Long after 2020 ends, it will be remembered as a time of transformative change in hospitality. Hotel owners and operators faced many business challenges, including dire economic conditions, changing traveler preferences, and a rapidly evolving guest experience.

But as the industry looks ahead to what comes next, there are plenty of questions to consider. Which recent changes in guest experience have staying power? What role will contactless technology play in addressing new guest expectations? And how can hotel executives best support their staff during this challenging moment?

In order to explore these themes further, Skift recently spoke with Geoff Ryskamp, global head of hospitality at Medallia, to get his predictions for how the hospitality customer experience might evolve in the near future.

SkiftX: What do you think is the biggest impact Covid-19 has had on the hospitality guest experience in 2020?

Geoff Ryskamp: The hospitality and travel industry had to completely reinvent how to to create an exceptional guest experience, all while customers were relearning how to travel. This has forced the acceleration and scale of transformation across customer touch points – whether companies were ready or not.

For a time you had little to no travel. Instead, customer interactions were directed to digital channels or call centers. Leading companies quickly adjusted their customer experience strategy to account for this. They used digital signal capture to understand customers’ rapidly changing needs and quickly updated processes and messaging to resonate. Call centers we work with across the sector experienced a surge in volume while transforming operations to accommodate the new environment.

All the while, guests continued to expect real-time responses and a more human experience. It turns out there was no playbook for customer experience in a pandemic. But companies we work with such as Four Seasons, Delta Air Lines, and Airbnb, all of whom maintained a broad listening strategy, were able to influence experiences as they happened and better understand customer behavior amidst this unchartered territory.

SkiftX: Have you noticed any significant changes in guest habits during 2020? How might that impact the business environment next year?

Ryskamp: Whether it’s a coffee shop down the block from your office, or the airline for your next five business trips, nearly every routine went off the rails in 2020. In our customer signal data we observed this dramatic shift in behavior. While brand relationships remain, we see customers making decisions based on a different set of criteria and even the most loyal customers trying new brands for the first time.

What we see unfolding is the biggest opportunity, or risk, in market share shift ever in the hospitality and travel industry. Where travel has returned, brands that have maintained a strategy of listening to direct feedback and other signals are starting to see some separation. The more sophisticated groups are making sense of experience data with tailor-made machine learning models to prioritize the biggest opportunities and understand preferences and intent. Ultimately making inroads to retain customers in the future.

The key has been finding a way to strike the balance of being empathetic to changing needs and responding in real-time at scale.

SkiftX: We’ve heard a lot about the importance of contactless technology in hospitality in 2020. What are your predictions how the technology will evolve in 2021?

Ryskamp: For years hospitality companies have been trying to provide the convenience of interacting through mobile channels with varied success. This had become relevant in some areas, such as with an airline boarding pass, but had limited success in others, like mobile hotel check-in.

In the last year, we finally observed a real shift in customer behavior across the entire travel journey favoring mobile channels of interaction. It became abundantly clear which companies were prepared for this, and which were quickly playing catch up to develop a unified strategy. Some organizations had patchwork solutions, or rushed to put something in place such as one-way communications, but later found guests needed two-way communication. Instead of a one-off, messaging needed to be integrated with a broader strategy of signals across the web, social, and call centers.

Where made, these investments unlocked some interesting outcomes. In the case of our client MGM Resorts, we helped set up a mobile check-in process to reduce wait times and in person contact. When Las Vegas reopened, MGM saw a dramatic increase in mobile check-in. Interestingly, guest scores for front desk service, check in, and net promoter score (NPS) all started to increase. Imagine that: higher guest satisfaction, by rethinking a process that’s existed for over a century to give guests the choice to use the convenience of their own phones.

SkiftX: 2020 was a tough year for many hospitality workers, mentally, physically, and financially. How can hospitality brands give their staff more of a sense of ownership over the decisions that affect their companies?

Ryskamp: If there was ever a time to rethink the routine annual engagement survey, this year was it. Now we see leading companies using new ways to engage with their employees, making it easier for them to have a voice. Whether it’s digital or other measurement, this kind of approach has helped companies shorten the distance from feedback to action, becoming more agile and empathetic in responding to employee needs.

We work with all of the companies outlined in a piece Skift recently ran about how this plays out across employees in an organization. Hyatt’s use of daily colleague pulse surveys has been a great example of keeping employee wellbeing in mind, and also leveraging the power of the broader organization to shine a light on opportunities to improve. Again, there was no pandemic playbook as this unfolded. Why rely solely on a small team at headquarters to write one, when you have the power of many?

SkiftX: Do you have any other predictions for the future of hospitality customer experience in 2021?

Ryskamp: I am very optimistic that the lessons we were forced to learn this past year will remain with the industry and make the experience even better.

This means more flexibility in communication with brands across whatever channel a customer prefers. This means leveraging a continuous stream of customer, employee, and franchisee feedback and behaviors to make smarter business decisions in real-time. This means using technology that replaces old redundant processes with a higher level of convenience and personalization.

Without a doubt, this has been the most challenging time our industry has ever faced. But knowing what I know about the individuals I am privileged to work with across leading brands, and the innovation I’ve seen along the way, there is absolutely no way we don’t come out of it stronger than we were going in.

This content was created collaboratively by Medallia and Skift’s branded content studio SkiftX.