency, but it should just as much be a tool to improve the guest journey.
There are many cases of people on social media and Reddit wondering if it’s legit when a hotel to asks for payment information by email and, surprisingly, or even sadly, it is.
So it’s not that we have reinvented the email, rather it’s a process people are already familiar with, similar to a marketing email: there’s a big button where you can click to book and it will lead you to the page where you fill in the details, including credit card information, in a safe and secure environment. There are still about 1 in 1000 customers who will write back to finalize the booking via email exchange, and that option is available to them, but the vast majority opt for clicking on the call-to-action button.
Let’s step back. What does the hotel booking landscape look like today?
When you really dig into how difficult it is to get a hotel booking done via email, it’s amazing that across Europe, 20% of the reservations still come in via email, and in places like Germany or the Czech Republic, it represents up to 28%. Why is that? People expect that kind of personal assistant service. They expect to be able to write to the hotel to discuss their needs and get information. The industry as a whole often tends to, as we say in German, “treat [the reservations department] like the stepmother”, meaning that we completely forget that it plays an important role in the guest journey. We tend to focus efforts on improving the hotel booking journey solely on the website, which is still great, but when only 10% of bookings come in that way, and, more importantly, when your repeat guests are often the ones using email, we end up treating them worse than other guests.
Someone who does nothing but open booking notification emails from partners and manually enter them into the PMS day in and day out. That’s the sort of work that doesn’t need to be done by a human anymore.
Sure enough, there’s a cost to provide this kind of service, so hotels have some kind of template that they’ll use. But even this doesn’t solve the issue. Even with a nice email, they may forget to include information such as cancellation policies (despite the COVID-era hotel bookings making it so ubiquitous) and have to prolong the exchange until the booking is finally confirmed and completed, but not before the guest has been sent a form for their credit card details, type of room, and so on. This process can take days, and, especially today, most people appreciate the ability to check something off of their ever-expanding to-do lists quickly.
Another big aspect of the journey is payments. I spend a lot of time on Reddit and social media looking at what guests post about hotels, and often see recurring questions about sending credit card information to hotels over email. People are always wondering if it is safe, if it is legit, and surprisingly, or even sadly, it is. Many hotels are still doing this today, despite the fact that it has officially not been allowed by credit card companies and regulators since 2018, and a hotel may even lose the right to charge credit cards for a period of time if caught doing it. This part of the guest journey is honestly one of the big dirty secrets of the industry nowadays because nobody wants to talk about it.
There’s a big bad acronym that I remember dealing with way back when I was heading a hotel electronic distribution association 15 years ago: PCI-DSS, or Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. It sounds like the most boring thing in the world, but it is vital. A couple of decades ago, hotels used to deal with this by asking guests to fill out forms with sensitive credit card data and other information, and these forms would be printed several times a day for manual checks of booking details. Once this was done, they’d just toss these papers in a recycling bin, not even a shredder. Fast forward to today, most hotels in Europe are still using a similar method, which is to email guests a document, ask them to print it, fill out the credit card details, sign it, scan it, and send it back so that a person can manually enter the credit card number into the PMS and then charge it manually. The same process also happens if a third party wants to pay for another guest, and this is all kinds of wrong. Apart from PCI-DSS, in Europe, now there is also PSD2, which are updated regulation guidelines on handling and charging credit cards, and hotels are still operating in this insecure, noncompliant manner that most of the time won’t even allow them to charge no-shows anymore.
From a reservation team’s perspective, how can technology improve their workflow?
Reservations teams have done an excellent job, despite being under a huge workload and other types of pressure, of handling the volume of requests. I’ve experienced time and time again when speaking to General Managers at hotels, or regional managers in hotel chains, how they can dismiss emails as a source of revenue or as a significant booking source when the reality is just the opposite. In my view, that is a testament to how well reservations teams have taken the pain and made it work somehow. Tools like AI and workflow automation can be allies to these teams, so can leveraging deep linking capabilities of partners such as booking engines.
One of the main processes agents go through is sending a proposal back when a potential guest emails about availability and prices. One of HotelResBot’s main USPs is our AI-powered system, which can scan the full length of the email even though travel requests are very long and complex. It then taps into the connected information on available inventory and rates and goes through an AI recommendation engine to propose two or three room types that are most likely to be booked by that guest based on what they explicitly and implicitly requested. When the agent opens the system, they see a pre-populated offer that can be hyper-personalized according to the guest’s history with the hotel, and that’s where they add the human touch before sending it to the guest. Of course, they can override the recommendations if they deem the AI hasn’t chosen the best options, but manually checking availability and rates in the PMS, then copy-pasting it into a template is not the kind of work that adds value, and when automated can free up time for a reservations’ agent to do their job of adding the human touch to their guest interactions.
This kind of automation can also be used to reply to more general, but equally frequent, queries, such as “do you have parking space?,” “what time is check-in?,” or “do I need to wear a mask?.” And as an intelligent system, it will also recognize different types of requests, for instance when a corporate guest emails with stay dates and just requires a confirmation on availability rather than an offer. The agent simply needs to check if any additional information is required before sending the confirmation out and allowing the bot to create the reservation in the PMS or CRS.
Eliminating the repetitive data entry part of an agent’s job, which slows things down, can prevent mistakes in reservations and staff burnout. Some hotels that do not have a channel manager or a direct connect interface for bookings still need to employ someone who does nothing but open booking notification emails from partners, one after the other, and manually enter them into the PMS day in and day out. That’s the sort of work that doesn’t need to be done by a human anymore; we should be able to employ this person in a job that is more enjoyable for them and that will add value to the guests.
All of this can make hotel booking better, but how does it make the guest experience better?
In my entire career in hotels, there has never been too much talk, time, thought, investment, or anybody listening to the reservations team to learn how to improve their daily tasks and make their jobs better, the same way there was rarely any questioning on how to make the guests’ experience better at that touchpoint.
Receiving fast responses is one of the priorities for guests, again because checking something off of a to-do list means they can move on to other things. Sometimes, guests will write to a number of different hotels, and when it’s all done and dusted, the one who replies first will most likely get that booking.
I believe it’s a much better experience for a guest to get a beautiful, personalized email that focuses on their needs and outlines products that match their request – that’s where you get the highest conversions and that smooth, happy experience, which we at Hotel ResBot are passionate about. An attractive email, to me, always equates to a better experience, however, it goes beyond simply having attractive pictures. They are important for guests to have a better understanding of what types of rooms they are comparing and so on, which leads to better conversion and better willingness to spend, but convenience also needs to be a concern when crafting the messages. An issue hotels are starting to have with this is that for the most part, they will compile all this information in a PDF, but many companies and email providers nowadays are blocking such files due to recent security issues, or at least showing a warning before opening up the file – not a great first impression for a hotel. And even worse than this, most travelers are using mobile devices, and viewing a PDF attachment on those is anything but practical. When you send them an email using HTML, you make sure that all the information is there and presented in a convenient and attractive way, no matter what device they use.
What is a good first step for a hotelier looking to start on the path of better-automated reservation systems?
For one, I’d say it’s not necessarily about automating; it’s rather about improving conversion, upselling, and revenue first. I believe that an area most hoteliers are missing out on is adding pictures and descriptions to their communications with guests. It’s ideal if they are embedded in the email, but even just a link to a website where guests can find pictures is better for sales. And a 360-degree walk around the room or property is even better: if you have it, sell it – it’s not just about taking reservations.
Secondly, in terms of automating reservations, there are a few tools out there that can help hoteliers create attractive offers, but, to my knowledge, they don’t have a natural language understanding algorithm specifically trained for hospitality use cases like HERA. My advice for hoteliers would be to keep the mindset of man-and-machine teamwork like Kasparov’s chess experiments showed us: it’s not about the team with the biggest human mind, nor is it about the one with the biggest computers. The winning combination is the human team that figures out how best to apply and use their technology.