Putting heads in beds: How AI can help the hospitality industry

Presented by IBM
science and technology, asked and answered with Tammy Lucas, VP marketing, Best Western Hotels and resorts
The pandemic has disrupted nearly all manner of industries, but one that’s especially hard hit is hospitality. Tammy Lucas, Vice President of Marketing at Best Western Hotels & Resorts, has never seen anything like it.

“Our industry just got obliterated so quickly,” says Tammy, who’s been with Best Western for 16 years. “It felt like a massive avalanche rolling down the hill and it just could not be stopped… It’s like the world came to a sudden stop and we stopped with it.”

“Our hotels were troopers,” Tammy adds. “We had hotels where the owners just assumed every role: cleaning rooms, front desk, answering phones — everything. It was amazing to watch their strength, love, will and passion for their hotels and the customers, especially servicing the frontline heroes… The glimmer of hope was when the cancellation rates stopped plummeting. Now we are on an upward trajectory, and although it will be slow, I am really feeling positive about this next phase in this journey.”

“[Best Western] is like a house that has great bones. The foundation is strong, the structure is in place and we know what it takes to be successful: shift priorities short term, and put consumer safety and confidence at the forefront.” – Tammy Lucas


Walk a mile…

At times like the present, Tammy says it falls on a company’s marketing leadership to delicately ascertain the correct level of engagement with both community and consumers. “I always say to my team that the customers are you — you are a customer, so put yourself in the customer’s shoes.”

Best Western stopped all direct marketing campaigns, business activations and media at the outset of the pandemic, and leaned into their long-held reputation as a caring and trustworthy brand.

With compassionate messaging, a focus on safety and cleanliness as well as frontline workers including our hotel associates, and through empowering hoteliers, initiatives included the Front Line Heroes program (frontline workers get automatic gold rewards status), being the first brand to extend current BWR Elite Status until 2022 and launching the We Care Clean program (an elevated level of cleaning standards and operational best practices).

“We stopped everything so we could reevaluate the mindset of customers and give people breathing room, with only very soft campaigns concerning reassurance around flexible cancellation policies and caring about our customers and their families and letting them know that we are here for them when they are ready to travel again,” Tammy says.


The rule of thirds

According to Tammy, customers and consumer habits can now be broken down into three segments…

1) The Uninhibited Third: “One third of people are already like, ‘I don’t care if you put plexiglass up, I will touch the credit card machine and go to the bar. Stop talking about COVID.’ [They] are not worried… and you want to target those people.”

2) The Cautious Third: Those in the middle are cautious yet optimistic, but they rely on the fact that businesses are doing what they need to do to keep them safe. Prove it.

3) The Patient Third: This group is saying, “I’m not leaving my house until there is a vaccine, so see you in a year.”

“The ability to find those people who are ready to travel is going to be critically important for us to be able to drive that lower-funnel business,” says Tammy.


Communicate easier with AI

Prior to COVID-19, Best Western partnered with IBM Watson Advertising in order to reach consumers who were planning to travel. Watson was trained on Best Western information and used natural language processing to provide travel recommendations for users, engaging in real-time humanizing conversations with travellers by way of inspirational ads and two-way communication. These were the first AI-powered ads in the hospitality industry.

IBM Watson explained
Watson is IBM’s proprietary machine learning technology, originally designed as a question-answering system to compete on the quiz show Jeopardy! (which it won in 2011). It has evolved to become IBM’s suite of enterprise-ready AI services and applications, including for healthcare, customer services, advertising, financial services, IT and more. It’s named for IBM founder Thomas Watson.

Fast forward to today and this crisis has laid a platform for companies to embrace tech faster than they otherwise would have, says Tammy, adding it has opened people’s eyes to AI needs that may have previously been put on the back burner.

“AI provides a data driven journey, which is super important because customers, especially now, are exhausted — in some cases just surviving — and that’s where data combined with enhanced technology will be critical: to be able to make their journey to their desired destination even easier for them.

“[As] a Canadian in America, I search online for information about the borders; it’s confusing and complicated,” she adds. “But data and machine learning could provide up-to-date information at the customers fingertips.

“People are hungry for information: good, bad or ugly.”

“If you can cut through the clutter and provide the true facts of what people are looking for and build trust around that, it will be a game-changer. People need to feel comfortable to take a step outside, and we as brands need to inspire people while delivering consumer confidence in this time of uncertainty, which ultimately becomes a win-win for both the customers, our hotels and our brand.”



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Special thanks: Canada government, Québec government, City of Montréal