Tag Archives: hospitality industry

What You Need To Know About Virtual Concierge

Virtual Concierge Service logo and founder Dana Young

 

 

I interviewed Dana Young, Founder of Virtual Concierge Services, to learn more about how the technology works and how it benefits bed and breakfast owners and innkeepers.

 

  • How about you share with us a little about your background and how you entered the hospitality industry?

I’m an engineer by training and over the course of my career I’ve focused on technology and software. About 12 years ago we bought an old lodge on the shores of a lake in north central Washington. Built in 1933 as a summer getaway for a local lumber baron, it had never been updated other than some Linoleum and Formica put down in the 60s. To fund renovations, we began renting the place out to families for summer vacations at the lake. I knew nothing about hospitality at the time, but dove into the community to learn best practices, like those you share in your blog.

With my background in technology, I constantly look for ways to differentiate our property with new tech. That’s what led me to the application of voice assistants to hospitality. Since then we’ve added talent in both software development and business operations, built a strong relationship with Amazon and continued to enhance the Virtual Concierge platform.

 

  • Will you tell us about the growth of smart speakers with voice assistants?

In 2016, only 1% of US adults had access to a smart speaker. In 2 years, that number went up by 20x. By next year, 75% of households will have one. A study by Edison Research revealed that 42% of smart speaker owners now say these devices are “essential” to their daily lives.

 

  • Will you elaborate on the benefits of interactive Virtual Concierge for hospitality providers (including guest communication)?

The benefits are largely around the guest experience. The Virtual Concierge platform provides hosts the ability to define a custom virtual concierge on Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Content can be individually tailored to each property.  This platform is built on a flexible natural language understanding model, allowing guests to ask questions in many ways. Guests can say things like, “We’d like some restaurant recommendations”, or “What’s the wifi password?”, and get immediate answers. But these aren’t answers like you get from Google. They are personal recommendations from the innkeeper, and specific details about the property. In addition to providing quick answers in a way that guests enjoy, it also helps offload the burden of fielding these questions by the host’s staff.

 

  • What instructions and recommendations can innkeepers provide ahead of check in through this technology?

The principle way of engaging with the Virtual Concierge during a guest’s stay will be through a smart speaker device like an Amazon Echo or Google Home. In addition though, guests can get access to the Virtual Concierge as they prepare for their trip. The host provides them with a passcode, and the guest can then use Google Assistant on their phone to access all the property’s custom content.

 

  • How can it help with lights, temperature, security, entertainment system, and other smart home features?

Voice technology is a way to simplify interactions with smart homes. Sometimes this tech can be daunting. It is wonderful to be able to simply say, “Hey Google, turn the heat up”.

 

  • Will you let us know some of the features having to do with music, ambient sleep sounds, and group games?

These are all great examples of use cases for a smart speaker in a hospitality setting. Music is a feature used by almost everyone. Ambient sleep sounds are a wonderful way to help guests sleep in unfamiliar surroundings. There are dozens of options available, from the sound of a thunderstorm, to crickets chirping or just pure white noise. Many group games are available on these voice assistant devices as well. For example, Name That Tune, or a variety of trivia games are very popular. Some of the best times I’ve had on vacation were playing games with the family, and voice games are a new way to spend time together. The hidden value for innkeepers is that there are no small pieces to get lost or stuck in the vacuum cleaner!

 

  • What can it do with regards to “routines” that can be set up?

A great example of Routines that you can set up is a ‘good night’ routine. If guests say the phrase, “Alexa, good night,” the virtual assistant will proceed to turn off all the lights, lock the doors, and shut off the downstairs heating system.

Routines can be initiated with either a trigger phrase, or you can assign a specific time for the routine to run. Routines can control smart home devices, as well as including elements like news, traffic and weather. You can also make it so that music begins to play as part of a Routine, or play a podcast.

Another interesting capability as it applies to hospitality is that a routine can also including having Alexa speak something of your choosing. An example that ties together a full guest experience is a morning Routine for guests. Alexa could start the coffee maker, turn on the lights, read the day’s weather forecast for your area, and then offer concierge services to help plan activities for the day. For example, “If you would like to hear the owner’s recommendations for places in the area and things to do, just say Alexa, use the concierge service. Have a great day!”

 

  • I know this is becoming more popular for rental properties to have, but why is this something bed and breakfast innkeepers should consider for their own properties (when many innkeepers are available to answer questions from their guests)?

There are times when an innkeeper may not be available, but probably a bigger reason is that some people actually prefer not having to trouble their host with questions. As people begin to get accustomed to Googling information, they expect technology to be able to help them. With the Virtual Concierge, innkeepers can have it both ways – engage with guests that seek them out for answers, and enable others to get the same answers using technology.

 

  • Is there any research that shows a greater increase in guest return rates (and guest referrals) when you compare lodging that does and does not have this technology?

Probably the best examples we’ve seen are where guests leave glowing reviews, and specifically mention their delight in having the Virtual Concierge available to them, together with other features from the voice assistant. As we know, positive reviews are critical to the success of independent hospitality providers.

 

  • What do you say to innkeepers who do not consider themselves to be “tech savvy” and are hesitant about using this?

This kind of tech used to be too complex and costly for the average user.  But Amazon and Google have done a fantastic job of making voice technology easy to use and accessible to everyone. I’ve heard from self-proclaimed “technology dinosaurs” that they have successfully set up the Virtual Concierge, and I’ve received a lot of happy emails about the way it functions. This space is evolving very quickly. Both smart home and digital assistant technology has hit the mass market, and while it is good today, we will see even better reliability and functionality over time. The important thing is to get started, and not be left behind.

 

  • What are the options available, and costs involved, for innkeepers?

From a hardware perspective, devices like the Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini are available at less than $50. On the software side, the Virtual Concierge is available in 2 options: VCS Standard and VCS Pro (Pro is only available with Amazon Alexa). VCS Standard is $5/month, and VCS Pro is $10/month with discounts for larger deployments.

The Pro version has everything that Standard has, but it also includes centralized management and monitoring of all Amazon Echo devices. It also includes calendar integration, so that when a guest checks out, the device will be reset, clearing any alarms, timers or notifications that may have been enabled. With the Pro version, guests will soon be able to say “Alexa, add my account” which will then enable them to play their own music, audio books, and so on.

 

  • How can innkeepers contact you?

More information about Virtual Concierge is available at their website

Innkeepers can email Dana directly at (dana@virtualconciergeservice.com) and they can

Connect with Dana Young on LinkedIn

 

Thank you, Dana, for sharing this valuable information with us. 

 

 

The Many Benefits of B&B Association Membership

log cabin deck with table and chairs overlooking trees surrounding a lake

 

There are many benefits of B&B Association Membership.  While each bed and breakfast association has their own unique benefits, the following lists commonly offered benefits from such groups.  Innkeepers not belonging to any professional associations will learn why membership is valuable.

  • Advocacy: promoting B&B industry and traveler interests, raising the stature of the state’s hospitality industry, growing the state’s travel economy
  • Affiliations: state tourism department, state travel council, Professional Association of Innkeepers International, etc.
  • Brochures/rack cards/travel guides: distributed at member inns, welcome centers, tourist attractions, visitor bureaus, chambers of commerce, and in response to visitor requests
  • Collaboration: socialize, peer support, share, network, learn, encourage, exchange lessons learned as well as recipes, and enhance the lodging experience of guests
  • Cookbooks: member inns can buy association cookbooks at wholesale and sell at retail for a profit (see some B&B association cookbooks below)
  • Credibility: association membership provides bed and breakfasts with added credibility; licensed, inspected, and approved distinction; passed high standards bed and breakfast checklists
  • Directory: profile information and pictures in online and print directories
  • Discounts: lower cost to related products and services (such as credit card processing, conferences and trade shows, floral arrangements, insurance coverage, membership to other hospitality associations, reciprocal or discount lodging with other member inns, travel deals, and web reservations)
  • Education: foster professional development of members and improve service and professionalism of their staff through annual meetings, experts, featured speakers, round tables, seminars, vendors, webinars, workshops
  • Legal representation: expert support, legal hotline, industry updates, and a better understanding of applicable laws and regulations
  • Lobbying: have a voice in legislative issues, support state’s lodging sector, work proactively with governmental agencies that regulate the B&B industry, produce favorable industry public policy, and champion for safety and security in the hospitality industry
  • Logo: members can use their association logo on their website and marketing materials
  • Marketing: collective advertising, email marketing, e-newsletter, public relations, social media
  • Gift certificate program: reimbursement for association gift certificates redeemed
  • Inspections:  regularly conducted property inspections; evaluated with high standards on specific criteria having to do with safety, comfort, and hospitality
  • Mentorship: seasoned innkeepers can mentor less experienced innkeepers, foster profitability and sustainability
  • Networking: learn from fellow innkeepers and receive their business referrals
  • Partnerships: restaurant and lodging expos; engage in charitable and community endeavors
  • Real estate listings: list of bed and breakfast member inns for sales
  • Reservations: availability calendar, reservations scheduler
  • Travel planner: list of area events, specials, and attractions near each member B&B
  • Website: many offer their members an exclusive web page with photos, contact information, inn names and descriptions, locations, amenities, and specials; links to member website, Trip Advisor and other review sites, social media, and member inn’s blog.

chairs on deck of log cabin overlooking lake with trees

 

There are many advantages to belonging to a bed and breakfast association.  Perhaps the most motivating is making connections with fellow innkeepers and having the accountability and support from your innkeeping peers as well as more marketing opportunities.

Images by Marcus Berg of Unique Angles Photography

How One Man Immediately Improved His Company

Author Marcus Sheridan next to his book cover: They Ask You Answer

They Ask You Answer: A Revolutionary Approach to Inbound Sales, Content Marketing, and Today’s Digital Consumer by Marcus Sheridan is a must read for business owners, including those in the hospitality industry.  Mashable rated this the #1 marketing book to read in 2017.  It is the true story of how one man immediately improved his company.

 

Mr. Sheridan, a co-owner of River Pools and Spas, in the wake of the 2008 economy struggles, witnessed his business rapidly declining.  Rather than see his company go bankrupt, he decided if he simply answered the questions that people were asking about pools on his website (writing articles and making videos), he could become an authority and go-to resource that people could trust.  According to Marcus, the business we are all in is trust.

We must understand what our customer is searching for, asking, feeling, and fearing. We must not be afraid any and all questions.  First, he brainstormed all of the questions he received about fiberglass swimming pools. Then he spent all his spare time answering these questions.

He emphasizes that business owners should take on more of the “teacher” mentality than the sales role.  Sheridan advocates against sticking your head in the sand (like the myth that ostriches do) and hoping your problems go away.  Rather, he argues that we should do everything we can to earn our customer’s trust.

He uses CarMax as an example of a company that admitted their industry (selling used cars) had no consumer trust, and gave examples of what they did to earn back people’s trust:

  • One price is listed for vehicles (nothing more and nothing less)
  • Sales team is given the same commission regardless of what vehicle is sold
  • A five-day money back guarantee to those who purchase their used cars
  • An intensive inspection process that all their cars go through
  • A CarFax vehicle history report that details its history of repairs
  • Listing the Kelley Blue Book Value with all their vehicles

This eliminated the four major fears that used car buyers have:

  • Dealing with the salesperson
  • Buyer’s remorse
  • Buying a lemon
  • Not getting ripped off

Brainstorm every single reason why someone would not buy from your company (or for the case of innkeepers, stay at their B&B).  How many of these reasons have been addressed by your website?  Sheridan said that most companies never take the time to properly address the biggest fears of their consumers.  For example, bed and breakfast inns should educate their potential guests on how they are different from hotels.

Marcus advises that it does not matter what you or I think, but what the consumers think, how they behave, and what they expect.  Are we willing to meet their expectations? Write out the specific messages you want to get across to your most ideal guests.  Figure out what your guests are thinking, feeling, asking, and going through. Assume your potential guests already know about all of the alternative places to stay in your local area.

Sheridan very boldly made a list of the pluses and minuses of his competitors’ pools.  Because he stayed objective, and based his information on facts, he was able to gain a lot of trust from others.  Some of his competitors were surprised (and even thankful) that their brands were mentioned in his blog post.  Of course, others were disappointed at his reviews, and a few even threatened to sue him, but because it was based on fact there was nothing they could do. By explaining the pros and cons of each type of swimming pool, he let the consumer decide what was best for their needs.  The key is the willingness to objectively address his competition and become a trusted source in his industry.

Marcus urges business owners to have a steadfast commitment to helping consumers make the most well-informed purchasing decisions as possible.  Sheridan asserts that the most successful companies have a very clear understanding of the fact that they are not a good fit for everyone.  Focus only on the group that matters–the customers–and not the competition or guests that are not a good fit for what your inn offers.  Be a resource to help them make the best decision for themselves.  Distill the facts into simple-to-understand words that travelers find helpful.

Every time someone consumes a piece of your content (video, article, etc.), the trust factor continues to rise.  In fact, with River Pools and Spas, they discovered that if someone read thirty or more of their website pages before their initial sales appointment, they would buy from them 80% of the time whereas if they didn’t read thirty or more pages, the average closing rate in terms of appointment-to-sale was only 20%.

The moment your prospect sees you as more of a teacher than versus a salesperson, the amount of respect dramatically increases.  The goal of Google (and other search engines) is to give its customer (the searcher) the best, most specific answer to their question (or need, problem, query, etc.) in that very moment.  Places of hospitality that regularly offer fresh content that answers questions, will get more visitors to their website which can lead to more visitors to their inn.

Did you know that one-third of all time spent online is watching video?  Thus, videos and video blogs (vlogs) can be extremely beneficial.  People care about having their questions and concerns answered.  Sheridan recommends that for those just getting started on adding more content to their website, that they begin with the big five subjects:

  • Cost (focus on showing your value with customized packages)
  • Problems (address problems such as food allergies and handicap accessibility)
  • Comparisons (don’t be afraid to make a list of the pros and cons of your local competitors if they are based on fact)
  • Reviews (feature five-star guest reviews on your website and in social media)
  • Best of (feature the best of your local community: restaurants, attractions, etc.)

I really enjoyed reading this book and I know it will inspire other business owners, especially owners of places of hospitality such as bed and breakfast inns and restaurants.  If you would like a free phone consultation with Kristi Dement of Bed and Breakfast Blogging, I would be happy to speak with you about generating more traffic to your website with a focus on increasing the bottom line of your business.

7 LinkedIn Groups for Innkeepers

linkedin groups for innkeepers

LinkedIn Groups for Innkeepers can be a helpful way to get support and advice from other bed and breakfasts and others in the hospitality industry.  LinkedIn operates the world’s largest professional network on the Internet with more than 400 million members in over 200 countries and territories.  All LinkedIn groups are private and those open to membership must request to join the group.

 

Upon acceptance, each group has their own rules for what its members are allowed to post.  If the group’s profile and rules state that no links whatsoever should be posted, its members must abide by that. If you would rather find and join a group with a less stringent view of links, then simply look for a different group.

Group members are not obligated to post anything.  They can just read what other members have posted.  However, many social media experts advise that newcomers introduce themselves to their group. Not only does this let the group know about their new members, but the group will likely reach out to welcome its new members.

Things inn-keeping groups share with each other include hospitality-related articles, online marketing tips, questions for inn-keeping best practices, and much more! A great way to learn information is to ask questions from your group.

The following is a list of just some of the LinkedIn groups innkeepers may want to join:

Bed and Breakfast Business has over 900 members. “Bed and Breakfast group is a group for BnB owners who want to collaborate and communicate with other BnB owners about their business, best practices, tips, etc…”

Bed and Breakfast and Guest House Owners has over 2,000 members.  “Have you ever wondered how you can make 6 figures…from just 4 rooms? Want to know how to get raving fans coming back again and again?…If you’re a bed and breakfast owner, small hotel owner, guest house owner, then join our group and let’s share and help each other.”

Bed and Breakfast Inns has over 400 members.  “BedBreakfastTraveler.com’s goal with the Bed and Breakfast Inns group is to foster partnership, networking, and collaboration among the innkeeping industry. Through sharing of information, resources, and advice, the collective standards and profitability of the group shall increase.”

Bed and Breakfast Innkeepers has over 3,700 members.  “This group page is for Bed&Breakfast Owners across the Globe. Finding your niche as a B&B Owner and making it a success. Sharing what is your unique about your B&B, it’s amenities in what you offer and why you know that an experience at your B&B will be well remembered, and one that ensures your guest will return time and time again.”

B&B Owners Association has over 950 members.  “The B&B Owners Association has 3 main purposes:  1) To provide an independent, stable and well funded Internet marketing organization for the accommodation & hospitality sectors.  2) To ensure cost effective & comprehensive Internet marketing for its members and a effective global promotional vehicle on which to promote their businesses.  3) To ensure the public and Internet user have an easy to use and easy to find accommodation resource.”

Innkeepers has around 2,500 members.  “Bed and Breakfast Business Owners worldwide are welcome to network and share on this Group, whether you are an established Bed and Breakfast business or you want to own and run a bed and breakfast business.”

Just Bed and Breakfast Network has around 250 members.  “Justbedandbreakfast.net is the fastest growing worldwide bed and breakfasts directory offering the most complete list of unique properties from historic inns and guest houses to cabins and farm stays. View bed and breakfast descriptions, photos, reviews, and more.”

At the top of the LinkedIn page under “Interests” click “Groups” and this allows searching for these group titles or using other keywords.  Underneath the search box it will list any groups of which you are currently a member.  Underneath that, users can even create their own LinkedIn group should they desire to do so.  They can focus their membership on a specific geographical area or direct the discussion to a specific topic of interest.

Kristi Dement of Bed and Breakfast Blogging may start her own LinkedIn group.  If I did, what kind of topics would you like to see covered?  Please feel free to share a comment below or use my contact form to notify me directly.

Also, if you are a member of one of these LinkedIn groups (or a different LinkedIn group related to hospitality) and think it beneficial for other innkeepers to join, please tell us the name of your group and what you like about it.  I read all my comments and respond when appropriate.  Thank you!

Image by Marcus Berg of Unique Angles Photography

Professional Hospitality Photographer Marcus Berg of Unique Angles Photography

hospitality photographer

 

Professional Hospitality Photographer Marcus Berg, from Unique Angles Photography, develops beautiful pictures for his hospitality clients.  When asked how he first got interested in photography, he said he received a phone call from a friend who asked him to take photos at her wedding reception.

 

This was back in the late 1980s when he did not even own a camera.  Borrowing a camera from his brother-in-law, Marcus later was told that his images of the wedding reception came out the best.  It was then that he decided to take a class at a community college.  Marcus Berg started his Unique Angles Photography business in January of 1994.  From his website, his bio reads:

Bio - Unique Angles Photography 2015-10-23 19-17-04

Marcus takes his wife to a bed and breakfast on every wedding anniversary.  In 2007, he was asked to attend a bed and breakfast conference.  This was his introduction to the world of hospitality.  After a few years, he devoted all of his interest in the hospitality industry.

His clientele is mainly in the B&B industry, but he has grown into serving boutique hotels as well.  He has done work from hotels, wineries, architects, and restaurants. He has kept the mindset for the hospitality image.

hospitality photographer

 

What he likes most about being a professional photographer is being able to be creative and unique.  He is happy when he can make an image that attracts viewers to his client’s particular location.  Marcus also enjoys making so many new friends while doing his expert photography work.

 

When I asked him how he was able to masterfully capture the beauty of what is outside from inside a room, he explained that he captures the same lighting with an interior image, matching the exterior light because of his photography experience using lights and angles while keeping an interest in details.

Before Picture                                                         After Picture

Unique-Angles-PhotographyUnique-Angles-Photography

 

Marcus said that it is crucial for a hospitality business to have excellent photography because of how fast technology is moving these days.  Guests looking for places to stay make decisions based on the images they see.  First impressions stick in one’s memory.

Hospitality owners not only should have images with warm colors, but also an invitational feeling.  Images that enable potential guests to picture themselves right there.  According to Marcus, people do not read about a location before they see images of it.  They read to confirm the images.

hospitality photographer

 

It is important for innkeepers to hire a good professional photographer who specializes in hospitality.  Updated images help hospitality businesses with reservations and they will see an increase in their bookings.  This increase in occupancy rates improves their bottom line.  Thus, good images make a profitable difference on a website.

 

Bed and breakfast innkeepers more than make back what they spend on professional photography and the images last.  Innkeepers can use last years’ photos to continue to build reservations, even though the photographer was only there a short period of time.

hospitality photographer

 

Since Marcus is based in Oregon, his ventures started taking him around the state.  Then after he started attending more conferences, he made more contacts and soon was traveling the whole west coast.  Then he decided to branch out and made a contact in Texas and got the job.

 

Since then, he has made contacts all over the nation.  He has traveled to all four corners of the United States and many states in between.  Taking photos at conferences supports the association putting on the conference and helps increase his exposure to potential hospitality clients.

hospitality photographer

 

Marcus said that the greatest part of the type of work he does is being able to meet so many wonderful people across the nation.  The hospitality industry has become a family set for him and every time he attends a conference or returns to a familiar inn, he said it is like being home.

 

You can see more of Marcus Berg’s Unique Angles Photography work on his website that lists some of his previous hospitality clients and their testimonials.  You can also follow Marcus on social media: Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter.  Thank you, hospitality photographer, Marcus Berg, for letting me display some of your gorgeous photography on the Bed and Breakfast Blogging website as well!