Digital lessons from a recent hotel experience.

I’m sitting here in my hotel room writing this and watching the in-room dining web page on my phone fail. It’s apparently given up the ghost and is caught in a perpetual loop. It’s the first time I tried using this particular hotel chain’s mobile website. The “Room Service Order Online” features prominently on the first page of the in-room guide. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to test a digital experience I figured I’d give it a go.

First, the photo in the room guide shows what looks to be a native app. So naturally, the first thing I did was go to the App store and search for the app using the hotel name. Nothing. HMMM … time to take a closer look at the page in the in-room guide.

Aha … I now see I need to browse to the hotel’s web domain and append /atyourservice. Of course they could have offered a QR code to make it easy but they don’t so I type it all in on the tiny keys on my phone. And then I’m brought to a page that looks remarkably like the hotel chain’s main landing page. Bear in mind I’m browsing while I’m in my room on the hotel’s wifi network. They ought to know where I am.

Nothing on this page says anything about ordering food. But I can browse to reserve a hotel room at one of a number of hotels! I can even checkin! Oh wait – I did that already.

I‘m thinking there must be a link to room-service somewhere …. Wait … there’s a pull down menu at the top … let’s see what this has – surely there’s a room service menu in here?

Oh! this is what I find (see figure).

Not good. Let’s try entering room service in the search bar.

Well at least now I’m shown a list of search results that look promising – individual links to each hotel that offers online room service plus some other links that aren’t particularly useful for me in my current hotel. Scrolling down I find the link for my hotel. This opens a page extolling the virtues of my digital concierge! Woohoo! But I’m hungry.  As I scroll down I discover “ordering room service has never been easier” emblazoned across the screen (below the fold mind you). “Never been harder is more like it”.

I’m on a mission now. Having taken the trouble to find the secret web page for ordering online, I’m going to give it a go come hell or high water. With a sense of heightened anticipation I click the “Order Online” link (“really … you need me to click another link to tell you again I want to order online after the lengths I had to go to just to find this page?“).

Clicking the link opens a new browser window hosted by another company domain (not the hotel chain). I now have the choice of:

  • “order online room service” (the thing I’ve now expressed a specific desire to do serval times)
  • “service requests” and
  • “healthy travel tips”

Let’s face it, most guests would have given up long ago … but this is research! I press forward.

Perhaps unsurprisingly to you, I select “Order Online Room Service” … starting to feel hungry now … clearly that’s the Hotel’s intent here right?

Awesome – I now have the choice of

  • Breakfast
  • All day dining
  • Dinner
  • Kids
  • Overnight dining
  • Wine by the glass
  • Wine by the bottle
  • Beer/cocktails

I know at least a few of you are thinking that it’s odd to see “Kids” on the menu – I think we can safely assume they are offering Children’s meals vs. serving baby goats as a menu option!

I’m opting for “Dinner” as that seems to fit the bill.

Eureka – I now get a scrolling menu of food choices!

I scroll through the list and select my Entree. I add my special requirements – we need to test these things – to the meal and click “order”. I’m now asked for my name, room number and delivery location (leave blank for room). I enter these details and click the place order button (meanwhile I’m wondering how I add my drink and sides and even schedule delivery since that’s supposed to be an option).

After entering this info I’m given a total price including all the surcharges. Beneath this are some pictures under the heading “May we also suggest” but aside from the dessert picture I can’t really make out what the photos represent. So feeling click happy I try the first one … that turns out to be soda. I don’t want any but now I’m not sure how I get out of this screen! I click my shopping cart icon. That works but now it appears to have lost my name and room number. Oh bother! (These are not the precise words that actually come out of my mouth, but you get the idea).

To make a very long story a little shorter … I played around trying to build an order for several more minutes before the web page got stuck into a loop and I picked up the phone to order my dinner the analog way; after all, I do actually want to eat sometime tonight!

While there’s a lot to be learned from this experience, there is one lesson which ought to stand above all others: The most important rule of creating any digital experience is to save your customer’s time. I spent at least 20 minutes trying to place a digital room service order and failed. When I eventually resorted to the traditional method of picking up the phone and dialing room-service, my order was placed in under 30 seconds.

What It Means

Don’t create digital capabilities to help customers simply because they look good or sound cool. You must be able to execute the experience in a way that’s actually measurably easier for the customer.

In this case, a native app may give the hotel group the shortcuts it needs, knowing the customer is currently in a room in a specific hotel and allowing them to drop straight to the in-room options for this hotel.

But even with an HTML approach there are shortcuts. A simple URL shortener would provide the hotel the ability to give the guest a unique URL for in-room dining in this hotel, not to mention fewer keys to type (did I mention QR codes?). The navigation within the site must be seamless and easy. Very few customers have the patience to wade through an experience like this.

Unfortunately when the data are analyzed, the conclusion that’s too often arrived at from this kind of digital experience is that customers don’t want it. That’s perhaps true … but it cannot be determined by looking at usage data without also looking at page abandonment along the digital journey. What customers are really saying is they don’t want THIS digital experience.

And having tried and failed, it’s harder to persuade your customers to return for a second bite of the apple.

I have no doubt that digital ordering for room service and other services will soon come to be standard in hotel rooms. But it’s perhaps most likely through an in-room iPad provided by the hotel like the one I experienced I at the Westin in Berlin last year, or a well-designed native mobile phone app. But only if it saves customers time and makes the experience more engaging.