"Are you human?" – this was not the first question Four Seasons expected via its app chat tool when it piloted two years ago.
It took the digital team by surprise, but in its successful roll-out across various properties it wasn’t the only surprise. Sitting in the Heritage Suite at the Four Seasons Ten Trinity Square, the enthusiasm from Andrew Pirret, director operations mobile services, and Chris Cocca, global senior director, digital, who both helped to launch the chat tool, is clear.
But this is not a bot. The pair stress that at this point, automation or artificial intelligence does not play a part – rather, the technology is enhancing personal customer service. The digital concierge service is part of the Four Seasons app and enables guests to send and receive instant messages with property teams before, throughout and after their visit. This can cover restaurant recommendations, room service or any other services.
It seems our obsession with communication shows no signs of slowing – 6 of the top 10 apps in Apple’s app store are chat apps. There are different apps for different global regions – and as a global player Four Seasons had to accommodate this, so its system can receive messages via Facebook Messenger, WeChat, KakaoTalk or SMS.
Cocca says: “Everything comes into our central hub. There’s a piece of technology in the middle that does the heavy lifting, so we can add a new channel in days and weeks, not months.” It is now live in 84 hotels and resorts, 21 residences and the Four Seasons Private Jet, with the remaining 15 or so properties coming onboard by the end of March. Essential groundwork So how did they do it? “We took a lot of time choosing our pilots,” says Cocca.
In France, Four Seasons discovered that network operators do not permit “corporate SMS messages” between 10pm and 8am as it is seen as marketing
“We selected 20 hotels – the average is 6 to 10. We wanted low and high usage. For example, at Bora Bora there are 1,000 conversations a week with guests. We talked to general managers, surveyed employees – that’s why it took eight months, not four months.”
So setting up the functionality went well: “The beauty of that is from our staff’s point of view, they don’t see any difference,” Pirret adds. Most of the training involves language and tone of voice, too, as opposed to technology. “When a guest messages, it’s a single line, about 80 characters – so we need to train staff at messaging,” he adds.
As well as chat, the technology also translates messages to more than 100 languages instantaneously – and you can even leave recorded messages for staff, although automatic translation of these is way off.
With an experimental approach, Cocca says unexpected uses were common. “You have to iterate it. We’re doing it slowly, and we’ve built things that we didn’t think we’d build. There’s been traction with groups and meetings, for example: ‘Can you grab us a few more chairs?’ or ‘can you turn the heating up?’. As a meeting planner, you want to be subtle.”
"In the long term, I hope it will become a booking channel. It’s a secondary goal. Then there will be more automation, transactional, quick responses."
Also, in times of crisis, they could support other properties’ guests – such as during the recent shooting in Las Vegas and in last year’s hurricanes.
Meanwhile, in France, Four Seasons discovered that network operators do not permit “corporate SMS messages” between 10pm and 8am as it is seen as marketing. “It’s a problem for guests wanting to communicate,” he notes.
So will the tool help drive revenue? “That was one of our hypotheses,” Cocca says, citing one Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora guest who, while in the spa, bought four rounds of drinks. “But the hardest problem is working out what’s channel shift,” he adds. “In the long term, I hope it will become a booking channel. It’s a secondary goal. Then there will be more automation, transactional, quick responses.”
Despite the hype around artificial intelligence and automation, Four Seasons is playing the long game, standing by its customer service ethos. It seems the answer to that first question about being human will remain an emphatic “yes”.