Passenger Experience

Guest experience lessons from paradise

Paradise

This week marks the end of our Australian summer, as demarcated by the end of one school year and the start of another. Before settling in to the more regular rhythm of life between summers, I’m going to start 2014 with informal reflections on my experience as a guest in paradise…

For me, the summer was bookended by what I assumed would be two very similar experiences: a dive trip to Heron Island and another to Lady Elliot Island. The two islands are located at the southernmost end of the Great Barrier Reef. Both islands are entirely made of coral, surrounded by never-ending horizons of every shade of blue, and home to some of the most spectacular marine life on the planet. The islands offer “basic” accommodations – the real hero of the vacation is the diving and snorkelling. Despite the luxury price tag, it is rare to find guests who are disappointed at the lack of fine thread Egyptian cottons or other creature comforts.

In spite of the similarities between the islands, my reflective experience of the two resorts is completely different. As I contemplate the potential reasons for the differences, I am drawn to one main factor: experiential inconsistency. For me, and judging from the conversations with other guests (an occupational hazard for an experience researcher!), it appears that inconsistencies in the “intimacy” with which guest touchpoints are delivered can adversely affect guest satisfaction.

As a first example, consider the first island touchpoint: the guest welcome. On one island, guests are greeted by staff and welcomed with cocktails at the common room overlooking a pristine lagoon of crystal clear water. The staff provide a basic brief of the island (snorkel safely, take care not to damage the reef), and show guests to their rooms. The process is friendly and efficient, but not overly intimate. On the second island, guests are greeted by the dazzling captain of the island (think fantasy island), and led to a common room that brings back distant memories of high school refectories. In this largely unromantic setting, guests are served a cocktail and forced to sign a legal disclaimer (snorkel safely, take care not to damage the reef). The starkness of the formal act of signing legal documents, when contrasted with the very intimate captain’s greeting presents as a experiential contradiction: …why am I signing disclaimers on fantasy island?

The above example is representative of a host of such experiential inconsistencies at the two resorts. The interesting thing to note is that although the resort facilities are not the reason for guests choosing the island, they are ultimately the source of all dissatisfaction for guests. More specifically, it is not the facilities themselves, but rather inconsistencies in the workflows associated with guest processing that provide the major source of guest angst.

Bearing in mind that these observations are based on my personal reflections and informal chats with guests at the two resorts, it appears that the introduction of a more consistent set of guest workflows would greatly improve the guest experience at both islands. As a start…

  • Provide a consistent level of “intimacy” as this sets the scene for guest expectations. For example, a personal captain’s welcome suggest a more intimate and informal setting… charging the guest for hot water to make tea in the dining room, or making them sign legal disclaimers sends an inconsistent and confusing message.
  • Ensure the “basic” level of service is adequate. For example, although guests do not expect the Taj Mahal, a holiday priced at the luxury end of the market implicitly suggests a base level of services such as clean dishes in the buffet stack, shampoo and conditioner in the bathroom and tea and coffee facilities which are “free” (in the context of an all-inclusive holiday).
  • Empower guests to do what makes them happy. For the types of people who holiday at these resorts, their key focus is the dive. However, what elevates the dive experience is the ability to share the adventures with others. Interestingly, neither resort made it easy for divers to share their stories and GoPro footage with other guests. This is a simple thing to implement, and one that would have significant impact on guest satisfaction.
  • Ensure that the physical layout reflects the resort’s business model. For example, at one of the islands there is a physical separation between the dining options that are included in the daily rate, versus those that are extra. This physical separation clearly sets guest expectations: when they are in the dining room, everything is included in their daily rate; when they are at the bar the bill is charged to their room.
  • Consider the guest experience on bad weather days. The only certainty when it comes to weather is that there will be days when the weather is not conducive to diving. It is important to consider the guest workflows on days like this too: can the guests relax in a common area that affords them a view of the wild weather over the lagoon? Is the common area conducive to guests sharing stories? This is particularly important in the context of day-trippers who are unlucky enough to arrive in sub-optimal weather conditions.
  • Ensure that the experience on sites like Tripadvisor is consistent with the resort’s vibe. As an example, a quick review of recent responses from the “Management” of both resorts presents a very formal and corporate tone. This corporate tone is quite disconnected from the ambiance on the islands, and quite likely accounts for some of the mis-aligned expectations that guests report in their port-trip reviews. Setting the right tone when responding to guest reviews is a missed opportunity to impact future guest satisfaction.

The above workflow corrections can all be achieved without any major capital expenditure investment… these are short term “cherry pickings” that could significantly impact the guest experience (which of course, will directly impact future business). On a personal level, it would be great if these workflow issues were resolved before the next Australian summer rolls around… as I would much rather not choose between the two islands 🙂

Sources: this post is based on my personal experiences at Heron Island (December 2013) and Lady Elliot Island (January 2014), and also on informal conversations with guests during my stay. The travel was privately funded. The theory behind guest (passenger) expectations is based on my PhD work in the area (Principles of Experience Design), to be published June 2014.

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