A Conversation with Rick Garlick, Global Travel Practice Lead, JD Power & Associates.

Rick Garlick

Conversations with key executives, such as this one with Rick Garlick, are some of my favorite features on Naked Hospitality. I started this site with the belief that truthful conversations about hospitality marketing would inspire new ideas. Ones that have real-world impact, encourage paradigm-shifting execution, and demonstrate that far-sighted risk taking can deliver meaningful return on investment. Hopefully, you will be inspired to join the conversation.

You have knowledge in industries outside of hospitality, such as the retail and financial sectors, what do you think we as hoteliers can learn from their practices? In comparison, what are we doing right as an industry?

More so than other industries, the hospitality industry understands the importance of creating a strong service culture. It doesn’t need convincing that providing a consistently positive guest experience is the critical factor in driving revenue. Many other industries approach business from a strictly operational or financial perspective. In their efforts to create a cost effective operational model, they adopt policies that may be overly focused on protecting revenues through inflexible policies and practices that are not customer friendly and reward employees for adherence to these policies, rather than prioritizing customer satisfaction. Companies often operate under very strict guidelines that frustrate and provide barriers for customers rather than attempting to please them. To its credit, the hospitality industry recognizes its guests will appreciate and value when they go out of their way to accommodate them. It lives and dies on guest feedback as much as any industry out there, particularly with prominent social media feedback sites like TripAdvisor fueling the fire. There are retailers like Nordstrom’s and financial services companies like Quicken Loans that share this same understanding of the importance of customer engagement. These are the companies you usually see ranking high in JD Power studies and written up in business books as best practice case studies.

Many of JD Power’s recent survey findings have debunked some industry perceptions of Millennials. What do you think Millennials are looking for in travel? How would you suggest hoteliers change their marketing strategy to reach them?

There is a myth that Millennials, by nature, are difficult to satisfy and not loyal. Having been in this business for a while, I think lower satisfaction scores among Millennials is more a function of life stage rather than something unique to their generation. They tend to show just as much of a tendency to recommend and return to properties as other generations of guests. The one way Millennials are certainly different than other generations is their absolute reliance on technology. Technology for this generation is constantly changing and upgrading. Hoteliers need to be thinking of the next innovation in how they personalize the guest experience, integrating technology devices into their approach.

I am not sure younger generations always get the same level of respect as their older cohorts, which is another contributor to lower satisfaction ratings. We advise many of our clients to make sure Millennials are not stereotyped as petulant and difficult, and are given the same degree of respect as guests of other generations. Using images of Millennials in marketing materials and advertising is another good way to attract the guests who will make up the bulk of the traveling population for years to come.

In addition to increased transparency of the hotel product, what other impacts have you seen from TripAdvisor? How do you think it will continue to impact the hotels?

Over the last several years, we have seen an upward trend in guest satisfaction for the hotel industry. While the product and service offerings have certainly gotten better, TripAdvisor has been a critical factor in improving guest satisfaction in a couple of different ways. For one, there is much greater accountability for guest experiences than ever before. It used to be that, if you had a good experience you told one person; if you had a bad experience you told between five-to-ten. Now, if you have a good or bad experience, you tell hundreds, if not thousands and this may dramatically impact business.

A second way TripAdvisor has positively impacted the industry is that it helps better match guests with the specific hotel offerings they are seeking. Consumers now have access to background information which was never available before, this helps the guest find just the right hotel for their needs, wants and expectations. Improved satisfaction isn’t just a function of improved offerings, it’s also a function of guests making better, more informed choices and therefore, being happier in their hotel selections.

According to the 2015 survey of North American hotel guests, guest satisfaction is on the rise. What can hotels do to ensure their guests’ satisfaction continues to rise or remain at this level?

As I mentioned, higher guest satisfaction is the by-product of improved offerings and better tools by which to make informed choices. A couple of years ago, someone attending an STR conference asked whether hotels were really getting that much better. As I looked at the audience, I saw a large roomful of professionals whose sole commitment was improving their competitive offering. No one can deny hotel offerings are better today than they were a few years ago. Free breakfasts that go far beyond stale muffins and cold cereal. Wi-Fi that is now largely offered free of charge. ‘Heavenly Beds’ and ‘Heavenly Showers’. There are faster ways to check-in and out and far more personalized services than ever before. The number one thing hotel brands need to realize is that, if you aren’t moving forward, you are falling behind. I did a study a few years ago that showed offering a large HD flat screen TV in a guest room was worth over ten extra dollars a night in ADR. Now this is considered ‘price of entry’. If you invest now, you may realize a premium for a time. If you wait to upgrade or enhance your guest experience, you will still have to invest, but may just be playing catch-up with your competitors.

JD Power’s surveys tend to focus on consumer’s feelings towards the brands. What implications or learnings should independent hoteliers garner from these findings? How can they use this knowledge to improve their hotel’s success?

One of the interesting things we find in our studies is that evaluations of guest experiences are often directly linked to brand perceptions. If someone loves or dislikes a brand, it will serve as a filter by which their subsequent guest experience is interpreted. Whether branding is a help or a hindrance, independents operate on a clean slate. Their need to rely on social media, as well as word-of-mouth recommendations, is far greater because they don’t have the advantage of a marketing machine. If you are an independent, then be bold, be unique. If you are cookie cutter, you will fade into the crowd, or have to rely on attracting price sensitive customers, which is never a good long term strategy as these customers are incredibly disloyal. If an independent hotel is not blessed with a must-visit location, a historic pedigree, or a unique design, then it has to be particularly focused on guest service. If they can create an emotional connection with guests through personalized service, they can retain and grow their base without benefit of a points based loyalty program or massive distribution network.

What’s one thing your team members would be surprised to know about you?

Ah, to pick one…

Right now, I am residing in three different locations, as well as my fourth home, which is the road. The three locations are unique in that one is in rural Pennsylvania, one is in suburban Chicago, and the third—which is the most interesting—is in inner city Detroit, where I was born and raised. I am a proud Detroiter and enjoy taking visitors to the great restaurants and attractions in my city, while wearing my black ‘Detroit is Back!’ t-shirt. We’ve got a wine bar that has been named one of the Top 10 new wine bars by Wine Spectator magazine and is in contention for a designation as one of the Top 100 wine bars in the world by another publication. Yes, you heard correctly…in Detroit. Come visit some time!

About Rick Garlick
Rick Garlick is the Global Travel and Hospitality Practice Lead at J.D. Power. He is responsible for providing industry thought leadership to the company’s clients in the hotel, rental car, aviation, tourism, and cruise line industries, as well as for creating new products and revenue opportunities to grow the practice.

Dr. Garlick joined J.D. Power in 2013 after nearly 20 years of consumer and employee research experience with two of the most prestigious research companies in North America: The Gallup Organization and Maritz Research.

He has been a trusted advisor to many senior leaders of premier organizations, as well as a nationally recognized thought leader in the area of hospitality and employee engagement research. He has a diverse research and consulting background that includes extensive experience with travel and hospitality research; employee engagement measurement and training; talent selection; brand research; customer satisfaction and loyalty programs; image and awareness studies; and national opinion polling.

A frequent conference speaker, Dr. Garlick has published numerous articles in industry and academic journals. He has also appeared on such national media outlets as MSNBC, CNBC, CNNfn, Bloomberg Television, and National Public Radio, as well as being quoted in a number of national publications. Dr. Garlick received a Ph.D. in communication studies from Michigan State University.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 8th, 2016 at 10:48 pm and is filed under Conversations . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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