Expert’s Voice: Co-founder of GuestJoy, Annika Ülem, on the future of hospitality

Annika Ülem believes Covid19 has fundamentally changed the hospitality industry (Credits: GuestJoy.com)

Hotels need to rethink their approach and embrace digital technology in order to survive and thrive in the post-Covid era, according to Annika Ülem, co-founder of hospitality startup GuestJoy.

What are your experiences within the industry in the past few months?

It was a strange time. We have seen a lot of hotels closing. Some haven’t opened up since. But the ones that did are doing a lot to keep up with the new normal.

They are looking for more digital solutions as we are all experiencing physical distancing, restrictions and the slow disappearance of high-touch places from hospitality. The physical front desk is starting to transform into more digital ways.

The older generations are not so keen on leaving their homes at the moment, they need a bit more security from the market. The way I see it, there is also a certain age group who has started to travel already, and that is the people between ages 20-50. So as a hotelier, you need to see how this age group travels and what their needs and expectations are.

Most of these people already live in a digital age, and use their phone a lot during the day. They want to be connected, but they are not looking for a handshake or another type of physical experience; their preferred connection is digital. Quick, smooth and done already.

Anything digital, especially prior to arrival, such as an email or online check-in, is the way to make guest’s stay smoother and the time spent doing unnecessary things less.

What do you see now, how do hotels cope with this?

We work all over the world, and we see huge differences. In Central-Eastern Europe very often the solutions we provide are perceived as too much of a change, too innovative. While hoteliers there are always eager to learn, they are only now starting to see value in more digital solutions.

On the other hand, in Western Europe and the Middle East, hoteliers are very engaged, already using online check-in and other software-based hotel technologies.

We see a different mindset to how they perceive the current situation because surely things won’t stay the way they were before. The sooner a hotelier realises this the better, you don’t need huge changes. Start observing your customers – what do they want? Is social media important to your brand? What makes their stay at your place unforgettable?

Travel technology is exponentially advancing, as travellers change their expectations.

Unfortunately, I still see hotels thinking that everything will go back to normal, which, even without the pandemic, is just not true.

So you think the industry will never return to its previous state?

Well the capital cities are going to continue to experience fewer travellers until business travel and large groups return. It’s hard to maximise occupancy without these, and of course, current travel restrictions and the rise of Zoom is not helping.

We are really looking forward to times when overseas and Asian-European travel will be on the same level as it used to be, but that’s unlikely any time soon.

So what I can advise hotels in the meantime is to start standing out from the competition.

It’s mostly domestic travel, so find those unique characteristics and selling points of your property that will be more attractive than similar hotels at your location.

Also, engage with your community; if your occupancy is low, maybe you can rent out your banquet hall? Invite local companies for team-building activities, use your services for catering, or really try anything that can help engage with your locals.

What do you think is the change that will come fastest?

I already see a lot of new concept hotels popping up. I think they are becoming really popular because the modern-day traveller prefers to stay somewhere just a bit more special than the classical hotel with a ‘nice room & nice breakfast’. Nice does not cut it anymore. It’s the same with a concierge as a hotel employee; they are not there anymore and that service has become digital.

I talked about it a bit before, but hoteliers need to see their property as a destination, even though that’s usually associated with the country or region.

Now your hotel also needs to be a destination. If you are unique, people will want to stay with you, and I see more and more hoteliers are understanding this.

A lot of our partners did remodelling lately. From rebranding your image to redefining the type of customer you’d like to attract, you can do all sorts of things to make your visitors’ stay memorable.

A great example of a unique property that took the most out of this situation is the Le Bijou Hotel in Switzerland. They offered a ‘quarantine stay’ for 14 days, fully catered, accompanied by medical staff who could do regular check-ups if needed. It’s a new concept which probably will not continue after the pandemic, but it’s surely a good way to go about the current situation.

Of course, changing anything and keeping up is challenging because of the rising competition from Airbnb, but think about what Airbnb does well.

What type of product or innovation would be the first you’d recommend?

Honestly, anything guest-facing. A digital solution that goes beyond and connects with the guest during the entire guest journey (obviously with an opt-out option).

You might prefer an app or text messaging; there is no one way to go about it as long as you find a new digital way to approach the customer.

However, it’s important to connect more with the guest than just at the point of reservation, and once they arrive at the hotel.

With a messaging system, you can also easily offer them a better stay, starting from a taxi transfer, to anything really; include as many other businesses and third-party vendors as possible.

Personally, I think digital is the new normal, and the reception or concierge services as we know them now might entirely disappear within ten years.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared on GuestJoy.

Flora KeresztelyFlora Keresztely

Flora Keresztely

GuestJoy’s content marketing master

Flora Keresztely is a marketing manager at GuestJoy, a hospitality startup, who combines her passions in content marketing, data analysis, writing and travelling. The startup is dedicated to bringing the best guest-communication technology to hotels of all sizes.

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