We spoke recently to Philipp Ries, Industry Leader for hospitality at Google in Switzerland, after his recent keynote speech to EHL’s international advisory board. Here are edited highlights of the interview:
Q: What are the key areas where technology can help hoteliers and hospitality at the moment?
Ries: The customer experience gets better day by day for many reasons, thanks to start-ups and major players like Amazon and others. When they buy stuff or do stuff, it gets easier and much of the innovation is driven by technology. When the customer walks into a hotel, the experience he’s had is saved and this is also the expectation he wants to have in a hotel. So the bar gets higher and it’s more difficult to get away with the check-in that takes 10 minutes and at the check-out where you have to wait. Things are getting more immediate and technology can help there.
Q: But for individual hotels, technology can be quite expensive and there are all sorts of different systems out there.
Ries: Every hotel has some of the same challenges. I have a hard time understanding why hoteliers don’t sit together and say, ‘alright, we’re maybe competing for the same customers but we want to have the best experience for our guests, so let’s do something together to get costs down and be more competitive’.
Q: So they should be acting as partners rather than as competitors in terms of investment in technology and maybe even jointly marketing a particular location?
Ries: Exactly. It could be both. If I were to own or be the CEO of a hotel, I would look at the things I really want to do and many of them – unless you’re a major hotel chain – you can’t do alone. You either need an external partner or you can partner with other people and say ‘let’s have one employee working for all of us’ and getting some extra help.
Q: In your keynote, you said some 20 percent of searches on Google are already conducted via voice [Google Assistant] rather than a browser. Presumably that's just going to keep on growing exponentially?
Ries: Yes, I think the growth path is at a very early stage but the experiences are getting better and better, and it’s definitely an area we should focus on. You have to think where it makes sense to guide a guest and say, ‘hey use this system, as you’ll get the best experience’.
Q: How is Google working with hoteliers and the hospitality industry?
Ries: We have several platforms such as a free platform called Google My Business. Hotels can sign up for free and have their opening hours, phone numbers and a link to their website. So it’s all for free and you can manage your pictures and other relevant up-to-date information. So there we’re connecting heavily with small and medium hotels as well.
With the bigger hotels, we partner with them a little bit closer to see how we can make the experience better, how to make even booking possible. If your hotel belongs to a bigger hotel group, your hotel can be booked through Google and them directly on the platform. So we are partnering in many ways with the hospitality industry.
Q: Should the hospitality industry be worried? Google’s a giant and could dominate the industry, especially with voice.
Ries: I honestly don’t think so, because you know people will want to have a great experience somewhere and Google is not at all in that field and it never will be. We know where we’re strong. We’re strong making portals, enabling better experiences for our users and we will never open a hotel or a hotel chain, so I don’t see use going in that direction.
Q: Google’s not currently interested in transactions in the way the OTAs [online travel agencies] are, but it could offer a seamless service with flight and hotel information. You have all the data that would give you an advantage over an Expedia or Booking.com?
Ries: The experience has improved a lot of the last couple of years. If you look for flight results, they look better now than five to six years ago. The same is true for hotels and I think the experience is seamless in many ways already. But then reservations are made via Booking.com for instance or a hotel directly and I don’t see that changing.
Q: So what would be your main advice to hoteliers? Is it to take a ‘mobile first’ approach in terms of connecting with customers? And personalization? What are the key issues for you?
Ries: I would say mobile first.
As for the other topics, you have to know what to do and, more importantly, what not to do because you will not be able to do it all. Do a few things but do them right. Never forget the customer because that’s the one who pays you at the end.