How Safir Hotels Leverages Automation to Improve the Guest Experience
During ReviewPro’s webinar, The New Hybrid Hotel: Staff & Technology Working in Tandem, we invited Shazia Nazir, Corporate Manager, Guest Intelligence at Safir Hotels & Resorts, to share how her company has implemented automation to improve the guest experience. Below are the highlights from our Q&A session.
Tell us about Safir Hotels & Resorts and your role with the company.
Based in Kuwait, Safir Hotels & Resorts (SHR) manages a portfolio of 10 hotels in Kuwait, Egypt, Oman, Qatar, Lebanon, and Syria. The company’s growth strategy aims to share True Arabian Hospitality by managing midscale and upscale hotels and serviced residences within the Middle East & North Africa region. As the first Arabian hospitality management company, the company has a wealth of experience in bringing value to hotel development projects and profitable hotel operations.
Tell us about your role with the company.
My role involves managing brand reputation and guest intelligence, which is increasingly important in market positioning and guest perception management. I am also responsible for gathering competitive market intelligence and managing digital analytics using advanced tools.
In 2017, Safir deployed ReviewPro’s Guest Experience Platform, including the Guest Communications solution. These tools help Safir constantly gauge the level of guest satisfaction by monitoring performance insights, thereby allowing us to also focus on non-financial performance KPIs and become more guest service oriented as an organization.
Why is automation important to your company?
Enabling automation and artificial intelligence to improve the guest experience helps Safir deliver seamlessly by eliminating human error while also helping provide guest-centric, personalized service and tailored recommendations. This opens valuable time to understand our guests’ journey more in-depth and focus on providing the information and experience they deserve. Our guest becomes the center of our attention, not the check-in process, with multiple steps around which our guests revolve.
We believe that artificial intelligence plays a crucial role in understanding guest behavior and predicting purchasing decisions. AI-powered chatbots and popular machine learning applications also enhance hotel cost-revenue analysis and guest experiences if hotels can strike a delicate balance between human versus tech touchpoints.
Digital technology has brought about immense opportunities to innovate and achieve efficiencies, but it also has exponentially amplified the impact of word of mouth. Social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and review websites like Google and Tripadvisor have empowered guests to share their praises and grievances to a considerably wider audience indelibly. Thus, it has become more critical than ever for Safir to align with the technology disruptions in such platforms to maintain its online reputation and foster repeat business.
Automation unlocks new possibilities for Safir. Embedding connected devices across the hotel provides smooth digital access to amenities like room keys, lighting, and entertainment. It also leverages to eliminate queues for check-in and check-out. Migrating and managing customer databases and POS systems on the cloud is also essential as it allows us to deliver a standardized and uniform experience to our guests.
What areas of the guest experience do you think should be automated, and which should be delivered personally by staff?
It’s easy to get carried away with buzzy trends like automation, chatbots, and artificial intelligence. The risk is we as hoteliers will start automating things simply for automation’s sake or because we think we should imitate what other hotels are doing without considering all the complexities unique to our brand.
Safir analyzes the utility, probability, and time required to automate daily mundane and repetitive tasks. Surprisingly, sometimes it’s more costly and inefficient to automate than to do the job manually! At other times, we’re amazed at how long it took us to automate a task. We should think carefully about what should be automated and what should be delivered personally.
For example, answers to general queries regarding repetitive hotel services and facilities can be automated to be handled by a chatbot. However, anticipating guests’ needs and offering them a soothing welcome drink so the guest is comfortable during the check-in process cannot be automated. Similarly, personalized attention to guests in the lobby cafe while ordering beverages, getting their orders just right, and remembering their favorite brand of drinks are intuitive attributes that an automated system cannot replicate.
What guest-facing areas have you automated at your company?
Safir Hotels & Resorts understands the urgency for efficient, flexible, and lasting technology. All our properties have adopted automation in three key areas to deliver service excellence, reduce cost, and maximize ROI.
- Hotel Task Management: Automated alerts and well-defined workflows help deliver messages and tasks to the assigned staff so that they are completed in a timely manner. Cases can also be automated through defined strategies or escalated to the housekeeping or engineering team who can complete the task by the assigned deadline and filter out the noise.
- Guest Feedback Management: Safir responds to post-stay guest reviews within 24 to 48 hours, depending on the nature of grievances, and within two hours for in-stay reviews. Potential guests look at the most recent reviews when deciding on a hotel. Through our automated task management system, the relevant team gets notified whenever a neutral or negative review comes in. It escalates to a guest representative immediately when the comments are not responded to on time. This makes sure that our management response time is well under 24 hours.
- Guest Messaging: Safir implemented an efficient, AI-driven chatbot called Safia that automates the guest journey from pre-arrival to check-out to meet a market need unique to frequent travelers, millennials, and generation Z travelers. Our extensive market research revealed that these guest segments prefer less face-to-face contact with hotel staff, desiring to communicate via their devices on the messaging channels of their choice. In addition, they expect instant, efficient, and accurate responses to their queries.
An AI self-learning chatbot, Safia, drives our guest messaging hub through automated workflows, alerts, and notifications. Safia responds to frequently asked questions and even tends to housekeeping requests or directs them to an agent who can deliver efficiently.
How did you roll out Guest Communications and the Chatbot to staff and guests to ensure a smooth implementation and adoption?
Implementing an automated guest messaging hub was only half the success. For it to work well, we needed to ensure that our colleagues knew how to use the solutions efficiently and that our guests knew what we were offering as a messaging platform through which they could initiate contact.
We trained our staff and developed branding guidelines to introduce what guest messaging is and what each of its salient features are – like the landing page, webchat structure, what to expect from our AI-powered chatbot Safia, and how to efficiently use QR codes of landing pages in their communications and guest collateral.
To support the service’s launch, we developed collateral, social media strategies, and artwork to equip all our properties to launch a campaign to inform our guests of the service. By scanning a QR code, guests can view a list of channels and pick the one convenient for them. Successful implementation of the chatbot resulted in Safia being able to handle 86.1% of the requests from 324 unique users during the pandemic.
What challenges have you faced along the way?
Implementing the desired automation can be challenging, deriving from the willingness of employees and guests to use the technology and adapt it to the hotel’s organization. During the pandemic, Safir morphed through its trial-and-error phase and worked to overcome many challenges. One of the main challenges was training the chatbot. However, ReviewPro provided us with a pre-trained, AI-driven chatbot that took months off the implementation schedule. We were able to go live relatively sooner than anticipated.
For guest messaging, due to different country laws, some of the communication channels were not as effective as anticipated. Therefore, we needed to customize the relevancy of the channels that were more relevant to the countries in which our hotels were located. In the Middle East, Arabic is a widely spoken language, and many reviews and conversations were in Arabic. ReviewPro uses Google APIs (application program interfaces); therefore, the translation usually didn’t convey the sentiments accurately.
What five tips do you have for other hoteliers considering implementing automated services?
- Automation workflows should reflect the organizational team efficiently so that every aspect of operations is highlighted.
- Existing or future systems should integrate compatible APIs with the desired automated systems. Technology should evolve with time and upgrades or be compatible with the desired automated systems.
- The guest journey needs to be mapped out in detail so the gaps or focus areas for automation can be defined.
- During the onboarding and offboarding processes, ensure continuity is maintained in the workflow process so nothing falls through the gaps.
- Ensure the systems can monitor and assess the impact of such automation and new practices to stay relevant. You need to measure how automation positively impacts your business.
Why do you think automation is more about improving performance than replacing employees?
Safir prides itself on quality service and sharing authentic hospitality that is delivered by our colleagues on a daily basis. We do not stray away from the notion that the hotels are a people’s business and that embracing automation doesn’t mean replacing human service with robots. The category “Staff” positively impacts our Global Review Index™ (GRI™) by 0.7%. This shows the key is finding the right balance between human interventions and automated processes. And, most importantly, we give guests flexibility and offer them a choice.
The question of whether AI will replace human workers assumes that AI and humans have the same qualities and abilities, but in reality they don’t. AI-based machines are faster, more accurate and consistently rational, but they aren’t intuitive, emotional, or culturally sensitive. And it’s precisely these abilities that humans possess which make us effective.
Safir understands if the guest desires high touch service or the technology is overused in operations, this will negatively influence our guest experience. Technology is not here to replace anyone but to offer support and enhance guest service experiences. It also doesn’t mean forcing guests to use their phones and applications if they’re not comfortable with them. The idea is to offer them a choice so guests can choose to check in on their phone or with the assistance from front office staff. Hospitality is and always will be about delivering excellent and exceptional service.
Thank you, Shazia!
Check out the website of Safir Hotels & Resorts to learn more about the company.
To find out more about how to use automation to improve the guest experience at your hotel: