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The Future Is Here: How Modern Messaging Enhances Hotel Employee and Guest Communications podcast

[Jon] This is the Lodging Leader's podcast with Jon Albano session number 155.

[Jon] Welcome to the Lodging Leaders podcast, where top performing hoteliers and hospitality industry experts share powerful insights and actionable advice to help you grow your portfolio. And now your host, Jon Albano.

[Jon] So today's guest is Sudheer Thakur. Sudheer is founder and CEO of HelloShift, an integrated messaging platform for hotel teams, managers, guests and web site visitors. Prior to HelloShift, Sudheer worked for Oracle and was a founding member of a number of Silicon Valley startups.

[Jon] Now hoteliers named HelloShift the number one staff collaboration software in the 2018 Hotel Tech Awards. In today's interview, we talk about HelloShift. The vision behind the company. The problem they're solving and who they serve. We talk about why a better communication solution is important and how they're different from other communication platforms that are out there. We talk about how HelloShift integrates within the existing technology infrastructure at the property, whether integration is required at all, and whether the platform is app based, web based or both. And of course, you know, I'm going to ask what the cost is. Now, Sudheer's team prepared a free download for the listeners - “The Hoteliers Guide to Text and Chat -- How do you use modern messaging to increase guest satisfaction and direct bookings?” And let me tell you, it's a beautiful 10 page guide loaded with great information. So to get your copy, hop over to the show notes for this episode or go straight to LongLiveLodging.com/155. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. So without further ado, please welcome Sudheer Thakur of HelloShift.com.

[Jon] Welcome to LodgingLeaders! Thank you so much for coming on the show today.

[Sudheer] Thank you, Jon.

[Jon] It's great to have you. Where are you calling in from, by the way?

[Sudheer] I'm calling from San Francisco, California.

[Jon] And so it's 630 a.m. in the morning for you now. Right?

[Sudheer] That's right. That's right. And it's raining outside, it's pouring outside for some reason.

[Jon] Well, look, thank you for waking up early for us. I really appreciate you doing this.

[Sudheer] I'm glad to be here.

[Jon] Well, it's great to have you. Why don't we start out with you sharing a little bit about your background so our listeners can get to know you.

[Sudheer] So I'm a technologist by training. I did an undergrad and a graduate degree in computer science. So my first job was at Oracle -- I worked in their Database Engineering Group. After that, I joined and founded a number of Silicon Valley startups. And in 2007, I started a travel company travel startup, Localyte. And as part of Localyte, we built a messaging app to connect travelers with locals at their destination and we grew to one hundred and eighty thousand local experts. And after the company got acquired, I kept thinking about this problem of connecting travelers with locals or in particular, the hotels that they were going to be staying at. This is what led me to HelloShift.

[Jon] Okay. So really, the communication or the connecting these people, these different parties together is really kind of the overarching theme, right.

[Sudheer] Right. Remember, this is the time when Facebook was exploding. Distances were collapsing. You were finding your friends from high school. Elementary school. Communication. This was the second wave. The first wave was the Internet wave. When everything got online and there was finding information, there were portals that were Google search for discovery. There were e-commerce. And around this time, 2005 or so, we had a big communication revolution with the smartphones and with the Facebook. The distances started collapsing. Yeah. And our attempt was also to collapse the distance between a traveler and a foreign land that they're going to.

[Jon] So why don't we talk about HelloShift - the problem that you guys are solving and who you serve.

[Sudheer] So HelloShift is a modern messaging app for hotels. But as I alluded to, we started differently. I was still looking at how to connect travelers with hotels. And in the meantime, you know, this Facebook revolution had happened and there were companies like...business took notice of this. Companies like Yammer took the concept of Facebook kind of consumer communication and brought it to businesses. Where you have a newsfeed, you have mentions, tags, notifications going on. And prior to this people used to communicate either using e-mail or form-based tickets. So you would start a ticket and people would keep commenting on it back and forth. Facebook made it very easy and fast to communicate in real time, and Yammer brought that to the business world. But things really exploded with Slack. What they did was built whole messaging architecture where not only communication, but all your business operations were going in the same feed and people just loved it. And so this was going on in the background. And I was thinking about I was rethinking the messaging app we did and I was thinking from the hotel perspective. So I started going to hotels and I found that on the hotel side they were still using pen paper, post-its, logbooks. So I thought maybe I'm dealing with some atypical hotels here. I kept going to more and more hotels and then I realized that this was the norm. Now, as you know, hotels are very operation oriented. Everything is like, you know, has to happen right now. And communication is the key, right.

Because everyone has to be in the know. And here you have a communication revolution going on. There's a whole new category of business software that has been created. So I thought that I could get these hotels to adopt slack so that I could go to what I was trying to do, which is get the travelers closer to hotels. And I tried installing slack. And we kept running into roadblock after roadblock, which is when I realized that while it's such a tailor made solution, it cannot be applied to hotels. And that was a big aha moment. And so instead of bringing travelers closer to hotels, I first focused on bringing the team within a hotel together first. And that is what led to HelloShift. So HelloShift is a modern messaging system. And the first product offering we built was a staff collaboration. So the hotel staff, they use it. For example, if they have to talk to a different shift. The A.M. shift has to talk to a P.M. shift, we have messages. We have tasks. We have checklists. If you have front desk talking to maintenance, they can use our web application and the maintenance guy will get on their native either iPhone or Android app a notification and they can communicate like that. If your maintenance guy finds a problem in, say, a boiler, he can just mention the GM and the GM is brought into loop. And as you work inside the hotels, we started working with some hotel management companies, we found that this messaging architecture, just scales.

So we now have these what we call corporate communication, where you have a VP of operations talking to just all the GMs and the GMs are communicating within their hotels. We also had some hotels ask us to connect their front desk with their sales teams because when you have someone call in, the lead comes to the front desk. But the person who is supposed to respond is the salesperson. So what we built was that when they create a lead, it notifies the sales who can then pick up, nurture the lead. And then, you know, in hospitality, the journey doesn't stop. Once you have got the sale, now you have to deliver on the guest satisfaction and sales team is in the loop with the front desk, making sure that when the guests actually arrive, all the things that have been promised are kept. So that was the staff collaboration part, bringing all the internal staff communication in one platform. Then we extended the same underlying architecture because it's like kind of architecture. We extended that to bring guest messaging in. What happens is that you can text guests before their stay, during their stay and after their stays and/or guests can initiate the text as well. And very recently we extended even further beyond guests, people who are even in the pre booking or research phase, that when you show up on the hotel website, a chat widget pops up saying that, you know, hi, this is the front desk of Grand Budapest Hotel. How may I assist you?

[Jon] Yeah. Let me interrupt you there, because I saw that in action. Actually, I was reading an article I wrote, you know, I stalked you guys online for a little bit. I was reading an article about you. And I saw that Hotel Fusion is one of your customers. And so I went to their Web site. It's a beautiful website, by the way. But I mean, literally a millisecond after you page loads, the chat widget pops up in the right hand corner. Everybody's used to seeing these because they're on every single Web site out there. But, you know, I think on the one that I saw, it said this is the front desk of Hotel Fusion. How may we assist you? I just thought it was amazing that somebody has that perception right there. They're looking at the property. They're thinking about making the decision. They might have a question. I don't want to pick up the phone. Right. I want to send a quick message and let me. I can continue to surf the Web site while I'm waiting for the response. Right. And boom, it goes right to their front desk.

[Sudheer] Yeah. A lot of these people are looking at multiple sites. And on one site they find someone they can talk to the front desk directly and they have questions before booking. You know, a lot of these questions cannot be answered on a one size fits all OTA box. They always have some questions about where the room gonna be. And if someone answers you are so much ahead in the game of your competitors.

[Jon] Yeah. OK. So I wanted to ask you how you're different than other communication platforms, but I actually have one answer already in mind is the fact that you're doing both that you're internal communications and it's also the guest communications. So, for example, Beekeeper is another messaging platform out there, but that's really designed for the internal communication component. Is there anything else that you'd like to highlight as a differentiator with your products? As far as you know how you're different from a communication standpoint?

[Sudheer] So, yes, I don't know if you noticed we recently won the staff collaboration award for Hotel Tech awards, for 2018. We won the staff collaboration software category, and if you look at those the one thing that stood out in those reviews and on the numerical scale as well was the ease of use. But I think it goes much deeper and I think you kind of alluded to that. I think ease of use, if you ask the competitors, they will also say that they're very easy to use. And I agree with that. The difference is in the vision of the software. You see our competitors have taken old school way of doing things. So they have maybe take an analog or physical logbook and they have created a digital version of that or they have taken like HotSOS, they've taken components of that and better versions of that. What we have done instead is that we have recognized this messaging revolution. We have taken the messaging architecture and we have evolved all the hotel operations on top of that. So in the first case, there is familiarity because you are taking existing tools and making them better. In our case, we are going with the familiarity you already have with Facebook and we are putting you on a platform for your future. So in the software as a service, you know, the vision matters. And the reason the vision matters is that you're not buying what you're getting today, you're buying all the future versions of the same product. So just to give you an example. You know, like we have a family friend and he uses e-mail in a rather unusual way. His secretary prints the e-mails. He answers them and then she types it back.

[Jon] Is this Roger Blass that you're talking about? No, not himself. I don't want to get sued because I know that Roger is a very divided. Roger actually confessed that in my interview with him. He actually does that. He prints out his e-mails, his secretary responds back. And I think actually he's evolved a little bit. But yeah, he does that. He'll print them out. And then, you know, he would write his answers on there and then she would type it back on his behalf.

[Sudheer] So for him, it is very familiar and it's easy and he's getting the job done, but he's not using the communication to the fullest power. So the way we differ from our competitors is that our competitors are solving the last generation;s problems. We are preparing hoteliers for the next generation's challenges. And that shows up in the architecture we have built that everything goes into one feed. You know, communication. You cannot have two different modes of communication that can -- if you have two smartphones, it's worse than having one smartphone. And by doing this, by putting the platform in there and by showing we started with the staff collaboration and we have extended it for guest communication and now even your future guests. So it's the breadth of -- it’s the architecture where we differ. What we can do and what we have done.

[Jon] Ok. So I want to dig into a couple of things here. So one is you talked about the platform. So it is Web based, but it also offers native apps on iOS and Android, correct?

[Sudheer]Yes.

[Jon] Okay. And the other thing is the adoption piece. And, you know, I always want to say the mom test. So if my 76 year old mom got onto the platform and tried to use the platform and she does use Facebook, by the way, if she could use Facebook That's the only condition. Is it okay Sudheer, you're training survey. Do you actually ask, can you use Facebook for. Yes. Okay. Then you're all set.

[Sudheer] Yeah, that's exactly what we do. And in fact, award that we won in two categories. We are number one. One was ease of use. The second was onboarding.

[Jon] Oh, nice. What you have done is that we took how Facebook onboards you and we do something very similar. So for your staff and you know, there is so much turnover in the hotel industry you can not afford to have everyone go through the training and be up and running when it comes to communication. So you can get onboarded in five minutes if you know how to use Facebook.

[Jon] All right. So your communication platform, so it's a technology based solution here. How does HelloShift integrate within the existing technology infrastructure at the property? And as a follow-up question. Is integration required?

[Sudheer] So I'll answer the second. It's not required. And most of our properties are using it standalone. It's a standalone communication platform. We have just built one for Opera and we actually are in conversation with other PMS systems so that we can enrich the experience. We are all about integrating more and more stuff. And that is what is going to be our next challenge.

[Jon] You know, when you start offering more integrations, you start increasing the cost to develop the products. Are your prices going to go up? So. I'm sure it's going to help your price point right now by not offering too many integrations, right?

[Sudheer] That's exactly. Right. And as I said, it's a software as a service. We grow over time. And this is the future that you're looking at.

[Jon] So where's the communication going to go next? Right, because I'm thinking about the communication as a solution in a property. Right. And the problem you're solving and definitely the way we've always done things is not going to help us get to where we want to go. Right. You need more efficient communications between people. It's going to solve a lot of problems as far as efficiency within the property to make sure no one's dropping the ball on things. I'm sure you're gonna be able to expose issues with analytics, you know. So in other words, if there are common issues that are coming up, you can shed some light on that for people. But I'm trying to understand the overall value of the communication and where this is going to go five to 10 years down the road. Do you have any insight on that?

[Sudheer] Actually, the way I think about messaging is, you know, if you look at the first decade of the Internet revolution and we talked about that, it was mostly about information and people finding information. And at that time, if you look from the hotel industry point of view, hotels were a little late to adopt. And that led OTA’s and other parties to wedge themselves between travelers and the hotels.

[Sudheer] And we are still experiencing the after effects of that. In the second half of this revolution has been communication. The distances have dropped. Communications have become direct between customers and the businesses. I think messaging is such a great opportunity for hotels to get back that customer control. You can be talking direct to the customers. As you have seen, and as our hotels are finding out, with the live widget, you have your customer talking directly to your front desk, a direct connection that was lost in the first revolution. And I'm excited for that future. I think there are some very exciting things going to happen. I myself don't know, but I think when you are directly in contact with your customers, you are in a more fruitful position.

[Jon] Yeah, I've talked about this so many times on the podcast. I firmly believe that if you remove a touchpoint. So let's say, for example, the check in process at the front desk. Now you use technology to enhance the check in process and make it more efficient, whatever. But now you've removed that touchpoint. If you're using a kiosk. So by doing that, what you want to do is find creative ways to reintroduce a touchpoint with that that guest, because at the end of the day, if they don't interact with the hotel, they're not going to have a relationship with the hotel.

[Sudheer] Exactly. That way hotels would become commodity.

Exactly. Exactly. You want to get away from that commodity. And how you do that, you do that building the communication. And I love the fact that your tool is is helping them do that. So, OK, so now I'm putting my hotelier hat on. I'm in room 2 0 6 and I need another pillow. Can I use your app to tell the front desk I need another pillow?

[Sudheer] So there are two ways this can happen. One is that if the hotel is already proactive, they would have sent you a text prior to your arrival. So you already know and you can just text back saying, hey, I need a towel. And this comes back on the front desk. News feed. And they can just write it. They can just mention housekeeping. And they would get a notification on their smartphone and they would deliver to the guest. So that's one way. The other is that if they have not been proactive, then they would probably call. And then that would get entered in the system and go through that. Got it.

[Jon] Got it. OK. So what are some of the things that your customers are currently doing right now that are where they're seeing great results? In other words, how are they utilizing your tool to maximize their customer experience that they're trying to create?

[Sudheer] So let me talk about the chat widget, because this is a very recent thing we did. One of our hotels within hours of installing the chat widget, they got group bookings. And then, you know, there was a constant stream of chats coming in. And after a few days, we got a call that they're not getting any messages. And we looked at that and the problem turned out to be some design issue and our widget was not appearing and we fixed that. So the thing is that once they install our software, they miss it if it's not working. It's almost like, you know, you misplaced your smartphone and, you know, because becomes such a critical piece of your overall hotel operation. Now, as we have staff collaboration, so Staff Collaboration is mostly about operational efficiency. So that affects your hotel bottom line. We have guest satisfaction with the Guest Engagement piece. And there you are increasing the guest satisfaction. And in an indirect way, you are increasing the revenue. And with the chat widget, you're directly going for the top line. So our solution affects every single aspect. And we are actually looking forward to doing much, much more because messaging cuts across everything.

[Jon] Yes. So let's talk about some of the internal messaging. So, for example, front desk sends communication to housekeeping about a need or maybe an engineering request. You know, we got to fix the HP AC unit in room 2 0 6. So let's talk about the process. So I just want the listeners because we know obviously it's an audio interview. Right. So they can't. Yes. So I want to try to help them picture what the process, how it would work.

[Sudheer] So the front desk would create a task for the maintenance person and they would do that for the, let's say, the boiler. And they can also set a time. So the very basic theme, you can just create a task. But you can also schedule it, so let's say that you want this to be fixed next month. You can have a start time so the person would be alerted at that particular time. You can also set a deadline if you want to have more accountability. So you can say that well, within 15 days after you get this, you have to get it done. And the maintenance person would get a reminder and they can either comment on it if there is a problem that they cannot fix it and they can mention bring someone else in the loop. It's like Facebook. You can tag someone if they need help from someone else, they can tag that person or they can finish the task. If they finish the tasks, the front desk will be notified. That's the happy part. If they don't finish the task within the deadline, an alert will go out to everyone concerned. And we have reporting all that on these things. So these things start escalating and you'll start seeing different colors like red that this task is overdue. And if you are the GM, it will come to your level now. And you can see and you can come in saying, hey, maintenance person, what is holding this request up for so long? So you get an insight and maybe the front desk looks at that conversation. Now, they don't have to go and ask the maintenance person again because they can see the entire thread. So everyone who looks at the issue is now on the same page, literally.

[Jon] And you know, if you think about, you know, with an e-mail exchange rate, how many e-mails would go back and forth on something like that, because I'm actually envisioning that particular scenario. Right. So, yeah, I think you used the example of a boiler. Right. So got to fix the boiler. OK. So maybe the maintenance person goes and examines the problem, determines that he needs to buy a part, but maybe somebody from purchasing needs to buy the part. Exactly. So they can tag the person from purchasing. They purchased the part. And then the GM is looking at why are we delayed while the parts on back order or the person from purchasing didn't actually make the purchase or whatever the case may be. But if you think about how many people would be involved in that and how many e-mails. Right. This is going to have a thread for one service order here. Repair you know the boiler in room 2 0 6. And then here is the whole history of everything that everyone was involved in timelines.

[Sudheer] Yeah. So, you know, you hit on the nail so that if you have the wider pitch, you go to the boiler plate, you can see everything that has ever happened to the boiler. It's the entire history of the boiler. So there was this one particular thing. If there was some kind of preventive maintenance that was done, you can see those checklists, those inspections all on one single page.

[Jon] So Sudheer. You told me about a download that your team prepared called the Hotel Guide to Modern Messaging. So tell us about that.

[Sudheer] So we have been working with hoteliers who are very progressive. These are modern hoteliers and we have learned a lot from them. So we have put together this guide. It's a free how to guide for hotel employees, managers and even owners. So where do we draw from our experience with hundreds of hoteliers to share tips and best practices on how modern messaging can transform your hotel.

[Jon] That's awesome. Well, I'll make sure I link to that in the show notes for the episode. But you can also go straight to lodgingleaderscom/155download. So thank you so much for putting that together because I love it when one of my guests puts together a free download for my listeners to give even more value for that episode. So, OK. We've talked a lot about your platform here. Well, one thing that we didn't talk about is the type of hotel.

[Jon] Yeah. One of the things we didn't talk about is the type of hotels. We have a lot of independent properties and we have a lot of brands as well. We also have brands who have a qualified or recommended solution that is different than us. And these hoteliers are using our software. So these brand recommendations are only recommendations. And hoteliers who think for themselves look out for the best solution out there. And I want to give a shout out to our hotel tech report, guys, because for the first time in the hospitality industry, they have taken the actual user review and feedback and put that together. Now, that's important because lot of these kind of software tools, the buyers are not the same as the users. And that's has been a big frustration point for hoteliers, because people complain that hoteliers don't adopt technology right away. They are very late. And while there is truth to that, it is also the problem that the buyers and users are not the same. So, when a software is sold and you see all these great graphs and reports based on sample demo data and when the actual users just are not able to use the software, those charts that are empty and the hoteliers wonder where they are wise. So it's very important to actually look at actual user case because if the software is not being used, why even buy. That just proves the point.

[Jon] Yeah. So what does your service cost?

[Sudheer] We have our basic service, which is the internal Staff Collaboration is one dollar per room per month. If you buy for one a year and we have the guest engagement for another dollar. So that will be two dollars per room per month. It gives you the internal as well as the guest messaging piece for a limited time. We are giving over real time chat widget for free for any of these subscriptions. Wow. That's fantastic. We have seen some amazing results and we want the industry to see what a transformative effect it has.

[Jon] Yeah. So if you actually want if you want to see that in action, the chat widget that city was just talking about, go to Hotel Fusion S F for San Francisco, dot com hotelfusionsf.com and you can actually see their widget in action there. All right, city. So what's the best way our listeners can connect with you?

[Sudheer] You can go to HelloShift.com and we have a contact us form. You can fill out your name, your phone number, your mother's maiden name. I'm just kidding. We believe in messaging. You go to our website and next thing you know, you'll be chatting with me. And if not, you'll be chatting with someone who can point you to us. We're also going to be at a number of conferences. You're going to be at AAHOA. Yeah, that's in March, right? It's in March. Yeah. Yeah. And you're going to go to the high tech and a number of regional conferences as well.

[Jon] Fantastic. Well definitely folks. If you guys are listening. Stop by and say hello. Shake this guy's hand he's a lot of fun. Great person to know. Well, Sudheer, look, I really appreciate you coming on the show. We've talked now several times where we're becoming fast friends here. I love talking with technology folks.

[Sudheer] I have been following you for a while at AAHOA. We met a couple of years back. Yeah, I think you're podcasts for a long time. And I love the insights I have gained from your podcasts. And I started as a technologist. And then I now feel like a hotelier.

[Jon] I love it. I love it. Well, thank you so much for sharing your product here on the podcast and and also for offering that, you know, announcing the chat widget there and offering that for a limited time to the listeners. That's a wonderful feature. But anyway, thank you so much for your time. I wish you well.

[Sudheer] Thank you, Jonathan.