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Hospitality, Millennial Style

Published: July 5, 2016

Hotels are stepping up their games to attract more Millennial consumers without alienating Generation X and Family and Consumer Sciences’ Yun Ying Zhong knows how.

“Today’s hospitality management industry has its corporate eye on the rise of Millennials,” said Zhong, an expert in hospitality management, who has done research on generational differences and customer loyalty. “Many recent hotel developments gear towards capturing the demands of the Millennials.”

“Today’s hospitality management industry has its corporate eye on rise of Millennials,” said Zhong. “Many recent hotel developments gear towards capturing the demands of the Millennials.”

For instance, in Marriott hotels, Millennials are offered the “Moxy” hotel brand (advertised as “just like home but with a bartender”). Labeled as “Affordable Chic” for more budget-conscious Millennials, the brand includes high-speed Wi-Fi, downsized closets in favor of 42-inch TVs and a bigger bed. Marriott Rewards members can use their smartphones to unlock their rooms.

Besides new brand development, today’s hotels are very involved with social media in order to build a strong relationship with their guests, explained Zhong, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the topic when she graduated from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. She received her B.A. in English and Business Administration from China’s Ji Nan University and her M.S. in Hospitality and Tourism Management from the University of Central Florida.

Using the “Parasocial Relationship” framework in mass communication literature, Zhong investigated the contributing factor for building a parasocial relationship between Facebook users and hotel brands and its consequences. Furthermore, she also looked into the generational differences in this relational development process.

“Much like my frantic love towards the fictional Dr. Derek Shepard in ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’” Zhong explained, “parasocial relationships are one-sided affairs, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time while the second party may be unaware of the other’s existence.

“It is definitely possible for hotel brands to develop a parasocial relationship with consumers on Facebook and possibly other social networking sites,” she added. “Across generations, content benefits and customer perceptions of the brand’s interactivity and openness online all help build a parasocial relationship between hotels and Facebook users. The users’ one-sided affair online then drives their brand loyalty offline. However, the interesting thing is that Facebook users’ online participation does not affect their offline brand loyalty. It doesn’t matter how often potential guests share or click that they like a hotel brand post. Facebook activity does NOT cultivate customer loyalty.”

What does matter to Millennials seem to be goodies—and lots of them.

“The difference between the Gen-Xer and the Millennial is the Millennial’s greater attraction toward tangible goods, perhaps due to their instant gratification tendency,” she said. “To take that initial step toward building a parasocial relationship, the Millennials look for promotions. On the other hand, the Gen-Xers are looking for interactive and experiential contents on Facebook. Does this brand of hotel want to know about the guest’s experience? Is the content entertaining and meaningful? Older generations seem to care more about such things.”

Besides the social media engagement, creating a memorable experience on-site is fundamental to building customer loyalty. “First of all, it is important to understand there is no absolute loyalty,” she said. “There are so many temptations from competitors. In terms of how a hotel can connect with their guests and create a memorable experience, there are several ways.”

First, a guest’s overall evaluation of his experience at a hotel tends to be determined by three key features of their hotel stay—the peak moment, the ending note and the overall emotional trajectory of the their stay.

“Research has showed that a guest who starts with a very bad beginning of the day and gradually has a better experience tends to rate his or her hotel stay more memorable than when he or she just has an average day. That is why service recovery is so important in the hospitality industry. When service employees try their best to solve guests’ problems, guests are happier and they can become more loyal,” she added. “In addition, hotels need to carefully orchestrate highlights of a stay and leave guests a positive impression when they are leaving, as the peak moment and the ending note of their stay also define their experience’s memorability.”

Context also matters in creating guests’ memorable experience. Usually the intensity of guest involvement and emotional experience is related to an experience’s memorability. “The experience in which guests participate intensely in water rafting in a very turbulent river is very different from a quiet walk on a beach,” she said. “These two experiences have very different degrees of involvement. Guests experience very different intensities of emotions. Water rafting, for better or worse, usually will be more memorable than a walk on a beach. ”

Immersion in the local culture is also vital to creating memorable experiences. “A trip that includes only sightseeing means much less than a trip in which guests can dine and interact with locals and get to know the local history, culture or arts. This is why bed and breakfast Inns thrive,” she said. “They offer visitors the chance to live like others in a particular area and closely interact with its host.”

Zhong has thoughts on how culture plays a role in the hospitality industry.

“Culture is the context where business is run and it shapes customers’ and employees’ acceptable behaviors,” she said. “For example, it is universally agreed that guests should be treated with respect. However, the definition of a respectful manner is really different from culture to culture. In Western societies, when you check in a hotel, the front desk agent might smile at you and greet you while looking directly into your eyes. But in Asian culture, it emphasizes power distance. If a front desk wants to demonstrate respect in Japan, he will look down a bit. His manner sends a message that you are my guest and I respect you.”

When asked how her research affected her personally, Zhong said, “Not only does my job serve my professional purpose of making a positive difference to the industry, but hospitality is truly my lifestyle. I love to travel and visit hotels and restaurants,” she said. “If anything, my research has made me more forgiving of service failures. I pay more attention to food, wine, interior décor even the music and scent in hospitality establishments. My palate becomes more sensitive and my eyes become keener in spotting service improvement areas.”