With the proliferation of brands and the drive towards mass customisation, it is perhaps time to consider a totally new approach to gauging customers’ needs and wants in the hospitality industry. When an ‘affective’ approach is taken, the question becomes how can a consumer-oriented business evaluate and tailor its products so as to elicit a positive emotional response from its clients? Success in pressing the right buttons in the customer’s psyche could be a sure way of fostering loyalty to a brand or hotel property. With this thought in mind, a panel of experts from diverse backgrounds explored the possibility of applying an ‘affective’ approach to hospitality last Tuesday (3 March) afternoon at the International Hotel Investment Forum (IHIF) in Berlin.

The panel’s moderator, Yateendra Sinh, CEO of Lausanne Hospitality Consulting, kicked off the discussion by noting that there are probably too many hotel brands in the market, which is creating confusion in the minds of guests. Meanwhile, according to panellist Dr Ray Iunius, Director of Business Development at the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, affective hospitality provides the tools to transform the client into a guest and the guest into a brand ambassador. In fact, it represents a complete reengineering of the classical hospitality relationship between host and guest and provides a way to analyse the company’s brand equity – which today represents the most important asset of a hotel chain. Finally, an affective approach can be used to design the hospitality of the future.

Emotions can be measured scientifically

The panel’s scientific expert, Marcello Mortillaro, Head of Applied Research, Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at the University of Geneva, who has carried out extensive research in the field, noted that emotions should not be considered as irrational objects. Indeed, the center has developed tools which can measure emotional response scientifically, according to him. For instance, the major flavour and fragrance companies in Geneva, Givaudan and Firminich, are already applying these methods to test emotional reactions to their products.

Disney’s ‘compass approach’

Panellist Michael Hartmann, former SVP Head of Market Development for Hospitality and Entertainment at Siemens, evoked another example of ‘affective’ service delivery – that of Disney’s ‘compass approach’ which identifies and analyses a series of consumer touch points. In a similar fashion to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the approach calls for identifying different levels of human needs and wants, as follows:

Needs: the basic needs of the guest, like food and water, as well as those that will change according to the guest’s situation. (eg restrooms are placed near the exits of theatres where extended-viewing shows are performed.);
Wants: wants should be used as an opportunity to exceed customer expectations, eg guests may need water, but they may really want a bottle of water;
Stereotypes: determine how to break down the stereotypical image of service employees. This was one of the reasons why Walt Disney created a new type of theme park employee, the Disney Cast Member, using costumes, name tags, appearanceStereotype guidelines, and service training; and
Emotions: monitoring emotional reactions, which are less tangible than the other points, can help a business to gauge whether or not a service experience is exceeding expectations, as the emotional state of the guest is tracked throughout the service experience.

Important for the leisure segment

When the question was posed as to which customer segment of the hospitality sector an ‘affective’ approach could best be applied, Gillian Saunders, Director, global Leader Hotels & Tourism at Grant Thornton and the author of “Hotels 2020: Welcoming tomorrow’s guest”, admitted that measuring emotional response in the hotel sector was probably more crucial for the leisure guests as opposed to business travellers, since the former normally would have a much wider choice as to which hotel they stay in. Nevertheless, Marcello Mortillaro countered that measuring the emotional reaction of business travellers would be no more difficult than for leisure guests.

Hurdles to be overcome

While designing a hospitality product based on the emotional reaction of guests is definitely an appealing possibility, practical implementation poses some major challenges. In order to be useful, the testing of emotional response would have to result in the establishment of some broader customer segments that could then be targeted with specific offerings, eg “Chinese Millennials” or “male American babyboomer business travellers”. When questioned, Marcello Mortillaro attested to the fact that in general age-segmented groups evidenced more homogeneity than groups based on ethnicity or nationality.

Track negative responses

Otherwise, an audience participant advanced the practical suggestion that negative emotional responses could be tracked so as to avoid errors in product design. This would seem to be an efficient way to get to a valid common denominator – ie a product that at least offends as few people as possible.