Improvements in guest experience come in two distinct categories: those with the underlying aim of making things better for the guest, and those which are actually designed to make things better for the hotel. As a quick example of the latter category, experts will tell hoteliers it’s essential that the first and the last contact the guests have with your brand should be positive and memorable. That’s because these two points are most strongly inclined to stick in the customer’s mind, so if the memory is good the customer will return to the hotel in the future, and will also give you positive online feedback. This creates an even more positive shareholder experience. Great advice, but it best serves the hotelier who wants to wring an impression of enhanced guest satisfaction out of much the same old experience. In short, it sounds like a gimmick.

You can measure many guest experience ideas using this simple yardstick: is it an improvement on the guest’s terms, or an improvement on your terms? Try this one – many hotels have started to follow the lead of the low-cost airlines, and now provide a basic service while charging extra for services and facilities which used to be included. This is promoted as an improvement in terms of guest experience, because it keeps costs low while providing greater customer choice. Research is divided on the psychological merits of this approach. If, for example, you give your guests a comfortable pillow and then raise the overall price, how does this compare with asking the guest to choose what kind of pillow they’d like and then charging them accordingly? Choice is good, but the inconvenience of having to make decisions can be irritating, while the sharp focus on the extra financial cost of each extra service hardly conveys the impression of hospitality.

In contrast, one hotel group has found one of the better ways of creating a superior experience on the guests’ terms. The Outrigger Hotel group is still small enough to follow the path of not only empowering its GMs to manage the properties with a great deal of freedom to do as they see fit, but also allowing every staff member the freedom to go out of their way to improve their guests’ stays without first having to seek approval from senior staff, which means that common sense and superior service can prevail more often. The secret is to employ the right people – those with the natural inclination towards serving guests – and then allow them to do precisely that. The company takes the view that any additional costs incurred will be more than recouped through repeat bookings.

One commonly touted means of raising the guest experience bar is to provide a more personalized service, but this has to be done with care. I was actually the beneficiary of the personalized approach on a recent visit to Shanghai, and while the hotel managed to get it endearingly wrong, I did appreciate their attempt and will certainly remember it fondly. I checked in on my birthday, a fact which was no doubt picked up by the hotel when I handed over my passport on arrival, and shortly after settling into my room the staff brought me a small cake and a birthday card. I opened up the card, which contained a printed verse expressing the best wishes of the hotel to their very special customer on this auspicious day – and then handwritten at the top, the salutation “Dear 607”. Which was partly disappointing given that they’d seen my passport with my name in it, and partly splendid because 607 feels a bit like 007, only on a higher floor. The cake was great.

The advent of social media gives hotels an opportunity to find out much more about their guests than just their date of birth, and this information can be used to upgrade the overall experience. Once again, however, there is a fine line between making someone welcome and streamlining their stay versus invading their privacy and exploiting personal information for profit. One advocate of the personalization approach suggested it would be wonderful if the hotel knew the exact purpose of each individual guest’s visit along with a detailed history of the guest’s previous visits, in order to provide a suitably tailored level of service. This kind of idea might appeal in certain circumstances, but should only be implemented with great care, since there are several reasons why guests might not appreciate the imposition of this particular kind of business-customer relationship.

In Singapore I made a repeat visit to an independent hotel which I’d booked through an OTA. At check-in, it may have been that entering my name into the computer alerted the staff to the fact that I’d stayed there before, or it might simply have been that the manager recognized me from chatting a year earlier, but the result was the immediate offer of an upgrade for the night. Now I should add that it was a capsule hotel and the upgrade was only from an upper level bed to a lower level one which involved less climbing, but the guest experience was certainly improved by something as simple as the feeling of being recognized, welcomed, and given something which made my stay better.

When it comes to guest experience, there are countless ideas out there, but to summarize, personalization is great, but take privacy into consideration, which might well mean treating people differently on the basis of age or nationality. Giving something away free is good as it doesn’t look like you’re trying to exploit the customer, but be aware that even this can invoke uncomfortable feelings of guilt in some recipients. And finally, empowering staff to provide genuine authentic service can bring great results if you have the right people who can be trusted to go off script. It’s becoming all too common to simply utilize data to sell customers exactly what they seem to want, but if you sincerely intend to make improvements, do it on your guests’ terms, with a clear emphasis on improving their stay. Be hospitable, put a smile on their faces, and the rewards will look after themselves.