The coronavirus pandemic, with its changing virus variants arriving in multiple waves, caused havoc and serious disturbances in tourism, including travel, hospitality, and myriad of touristic activities. In some periods the pandemic waves caused almost a complete halt of travel, while in other periods there was partial resumption of tourist travelling and vacations. As hospitality service providers (e.g., hotels and guesthouses, hotel chains and privately-owned hotels) plan and prepare for brighter days when tourism resumes more fully, they also need to think about how to regain the loyalty of new and returning customers-guests. Customer loyalty is a crucial asset for service providers, such as in the hospitality industry, that can greatly determine the economic sustainability and future course of the business.

Loyalty has two highly familiar dimensions: attitudinal loyalty and behavioural loyalty. Commitment is a strong expression of attitudinal loyalty that grows from emotional attachment consumers develop towards a brand or company (e.g., a specific hotel establishment or a chain / corporate brand). Behavioural loyalty can be exhibited in different ways such as re-purchase (as in re-visiting the hotel), willingness to pay a price premium, and customers recommending the brand (hotel) to their friends and relatives, and any other peer consumers through social media channels (i.e., person-to-person word-of-mouth {WOM} and electronic WOM {eWOM}).

But customer loyalty has become linked since the turn of this century with newer and progressive concepts, including value co-creation, brand co-ownership, brand advocates and ambassadors. These concepts represent more active loyalty that tends to be stronger and more solid, compared with more traditional manifestations of behavioural loyalty, and is corroborated by a higher degree of attachment exhibited by the customer; more active engagement with the brand (hotel) displays commitment of the highest level (less common to achieve). Other important antecedents to loyalty cited more frequently are perceived value and trust, which at higher levels contribute to greater customer satisfaction and attachment, and thereon lead to stronger relationships and enhanced loyalty.

Hospitality providers can rightly expect a surge in flow of tourists, hopefully in the nearer future, when variant waves appear weaker and less frequent, and henceforth public concerns recede and safety requirements are lifted or eased (e.g., a major blocker of international travel is the anxiety from being stranded in a foreign country because of a positive PCR/antigen test before flying home). But hotel owners and management would be wrong to complacently rely on this anticipated surplus in demand from tourists coming in (“why worry about keeping customers when they keep pouring in”). This attitude would be ill conceived because this kind of surge will probably continue for a limited time period (possibly up to a year), after which consumers will return to a more sustainable frequency of travel. It can be expected that consumers will try, during several months, to compensate for missed vacations, and then return to ‘normal’ or rather a ‘new normal’. Therefore, providers of hospitality services should consider what measures and actions would help to convince guests to remain their customers in future trips and vacations.

Hotel guests may have their own concerns, from their side of the reception desk, about the relations they have had with hotels before the pandemic: Will the hotel and its staff remember them after long absence? Will benefits they have earned as customers be kept? Will their preferences, that the hotel may have learned about, be respected and catered for? It should be noted that customers may invest time and effort in developing a relationship with a service provider, especially in a hotel, no less than the business; for instance, hotel guests invest in “teaching” the hotel about their preferences whilst staying at the hotel, their interests, and how they like to spend their time in a destination. While some consumers (e.g., younger) may be more adventurous tourists who like to explore a larger number of different destinations, veteran and more settled consumers-travellers may prefer to return to a limited set of favourite destinations and hotels they are loyal to in those locations. Hotels that continued to send e-newsletters with updates and seasonal greetings give greater hope that they remember their past customers and are awaiting their return. Yet the real ‘proof’ of welcome and treatment that returning customers receive will be shown only when they arrive and check-in.

A few directions and cues for action to re-build loyalty in relationships with hospitality customers-guests are put forward below:

Customers can be ‘brought-in’ to participate in and contribute to the planning and design of new and improved services and products introduced in hotels from their viewpoint as hotel guests. They thus become co-creators of value, from which they would also benefit in future visits, and through this closer engagement are likely to tighten their relationships with the hospitality provider. Guests may be invited, for example, to share their ideas on aspects that influence their experience in the hotel, such as house design, cuisine, wellness or technology, and help to “shape the future of travel” (Marriott’s ‘Travel Brilliantly’, launched in 2013, [1]). Customers may be involved in specific initiatives such as the design of service processes or creation of self-service applications. Guests may take part in improving the design and arrangements in a hotel to the smallest details: this can be done in a way of study by asking guests to take photos in private spaces (rooms) and public-shared spaces (e.g., lobby, restaurant & bar) of anything that either pleases them or aggravates and causes them discomfort, relating to interior design, furnishing or maintenance; in a second phase they will be prompted to explain how the subjects of their photo choices affected their guest experiences (including photo ranking and evaluations) [2].

Hospitality service providers can improve their attractiveness and perceived value to customers-guests by creating networks of collaboration with other travel and tourist service providers that complement their own value offerings (e.g., restaurants, recreation sites, performance halls, guided tours, airlines and trains). By combining these interdependent services, the hotels and their partners can offer complementary values and synergistic benefits to consumers-tourists [1].

The customer experience is a primary pathway to forming stronger and better relationships; the associated brand experience is a precursor to brand loyalty. Hospitality providers need to invest in ameliorating both of these dimensions of experience. Experiences span over three main stages of the tourist customer journey: pre-travel, during travel, and post-travel. The experiences during travel are naturally at the core of the travel experience and include the stay in a hotel (or similar). But the importance of the two other stages should not be underestimated. The pre-travel experience is essential as it can determine the attitude in which the guest arrives at the hotel (positive and optimistic or agitated and critical). The post-travel is vital regarding how the hotel customers remember their time in the hotel during the vacation and how they describe it to others (will they be good recommenders and advocates or distractors). The way guests remember their hotel visits is particularly impacted by the quality of rapport they have with hotel employees, that is how pleasant and enjoyable they perceive interactions with representatives of the hotel in different departments. More positive rapport contributes especially to better bonding with the hotel and its brand and developing greater trust [1].

Businesses have long tried to establish customer loyalty through loyalty clubs with cards and reward programmes. But these functions do not necessarily excel in developing deeper relationships and customer understanding. The risk in operating these card or reward programmes is that they might lead to more habitual behaviour out of routine, and opportunistic approach of customers; this type of loyalty tends to be more transient and the customer’s share-of-wallet assigned to the company or brand is likely to decrease. Loyalty clubs may not prove so effective unless supported by accompanying activities that engender brand attachment and engagement.

Perceived switching costs may prove more genuine and impactful when produced on the consumer’s side rather than through formal obligating charges that attempt to tie the customer to the company. An important form of switching cost perceived by consumers entails cost of searching for an alternative hotel, and the effort and risk in initiating a rapport and relationship with the new hotel. Yet another form of switching cost that can be persuasive may derive from a sense of loss when giving up on benefits of familiarity, convenience and confidence, which may be summarised in some cases in having a feeling of ‘a home away from home’ at the hotel the guest becomes loyal to and is reluctant to replace. The latter kind of perceived switching cost can turn out to be a stronger asset for a hospitality provider and its brand.

Hospitality service providers of different sizes have developed in recent years animosity towards online travel platforms for comparison and reservation. They tend to treat guests arriving with ‘vouchers’ through these reservation services less graciously than their guests that made reservations directly with them (e.g., giving the latter the better rooms). Sensibly, the hotels have good reason to invest in customers they perceive as worthy and easier to gain their loyalty than customers who seem more likely to be deal-prone. Hence hotels encourage and offer incentives in advance to consumers to make a reservation with them by phone, e-mail, or reservation tools in their own website and mobile app. Hospitality providers will have to further demonstrate to their guests before and while staying in the hotel the advantages of ‘talking’ directly with them, an initial step in establishing a long-term relationship.

The hospitality service providers, along with the travel and tourism sectors as a whole, are looking forward to recuperate and prosper again after a long period of severe disturbance. But this hard period also presents them with opportunities for planning and making improvements in their establishments, services (human-assisted and digital-assisted), and more. As the time approaches, when travellers flow again, hospitality providers should not neglect to prepare, improve and sharpen their tools and practices for rebuilding the loyalty of customers-guests that arrive at their front doors, returning and new ones.

Sources:

Customer Loyalty: A Review and Future Directions with a Special Focus on the Hospitality Industry; Jay Kandampully, Tingting (Christina) Zhang, & Anil Bilgihan, 2015; International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 27 (3), pp. 379-414 (accessible at Academia.edu, February 2022).

Visual Methods: Using Photographs to Capture Customers’ Experience with Design (Electronic version); Madeleine E. Pullman and Stephani K.A. Robson, 2007; Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 48 (2), pp. 121-144, retrieved July 2020, from Cornell University, School of Hospitality Administration (scholarship.sha.cornell.edu)

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