HB ON THE SCENE: Shift in Search, Artificial Intelligence Drive Change for La Quinta

DALLAS—Emerging and evolving technologies drive change at all hotel brands. At the 2017 La Quinta Conference here, the company made clear that a shift in search behavior as well as technology trends like artificial intelligence are among its key areas of focus.

“It’s an understatement to say that technology is impacting our brand,” said Julie Cary, EVP and chief marketing officer, La Quinta Holdings Inc., to attendees in a general session on marketing. “Recent trends and emerging technology have a direct impact on our brand, our guest experience, our hotels and you.”

The most dramatic changes, she said, are happening with hotel shopping behaviors. “Transparency in the researching and shopping process is changing everything from content to pricing to marketing to cost. Latest estimates show that travelers experience over 400 digital touchpoints before booking,” she reported, noting that La Quinta is the eighth most searched hotel brand, yet it’s not the eighth largest in terms of room count. “We’re punching above our weight in search. However, getting into that mix of over 400 digital touchpoints and making the right impression to drive booking is becoming more challenging and, frankly, costly.

“When we look deeper at industry-wide behaviors, we see some significant shifts in hotel search behaviors that started last summer. Enabled by voice search, generic hotel searches are growing significantly,” Cary said. For instance, instead of a search query that asks for “La Quinta hotels in Dallas,” customer queries are “hotels near me” or “hotels in Dallas.”

Cary added, “This is a game changer for all hotel brands, as generic searches have lower returns and the OTAs continue to bid aggressively for these types of searches, pulling more and more bookings into the OTAs, which is a higher cost channel.”

Driving home the importance of search, Cary told attendees, “Revenue that comes from search is 5x greater than the brand’s number one corporate account. Further, when looking at hotel segment level in Google Hotel Ads, the greatest number of searches is for select-service. So we have to compete here. This is where the fish are swimming.

“This rise of generic searches shows that consumers are incredibly focused on the moment. Whatever brand can best meet the needs at the moment wins,” she continued. “Being there at the right moment in the right way captures bookings.”

In order to capture more of these customer searches, the company is engaging in beta tests with Google. “In this world of immediacy and increasing number of mobile moments, search continues to be very important for La Quinta,” Cary said.

Artificial intelligence, or machine learning, is another area of focus for La Quinta. “AI will revolutionize hospitality, from acquiring a guest to the experience at the hotel and the call center,” Cary said, noting that search is also driving more customers to the call center. While La Quinta hotels are already using personalization tools, such as prompts that enable front desk agents to engage in conversation with guests based off of their personal data, Cary noted that “tomorrow, machine learning will revolutionize the way we engage by harnessing data to help La Quinta personalize every step of the customer journey.”

To drive this point home, Cary told a story about a conversation she had with her daughter via a Google app. Her daughter asked where they were staying when they went on a trip to Austin, TX, and Cary responded, “La Quinta.” The app detected that she was looking for a hotel and captured the brand mentioned in the conversation, serving up clickable results of La Quinta properties in Austin.

“As machine learning takes hold, expectations will rise. They’ll expect us to anticipate their needs. It will help us build that emotional connection to our brand,” said Cary, noting that the company is testing AI technology in the call center to best connect guests with agents who will meet their needs. “We are investing significantly here.”