After listening to our 15th episode with Chris Kielb “Why the Guest Experience Matters: Marketing Lessons Gleaned from the Hospitality Industry,” check out our full-length transcript below. The transcript captures every word of our interview and makes it possible to easily follow along, take notes, or simply review.
#15 Why the Guest Experience Matters: Marketing Lessons Gleaned from the Hospitality Industry
JOEY: Hey guys, welcome back to another Talk Experiential Podcast, Episode #15. I’d like to welcome our guest, Chris Kelp, a good friend of mine based out of Huntington Beach, California, who is an Operations Director at a prominent hotel chain. He has an extensive background in hospitality industry and will give us an insight on how guest experience is so important and how it ties back to Experiential. Hope you guys enjoy. If you like this episode, please make sure you five-star it. Enjoy.
Hey everyone, welcome back to the next Talk Experiential Podcast. I’m pretty excited about this guest. He’s a good buddy of mine. We went to school together, I don’t know how many years ago, but Chris Kelp, thanks for coming on.
CHRIS: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
JOEY: We’ve been trying to get you on a podcast for a long time with your experience in the hospitality industry and would love to hear a little bit about your experience.
CHRIS: Absolutely. I studied hospitality in 2000 with you, going to school in Western Colorado. I worked a couple of small hotels; and after school, my career took me to Denver, Colorado where I began to embark upon a 10-year career with one of the big hotel chains, working in various operational roles throughout downtown Denver and Lake Tahoe, Nevada. I learned a tremendous amount during that timeframe, most notably about people and what motivates people and how to drive people and how to influence people. And a pretty overwhelming industry, to be quite honest with you. People forget that hotels are open 24/7, 365. They tend to be busiest, no matter what part of the world you’re in, over the weekends and around the holiday season. So, I missed a lot of family engagements, a lot of great opportunities in my personal life. So, I took a break from hospitality in about 2013 and got my feet wet in the world of marketing actually, working for such brands as Yellow Pages, PayPal, Naked Juice, Coca-Cola, most notably in the San Francisco Bay area. At the time, my life took me up to the Bay area with my fiancee, and I worked up there for a while and decided to get back into the hospitality industry in about 2014 after a short-lived stint in the marketing world. And I took a different approach. Rather than being involved in hotel operations, I worked from a corporate perspective doing training and development for people and studying the ways that they train, the ways that they learn, and putting on seminars, and building training databases and material for a small hotel company in Southern California, which constituted about 3,500 employees. And so, I did that for about three and a half years. I got a chance to use my knowledge working in hotels and resorts to train and develop people. And then as of recently, I’ve decided to get back into the hotel world, assuming a position at a beautiful new hotel in Southern California as the Operations Director. So, I’d say in total, I have about 15-16 years in the hospitality arena, working in various hotels — big hotels, small hotels, convention center hotels, all different kinds. And each one of them provided me a different experience and a different unique outlook on just the way people act and the way they interact with each other, and the wants and the needs and the desires of a hotel traveler or traveler in general in this day and age. They differ across the board; but a couple things stay constant that they all want and need, and it’s interesting to compare and contrast them across the board.
JOEY: That’s great. Thanks for that intro. And, you know, the reason why I wanted to get you on is what you do is an experience. It’s changing. You’re dealing with millennials. You’re dealing with a whole different level of people that have changed their mind on travel. You know, I think we can get into a lot of different things just with your experience with so many people, and how do you manage that, how do you get them on the same page. But I’d like to dive more into just the hospitality side. You started this new position as an Operations Director. I would love to learn more about that. How is that guest experience? How do you guys create that? I mean, we’ve had some offline chats on everything down from the keycard to just that full guest experience. Then the biggest thing for you guys at the end of the day is the ratings on different sites. But if you want to touch on that, we can —
CHRIS: Yeah, the thing nowadays, at the end of the day, from a Motel 6 to a Ritz-Carlton or a Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental — no matter where you stay both in America and the rest of the world, the service is the one thing that has to be topnotch. And we’re all offering the same thing — a warm cozy place to lay your head at night, a clean bathroom, clean sheets, hopefully a pool, fitness center, nice hot meal. Motel 6 is, in theory, not much different than the hotel that I’m currently employed at, but we charge anywhere between $600 and $4,000 a night for a room. Well, what do you get for $600 a night? What do you get for $2,000 a night? And what’s going to make you feel good about that purchase? What’s going to make you say, “Wow, even though my room was $2,000 a night, it was well worth it?” That’s where the challenge comes in. And what we’re all trying to do, what I believe many of the major brands are trying to do, is not to react to people and their wants and their needs, but to be proactive and to think about what they need even before they need it. So, if the weather calls for rain, all of a sudden, the housekeeper leaves an umbrella in your guestroom. Or if you have intended visitors visiting your room — let’s say, you’re going to be doing a meeting in your guestroom. And you come back to your room and there’s already a telecom set up in the room with some water and notepads for everyone. And you didn’t even have to ask for it. That’s the true essence of hospitality, and that’s that magical moment where we’re able to deliver something to someone beyond what they ever expected or even thought that they needed — that point where they say, “Wow, this is so cool. I didn’t even know I needed this.” That’s what we’re all fighting for, is that experience to deliver something to someone that they didn’t even know that they needed, and that’s when you feel comfortable spending $500, $1,000, $2,000 on a hotel room. But you have to seek those opportunities, and you have to motivate a staff of young people that are not really accustomed to seeking out those opportunities. You almost have to train them to have a sharp eye on that and to care, and it really deals heavily with hiring the right people as most businesses talk about.
JOEY: Well, and I think it was a couple of months ago, but you told me that — I think you were working on a weekend. And, you know, just that experience. I take my wife, maybe my kids. I go to your hotel or a hotel, because — well, one, we’ll preface, you’re in a little bit higher-end hotel, correct?
CHRIS: Correct, yes.
JOEY: Are you, what, a five star? Would that be considered a five-star hotel?
CHRIS: At this junction, it would be considered a four-star hotel. There’s a couple different rating criteria that people look at when they say a star hotel. A star hotel is either the Mobil Star Rating, which was bought out by AAA, and that’s actually in a diamond quantitative measure, how many diamonds you are, and AAA will come out and provide an evaluation of your property and rate you on a diamond level. And then there’s the Forbes organization which Forbes Travel Guide created, I believe, maybe about 10, 15 years ago, the Star Rating Report. And you can be either a Three-Star rated hotel, a Four-Star rated hotel, or there are a couple of Five-Star rated hotels.
JOEY: That are higher rated, right. So, there’s the different levels, so you’re about a four.
JOEY: I think you’re closer to a five.
JOEY: But I still think all of this rating system is a bunch of BS.
CHRIS: I do, too.
JOEY: But, you have to. I mean, it’s just like the restaurant industry, it’s part of it. But, anyway — so, I go to your hotel. You know, I expect the pool to be very nice.
JOEY: I believe you get a call saying someone drained the pool the day before —
JOEY: And, for me, I went to your hotel because a pool is a major thing.
JOEY: Especially with a family. And it’s nice out. I expect it. I would be so angry if I didn’t have that pool. And I guarantee, you had a ton of guests that were just irate. I mean, how do you change — and this thing happens a lot. I mean, you don’t meet people’s expectations. How do you fix that? Is that fixable?
CHRIS: It’s absolutely fixable. It’s funny you say that because people forget. You go out to eat in a restaurant. The restaurant only has to nail the food. It has to be timed perfectly, they have to keep your drinks full, they have to be cold, they have to taste good, the ambiance has to be good. But you’re there and you’re gone within an hour or two, right? I’d say on average a dinner is what? An hour? Hour and a half if you have kids?
JOEY: Hour and a half, two hours, probably, max.
CHRIS: Exactly. So, a hotel experience is different because there’s so many things that can go wrong. There’s restaurants, there’s bars, there’s pools, there’s spas, there’s the housekeeping element of it, there’s entertainment. There’s all different types of things. But the particular instance you’re speaking of — yes, an engineer or maintenance guy accidently pulled a lever and actually drained our pool. And the pool is the focal point of this particular hotel. A lot of people come there just for that pool experience. It’s insane. Well, when something like that happens, we ask the staff to act in a certain manner. There’s something we came up with — or, I came up with a while ago called LEAP. And it’s an acronym that stands for listen, evaluate, take action, and make sure they’re pleased. And it sounds kind of cliché, but the staff really adheres to it. If they listen to the guests’ concerns or the customers’ concerns, and truly let them get it all off their chest, then they evaluate — what can they do? Whose fault was this? What happened? How can they fix it? Then they take action, meaningful action, to make sure that it is resolved in the utmost tender loving care. And then it doesn’t stop there. And I think that’s where a lot of businesses fall short. They stop at the action when the ball gets dropped, whatever industry you’re in. But the last thing is the followup, the call the next day and say, “You know what? I know our pool was drained accidentally. We were able to get you arrangements to swim at the neighboring pool.” We provided transportation over there. In lieu of that, we bought your kids some floaties to make it a little bit less dramatic on them. And furthermore, we sent maybe a bottle of wine up to Mom and Dad to appease them for the evening. But we don’t shy away from the fact that something bad happened. We make sure they’re pleased a day later, a week later, sometimes a month later. Calling that hotel guest and saying, “You know what? I remember last month when our pool drained? You stayed with us. You were not too happy. We set you up at the neighboring hotel. You were able to use their pool. We just wanted to call again and apologize, first and foremost, and furthermore tell you that our pool is up and running and is fully functional. And should you want to come use it at a discounted rate, we’ll be happy to extend –” whatever it is, 50% off discount. So, I think that that acronym that we came up with a while ago — listen, evaluate, take action, and pleasing them — it satisfies all the human basic elements of what we call in our industry service recovery, recovering a bad instance and making a negative into a positive. And as cliché as it sounds, if our staff follows that model, 99.9% of the time when your staff is engaged, and they feel empowered to take care of people and do whatever is necessary to make the situation right, they’ll have operational awareness and they’ll be able to recover the utmost of angry, upset, nasty hotel guests or customers.
JOEY: So, another thing I thought and another conversation we’ve had offline is, do hotels — can they just do the same thing over and over again? Or does it have to continue to be reinvented? You know, kind of like we’ve talked about the millennial market. I mean, they don’t care as much about just being on a property. We were talking about with a bar and restaurants, and just all the amenities on a property. For me, I would rather just be locked into a property and I’m not leaving. But that’s the stage of life I’m in with kids. So, let’s talk through that and how you guys —
CHRIS: Yeah, there’s a fundamental shift happening right now in the hotel industry, I think, and it’s probably ushered along through the likes of Uber and Airbnb and companies like that where people go to a hotel, and they want a nice clean place to rest their head, and they want fast Wi-Fi, and maybe they want a drink in the evening. But they no longer, at least from a millennial perspective, want to spend four days at an all-inclusive resort or at a place where they don’t get a chance to experience the local environment. So, we do have the Gen Yers and Gen Xers and even baby boomers that want that all accompanying resort experience where they’re never going to leave. But now we have to start to think differently as hoteliers, because the millennials don’t want that. They don’t want three different restaurants to choose from at a particular hotel, five different pools, and 24-hour room service, two sundry shops. They want to go experience it locally.
JOEY: But they have all the options in the world at their palm of their hand, right?
JOEY: I mean, is that one of the reasons why people — why does the millennial want to be off property?
CHRIS: It’s something about — I think, in my opinion, it’s something about the nostalgia of experiencing a place for what it is and experiencing the culture. And you can’t experience the culture when you’re traveling, when you’re in a bubble of a hotel, because the hotel is gonna create its own culture and its own unique element. But you’re not going to be able to see the area that you’re visiting, especially if it’s kind of an indigenous area, whether it’s internationally or even here in the States. You’re not going to be able to experience that particular area for what it is because the hotel is doing its best to put on a show for you. And I think a lot of young people are done wanting to watch that show that others put on for them. They want to go out and experience this world for what it is themselves.
JOEY: Does that help you? Does that help you guys as a company, or does that take a lot of things off with, you know, not as many people going to the restaurant? I mean, bars, I would assume, will still be fine because I want a drink before I eat my salad.
CHRIS: Sure, there are some things that will stay constant. Everyone will always have to eat. They’ll have a late-night craving, or they’ll want to get a nice breakfast before they go to Disneyland, for instance. There are some things that will stay constant. But it does — as hotel leaders and owners are concerned, we have to begin to think about that, because the number one expense we have within a hotel, of course, after the property is built, is our payroll, is our staff. That’s our biggest expense no matter how big or small the hotel is. And so, when you look at your staffing levels, for instance. It becomes challenging to staff appropriately when you begin to limit some of these services, or you begin to say, “You know what? We don’t necessarily need three restaurants. Let’s just keep two of them open for this particular weekend.” So, you have the whole staffing dilemma and making sure that the staff is there, they’re well-polished in delivering the best possible experience to people. But, yeah, it’s definitely a problem that the industry faces, and we have to look at it from a bigger sense to make sure that we’re not getting left behind and that we’re figuring out ways to provide experiences for our hotel guests even if those experiences take place outside the walls of our property.
JOEY: Do you have guests that come back over and over again?
CHRIS: Absolutely. Repeat guests are our bread and butter.
JOEY: Is that your biggest clientele?
CHRIS: It’s not our biggest clientele, but the statistically repeat guests spend between three and four times as much as the new guest, meaning repeat guests can become very, very valuable to an organization such as hotels and resorts. When someone falls in love with a particular brand, like Apple or something, they’re going to get the next iPhone no matter what it costs. The same thing holds true with a hotel. When they fall in love with a particular hotel, every time they visit their aunt and uncle in this particular city, they’re going to stay at that same one. They’re very, very loyal to hotels and they often spend a lot more. So, satisfying the repeat customer is one thing, and continuing to give them value so that they continue to come back is another. And it’s a challenge a lot of us face in the industry. But, yeah, to your point, it’s a very big part of what we do. The recognition is huge. We deal with this a lot at the current property that I’m at, recognizing that individual. “Mr. Kercher, welcome back,” as you want into the front doors. “It’s been six months since I’ve last seen you. How wonderful it is that you came back to stay with us for your vacation.” Repeat travelers, repeat guests, hotel guests, love that recognition. So, we have to look at our systems and our infrastructure to make sure that we’re keeping track of those customers that stay with us on a weekly, a monthly, bimonthly, yearly basis, whatever it is.
JOEY: Right, very cool. So, talk to me about the changing in technology. I still think it’s pretty fascinating of, you know, just hospitality, how things have to continue to change and innovate themselves. And, I think, just talking about Experiential Marketing, I mean, a lot of the podcasts we’ve done are really focused on how does a brand communicate to their target audience. But this is kind of a role reverse where this is a full experience. I mean, you are living a full experience throughout the hotel. And just knowing you, just knowing how hard that is, how hard to keep up that experience and keep it on a level at all times when you’re dealing with thousands of people that work there and you have one bad apple that can just ruin an experience.
JOEY: You know, I guess — where’re we going with it? Are people staying — I mean, hotels are always going to be around. I don’t think they’re going to go away. But how is that experience going to change?
CHRIS: It’s interesting, because there’s a lot of dollars being spent in research and development with the big brands of the world — the Marriotts and the Hiltons and Hyatts and the Kemptons of the world. They’re investing a tremendous amount of money in customer management systems that keep track of what people like, so that when you go into a restaurant, they know immediately what you ate last time you were there, what you drank last time you were there and, furthermore, what your likes, your interests are. A lot of what we do today is really in its developmental stages in keeping track of customers’ likes and dislikes and how much they’re willing to divulge to a particular hotel. But I think we’re at a spot now that’s kind of changing in the sense that technology has become a major component of what we do; and incorporating that into the guest experience is something that we’re all still trying to figure out. You know, you said it best. You could have someone having the time of their life, but everyone needs to know that you’re celebrating an anniversary, for instance, at the hotel so that when you walk into the restaurant, the hostess says, “Oh, congratulations. I understand you’re celebrating an anniversary.” Then you go out to the pool and the pool server says, “Here’s a small little glass of champagne on us because we understand you’re celebrating your anniversary.” The entire process from check-in to check-out; and at my current hotel is about 2.4 days. On average, people stay with us two and a half days. It has to be flawless from every single person you interact with, so we’re looking at the communications. We’re installing a system currently right now that’s used in a lot of bigger brands called HotSOS, and it s a platform that basically allows us to keep track of individuals; and anything that happened throughout their stay, both positive and negative, will be transferred to — I guess it’s a tablet or a handheld that all of the operational people will have on them that keeps track of the experience that they’re having and what’s going on with that particular individual so that everyone is in the loop and everyone is in the know from the moment they arrive and the moment that they check out.
JOEY: Wow, that’s fascinating. It’s mind-boggling, too.
CHRIS: Yeah, it’s a lot.
JOEY: I mean, just keeping everybody on the same page. I know we have just a little bit more time. I know that you had kind of an experience on a training aspect of many hotels. You had 10 hotels?
CHRIS: I had 12 hotels in my collection that I was responsible for training.
JOEY: And how many employees would you say?
CHRIS: 3,700, 3,800, something like that.
JOEY: So, this is interesting. I mean, you have — most hotels are in California, Hawaii, what — I think you said New Orleans, Louisiana?
CHRIS: New Orleans, Louisiana. Yeah, those are the primary markets that we’re in right now, and Arizona as well.
JOEY: So, you have pretty spread out — these hotels, these brands that’s — I assume it’s a certain brand, or is it different brands?
CHRIS: We’re in a partnership with some brands, but it’s one parent company.
JOEY: One parent company, okay. But typically, it’s still the same focus. It’s about hospitality. It’s about experience. It’s about taking care of the guests.
JOEY: Let’s talk a little about that, just your experience through that. I mean, one, keeping everybody on the same page, and how do you get in the minds of all different skill levels and all different pay levels and position levels and get everybody on the same page? How did you do it?
CHRIS: It’s a tough task. Hotels are like the United Nations. They have people from all over the world that gravitate to the industry for whatever reason. I’m not too sure why. But we have people from all over the world. And having them all wanting to deliver the same experience is a daunting task. But you have to figure out the motivators which drive people, and you have to put it into comparison in what they’re doing. I’m always trying to seek ways to inspire someone to deliver great customer service; ‘cause when you’ve sat in traffic and you’ve got these terrible things going on in your life, the last thing you want to do is be jolly and exceptionally nice to someone when you’re having a terrible day. It’s not an easy thing to do. So, management, particularly middle management, has to make sure they’re constantly motivating and inspiring their employees, even in the face of adversity. And it’s not an easy thing to do, but we do a lot of fun, exciting things and spotlighting those individuals that deliver great customer service and implementing systems and procedures; and if someone’s name is mentioned on Yelp or Trip Advisor, Expedia reviews, Google reviews, all these different sources, Booking.com, then we highlight that individual. Sometimes in certain instances, we even give them money because — listen, at the end of the day, the guests came and checked in. They may have run into a couple people at the airport, 20 or 30 people at the hotel, another 20 or 30 during their business meetings; but if they go home and they remember Joey Kercher gave me a great experience and they remember Joey’s name and they took time out of their busy day to leave a review about Joey online, then that’s pretty special. Joey made an impact on that hotel guest’s or customer’s experience that will live for a very long time in that individual. So, we like to spotlight that. We like to reward that individual usually by way of monetary prizes or incentives because that’s the culture that we found works best — is to highlight those individuals that are delivering their best performance day in and day out.
JOEY: Cool, that’s great. Any parting thoughts you have on the hospitality and your experience and what you’ve learned?
CHRIS: No, I think hospitality exists in all of us, whether it’s a friend staying at your place, a grandmother coming over, a next-door neighbor coming over. I think hospitality to a small extent exists in every single one of us. So, it’s no surprise that hotels are always trying to deliver good customer service. It’s digging down deep, digging inside of you, and thinking about what can you do to make someone feel at home. What can you do to make someone feel warm, comfortable, cared for? And it exists in all facets of this world, not just in the hotel industry in general. But if all of us could find it within ourselves to be a little bit more hospitable in everything we do, I think this world would be a little bit better of a place to live in.
JOEY: I agree. Well, thanks for your wisdom here, Chris. I know that we could talk for a long time on this, and we’ll probably have you back on another episode.
CHRIS: Sounds good. My pleasure.
JOEY: Thanks, man.
CHRIS: Take care.
Listen to the full episode here.