You're Doing it Wrong!

Why Customer Centricity’s the Future of APAC Boutique Hotel Development
By Girish Jhunjhnuwala
Founder, Ovolo Group


If I asked you as a hotelier what you thought was most important to provide your guests, what would your answer be? A clean bed? That’s a given. Attentive staff? Everyone has that. A great deal? A cheap rate will only get you so far. For centuries, the general model in hotel development was tobuild a property fit for a restful stay, and replenish guests by offering some food & beverage, all at a cost to sell the almighty room night. This model of course hasn’t changed. It’s the bedrock of what makes a hotel. But what has worked consistently to the favour of hoteliers, has quickly suffered to the detriment of who we work for – that person who strive each and every day to please, take care of, and of course, accommodate: The customer. 

Boutique hoteliers and developers in the West wised up to the idea of Customer Centricity several years ago, but it’s only been as of late that the trend has started gaining attention in Asia Pacific. Being customer-centric comes from asking a simple question – if you were the customer, what would YOU want? 

Ovolo Hotels was founded on this question. Travelling around the world in a past life, running my family’s watch business, I had my fair share of experiences staying in hotels. Several questions kept bothering me through these experiences – why was I being charged for items like water and a bag of nuts in a room I paid for? Shouldn’t these things be inclusive? How was I supposed to relax if I’m feeling nickel and dimed at every corner? Then I started to think – has anyone in the hotel business in APAC actually thought what the customer wants?  

When I set out to form Ovolo, I made customer centricity our central focus from day one – having it drive the brand’s design, marketing, recruitment and operational development at every step of the way. The result, has not only produced multi-award winning hotels, but has benefited our bottom line greater than I could have ever imagined. Here’s how we did it each step of the way. 

Design That Fits with the Customer

For too long boutique hoteliers have put too great of an emphasis on design in their property development. Hiring a fancy design and architectural firm is one thing, but does the customer really care about that award-winning lamp you’ve placed in every guestroom, if its occupying the only power port? 

Did you know that today’s traveller carries on average two digital devices with them on every trip? Those devices need power, and your guest will be none too happy when they find out they have to compromise – do they want light or a fully-charged phone? Overdesign is another pitfall of boutique hoteliers. What might look good in a magazine, may turn off guests from ever coming back. Functionality is becoming the main driver of boutique hotel design in the region. 

More and more hoteliers are getting involved in the design process with their architects and interior designers. I was fortunate to hire design firms who viewed themselves as partners instead of consultants in Ovolo’s projects. It’s fine to have that stylish lamp in the corner, but if it isn’t heightening the guests experience, you might as well forget about it. 

Communication That Talks Like the Customer

If functional design is how great boutique hotels are built, engaging marketing campaigns are how brands are born. Boutique hotel marketing in Asia has gone from being heavily reliant on big Advertising campaigns and Online Travel Agency partnerships to a direct conversation with customers. While there’s still a number of hotel guests that will just settle for the best price available, a rising number choose their accommodation based on multiple factors – location, loyalty rewards, inclusivity, the list goes on. 

What’s central to all of these factors is engagement, both active and passive. Active engagement comes from a multi-channel marketing engagement. Promoting a great campaign through one channel is no longer effective when the competition for attention is in the millions. 

Customer-centric communication is reached by speaking to audiences at every suitable channel to your customer. Marketing terms like Above The Line, or Below The Line are old news. Today, everything is Through The Line. In a Through The Line campaign, your new room package is shared across all platforms available and suitable – print & digital advertising, e-Newsletters, media relations, partnerships, content marketing, social media and more. To be successful in Through The Line marketing, is to offer a concise, targeted message that becomes repetitive but not annoying – leaving a lasting, and hopefully positive, impression on your customers view of your brand. 

Being passive is equally, if not even more important. As hoteliers, we know it’s not what we communicate that’s most important, it’s what others say about us. Traditionally passive promotion meant third party reviews from people like journalists and magazine editors. While the professionals still greatly matter in promoting the guest experience, customer to customer reviews are now a hotelier’s greatest asset. And the one place for this that can make or break hotels today, is TripAdvisor. 

While APAC hotels in the past would traditionally ignore their TripAdvisor pages, more are adopting a customer-centric approach to the global travel review site. APAC hoteliers are increasingly realising that by responding to TripAdvisor complaints as well as praises, their customers feel both heard and appreciated. The results always speak for themselves – guests are twice more likely to re-book seeing a highly engaged hotel on TripAdvisor. And with sites like TripAdvisor re-writing hotel star ratings, a customer-centric approach offers hoteliers that chance to raise their ranking – Ovolo Woolloomooloo & Ovolo 1888 Darling Harbour are perfect examples of this. Our hotels ranked in the high 40’s of Sydney hotels when they purchased. After their first years, with strong focus on customer-centricity, both have climbed the ranks to become Australia’s #2 & #5 best hotels respectively. 

When it comes to customer-centric communication, relatable engagement are the keywords. APAC hoteliers are rapidly understanding that connecting with your customer in the way they communicate, and speaking how they speak, are the strongest skills boutique hoteliers have to differentiating their product. In order to be customer-centric, hoteliers need a like-minded staff and operational procedures. But what would that actually look like? 

Customer-centricity Behind the Scenes

When it comes to ensuring the most seamless, customer-centric experience for guests, an effective communication policy & Integrated Guest Service System, coupled with a continuous feedback policy and process improvement system are good starting points.

The Guest Experience has to be a part of the company’s Vision and Philosophy – not an afterthought. At Ovolo we take our philosophy of “Effortless Living” and Vision of “Shiny Happy People” and engrain it not just in how we service our guests but also our team both Front of House (FoH) & Back of House (BoH).

We strive to create an engaged and happy workforce, and that starts with a hiring process based on culture fit and on-boarding focused on promoting the company’s vision. Once hired, performance reviews are centred on the guest experience in addition to of course financial KPIs.

By focusing on creating effortless guest experiences and constantly sharing and celebrating any feedback, we’ve found the financial results automatically followed. Specifically, teams on a regular basis celebrate continuous positive feedback and take pride in maintaining a leadership position in guest service.

We try to eliminate any separation between BoH and FoH staff and apply the same training, onboarding, reporting, KPIs and objectives at all levels. All of us have a customer-focused goal and that’s SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE all around. No confusion, so it’s absolutely simple.

Of course, it can be hard to keep BoH engaged so we work hard on it - our focus with BoH staff is on indirect interactions and to provide them with opportunities for increased guest engagement. This doesn’t mean they need to face the guest, but it’s about empowering them to make decisions that will benefit the guest. 

It’s important to celebrate daily successes as this helps drive the culture and make the team feel part of the process. FoH team members nominate BoH staff for their support role during our recognition program, placing an emphasis on the team effort that goes into our work.

Measure Success in Satisfaction, Not P&L

Customer centricity shouldn’t be a complicated process nor a laborious task in implementation. What’s vital to achieving it overall is a mental commitment from senior management down to the most junior of employees to conduct actions from the customer’s perspective. As the boutique hotel industry evolves in Asia, hoteliers looking to enter the market have to make a commitment to the guest experience first, and worry about their P&L second. Ovolo’s history has shown that when a customer-centricapproach is a hoteliers primary focus, customers respond with incredible results. And as we all know, a happy customer, is most likely a repeat customer. And what hotelier doesn’t want that?