Fully engaged guests have a strong emotional attachment to a hotel brand. They will promote it among friends, family, and colleagues.
The financial collapse of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession wreaked havoc on consumers' spending habits, particularly on "extras" like vacations. But staycation-weary Americans are showing signs that they're willing to spend on travel again.
This is welcome news for the hospitality industry, which struggled with record-low occupancy rates during the years after the economic downturn. To capitalize on the fresh influx of travelers and build lucrative new relationships -- especially with younger guests -- hoteliers must strategically position their brands to make the most of these opportunities.
Gallup's 2014 Hospitality Industry Study uncovered compelling insights into what engages hotel customers from each generation -- and what these guests really want when booking and visiting a hotel. The findings also shed light on the emerging preferences of Millennial guests (born 1980 to 1996), who wield the power to reshape the industry through their sheer numbers. And the results also make a strong case for engaging the outnumbered, often-overlooked members of Generation X (born 1965 to 1979).
The value of engagement
Guests of every generation want more than a hotel stay. They want a distinct experience, which is why engaging them is so important. By measuring customer engagement, hoteliers can become better attuned to guests' psychological connection to the brand, making it easier to anticipate guests' needs and to provide the emotionally fulfilling experience they are looking for.
For hotels, engagement is also a powerful predictor of business growth. Gallup data show a conclusive link between customers' engagement levels with a hotel and the amount of money they spend while they are there. Overall, guests spent an average of $457 at the hotel they visited most frequently in the past 12 months, but fully engaged guests spent $588 compared with $403 for actively disengaged guests -- a difference of $185. And fully engaged guests are less price-sensitive than indifferent or actively disengaged guests, regardless of generation, when booking a repeat hotel stay.
Fully engaged guests have a strong emotional attachment to a hotel brand. They will promote it among friends, family, and colleagues and go out of their way to stay there. Actively disengaged guests have negative, possibly antagonistic, feelings toward a brand and often share their ill will through word of mouth or scathing online reviews. Indifferent guests have no strong feelings toward a brand and may switch between different brands on a dime.
In the hospitality industry, about one in five customers on average are fully engaged. This holds true for Generation X (22%) and Millennials (20%), though engagement rises slightly to about one in four for customers in the two older generations -- Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964; 25%) and Traditionalists (born in 1945 or earlier; 26%). These comparatively low percentages indicate that hotels have the potential to greatly boost their business by doing more to create a meaningful connection with guests, especially younger ones.
There's been extensive media coverage recently about Millennial travelers and their spending and travel preferences. But Gallup found that when it comes to share of wallet, engaging Generation X guests offers a much stronger return on investment. Though Gen Xers are outnumbered by Millennials, they definitely outspend their younger counterparts, spending on average $538 at the hotel they visited most frequently during the last 12 months, versus $351 for Millennials. And only about one in five Gen Xers report that they were engaged after their last hotel stay (22%), indicating that they are still waiting to be won over by a particular hotel brand.
Bringing guests in -- and bringing them back
Gallup examined the factors that influence first-time booking of a hotel as well as repeat booking across all generations. Price, convenient location, and quality of the facility were the top three factors all guests -- regardless of generation -- consider when booking a hotel for the first time.
These same three factors were also key criteria for all generations when it came to repeat booking, but service elements emerged as differentiating factors across generations. Tech-dependent Millennials valued reliable Internet access and problem resolution, while Gen Xers valued the hotel staff's ability to resolve problems and service reliability. Baby Boomers and Traditionalists valued responsive employees and problem resolution.
Millennials and Generation Xers strongly agreed with significantly improving Internet connectivity.
Offering amenities that please
Given the industry's propensity to layer on new products and services that often increase costs for guests, study participants were asked which services they would eliminate to save money -- and which they would significantly improve and pay much more for. Members of each generation were unanimous in strongly agreeing to shutter the hotel retail shop and strongly agreed with significantly improving comfortable beds. On the flip side, Millennials and Generation Xers strongly agreed with significantly improving Internet connectivity, while Baby Boomers and Traditionalists strongly agreed with significantly improving hotel employees' responsiveness.
Engaging guests through their well-being
Though there were slight differences among generations about what drove repeat bookings and what customized services to keep or eliminate, customers' well-being emerged as a significant driver for engagement across every segment. Yet among all hotel guests studied, just 21% strongly agreed that the hotel they most frequently visit takes care of their well-being. This signifies an enormous missed opportunity for hoteliers. Among guests who strongly agreed that their hotel takes care of their well-being, 79% were fully engaged, compared with 20% who were indifferent and just 1% who were actively disengaged.
The reverse is true among those who strongly disagreed that their hotel takes care of their well-being: Just 6% were fully engaged, while 66% were indifferent and 28% were actively disengaged. Traditionalists (26%) were most likely to strongly agree that their hotel took care of their well-being, while Millennials (16%) were the least likely to strongly agree.
Making the most of opportunities for growth
After years of struggling to maintain occupancy rates, the hotel industry is ready to roll out the welcome mat for the next generations of guests, signaling a new era of growth and expansion. Which brands will the younger groups of jetsetters flock to? The answer will largely depend on which hotels they feel truly "get" them and make them feel at home -- in other words, which hotels can best engage them and take care of their well-being.
Here are some insights hotel brands should consider as they make room to grow:
- Target Gen Xers to build brand loyalty and grow market share. Though Generation X is far smaller than the Millennial cohort, Gen Xers report spending far more money with lower levels of brand attachment than Millennials spend. Gen Xers value reliable services when deciding to return to a hotel, and like Millennials, they place high importance on Internet connectivity.
- Be cautious about assuming that social media and hotel rankings will stimulate revenue. When it comes to selecting a hotel for the first time, social media and industry rankings are at the bottom of the list for all generations. Recommendations from friends have a strong influence on Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, while online guest reviews have the most influence with Millennials.
- Challenge legacy products and services that add cost but not value. In-room bar, valet parking, and bathrobes are considered the least important offerings across all generations. Unlike older generations, Gen Xers and Millennials don't place value on guest room clocks and radios.
- Reduce price sensitivity and increase loyalty by providing guests with a sense of well-being. This study indicates that guests value a worry-free experience, and they appreciate when hotels anticipate their most important needs. A hotel's ability to solve problems was highly important for all generations when deciding to return to a hotel. Customers have always anticipated a clean room, a comfortable bed, and responsive employees from a hotel. They still want these things while traveling -- along with a reliable Internet connection for their mobile devices.
About the Survey
Results of this study are based on a Gallup Panel Web and mail study completed by 13,515 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 23, 2013 - Jan. 28, 2014. The Gallup Panel is a probability-based longitudinal panel of U.S. adults who are selected using random-digit-dial (RDD) phone interviews that cover landlines and cellphones. Address-based sampling methods are also used to recruit panel members. The Gallup Panel is not an opt-in panel, and members are not given incentives for participating.
The sample for this study was weighted to be demographically representative of the U.S. adult population, using 2012 Current Population Survey figures. For results based on this sample, one can say that the maximum margin of sampling error is +/- 1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level. Margins of error are higher for subsamples. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error and bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more information about the full 2014 Hospitality Industry Study and data, contact Gallup.