“It has…pages! It’s critical to be ‘above the fold!’ Websites are just brochures made of light!!”

    We even made a rather bold early hotel website for Francis Ford Coppola’s resorts that was an interactive scrapbook born on paper.

    But somewhere between then and around 2012, by our highly inexact estimate, the script flipped. Digital became so universal, so woven into our everyday lives, that it started making sense to explain things using digital terms.

    The term user experience is a great example. It turns out, user experience in digital is a pretty good perspective on guest experience in hospitality.

    In hospitality branding, we’re way past “homepage thinking.” That’s the idea that the work of branding is mostly about coming up with an image, a headline, and a logo — the kind of thing that occupies the upper quadrant of a website front page. Effectively, a print ad. These elements are still important; they just aren’t enough to satisfy changing consumer expectations.

    That paper world analogy doesn’t apply as much in today’s branding — or today’s good websites, for that matter. Branding starts deeper, to find greater meaningful differentiators and connections.

    The systems, methods, and even the people behind the front desk are what drives the ad that got guests in your door. Your brand has many points of entry, many touch points, and many paths within. Every one of them is an opportunity to win a customer, or for them to abandon the proverbial shopping cart.

    Digital marketers quickly got good at understanding that. In digital, you can trace people’s footsteps, measure things all the way from first contact to checkout — button clicks, heatmaps, metrics galore. You can see where you lose them or win them over. You begin to understand their patterns and preferences, then learn to improve, predict, and pre-empt. It’s service, operations, marketing, and sales, all rolled into one.

    It’s a habit of thinking that naturally leads to a broader focus on experience design in branding in all industries. It’s especially relevant to hospitality, where experience and journey are operative words, understanding the context, the intent, the effect at every stage and touchpoint for a customer.

    So our company’s work now is about “site mapping” the brand experience, “architecting” a customer journey. And viewing a digital destination and a travel destination with the same eye for an experience chronology.

    For a pioneering brand like Kimpton Hotels Restaurants to stay ahead, the first thing we did was map a guest journey based on the emotional impact on a “user” at every stage. Then expand on and formalize the signature operational, service, and tactile elements to help deliver on it. Later, there was a website, with a homepage headline, and more.

    For new brands, like Bode, which launched with an eye toward a totally new kind of group- friendly hotel experience, we threw out the preconception of a hotel and started from scratch. Guiding principles become facility and service factors. A brand is created more like a feat of engineering than a simple sales pitch. Later, current guests will do a lot of the job of selling it to future ones by remarking on what’s remarkable.

    The tools of these trades sound the same — architecting information, engineering experience, defining interactions, mapping pathways. This is the work of hospitality branding today. What are guests’ purchasing processes? What happens before they arrive, while they’re here, after they leave? How does that change based on their driving purpose for being there? Where can we have emotional impact and connection?

    To differentiate, you must, well, do some of these things different. You might stumble upon that one amenity, that one feature upon which all things hinge. But more likely, you’ll need to assemble a unique sequence of events, a summation of interactions and impressions that add up to a homepage-worthy impression.

    Ironically, websites taught us that a methodical, systematized approach to shaping customer interaction is not a technical exercise: it’s how hospitality brands will succeed in the digital age, by understanding humans better than ever.

    Josh Kelly
    Partner and Chief Strategist FINE
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