The Electronic Suggestion Box

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Hotel comment cards -- those personal remarks scribbled out by guests and dropped at the front desk -- may become a thing of the past. And customer surveys -- those questionnaires that show up within days after you check out -- also may become a victim of modern technology.

Some hotels are doing away with those old-fashioned methods and are relying on e-mails from customers to gauge how their chains rate with visitors. Two of the nation's largest hotel chains, Hilton Hotels and Marriott, have moved to an e-mail version of the suggestion box.

"We call them comment cards on steroids, with the added bonus of being statistically relevant," says Jim Hartigan, Hilton's senior vice president of customer and quality support.

By the end of summer, all of Marriott's properties will eliminate paper comment cards in the rooms and stop mailing out customer surveys. In their place will be "online comment cards," says Marriott spokesman John Wolf.

The hotels believe the switch to e-mails will ensure that all comments are recorded, giving a more accurate picture of their guests' experiences. Some customer comment cards, the hotels had discovered, would disappear when guests left them at the front desk, especially if they contained negative comments about the staff or property.

"We were at the mercy of whoever is collecting the comment cards. If someone handed Susie a comment card that said Susie was rude, do you think Susie is going to hand that card in?" Hartigan said. Hilton receives about 1.4 million mailed-in surveys a year, and the chain has saved about $1 million by shifting to e-mails.

E-mail comments give the hotels a quicker sense of how customers felt about their stays; they also provide a larger sampling from the companies' many franchisees, helping corporate executives aggressively monitor how those operations are doing. Hilton has about 2,800 properties and seven brands including Doubletree, Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn.

Marriott says it switched to e-mails because the majority of its frequent guests were Internet-savvy business travelers who wanted their voices heard more quickly. Visitors who send e-mailed comments get an automatic thank-you reply from Marriott and not a personal response that deals with their views. Marriott's Wolf said the hotel makes the customer service results available to general managers each week; the comments are loaded in the hotel's computer database within a day. Previously, it took as much as a week to enter the survey information because someone had to type the results in after they arrived by traditional mail.

Hilton managers, who perform regular, unannounced quality inspections of the company's properties twice a year, also use the e-mails to decide whether more visits are needed. "We can very quickly identify if we have a hotel that is delighting guests or hotels that aren't meeting guests' expectations and help fix the situation," Hartigan said.

At the Hilton Birmingham Perimeter Park, the property kept receiving e-mailed complaints about the maintenance staff not responding to guests' concerns. So the hotel armed its maintenance staff with business cards to leave behind in the room to alert the guest that they had been there. The card says: "We have repaired the (fill in the blank) in your room. If you need further assistance please call the hotel operator." Positive comments from guests rose 12 percent in the surveys during the first 90 days, Hartigan said.

E-mailed complaints from several guests about weak water pressure in the showers at the Hampton Inn in Valparaiso, Ind., prompted the chain to spend $12,000 on a new pump.

Several guests at New York's Marriott Marquis e-mailed their complaints about Ethernet cords missing from their rooms. Marriott responded by connecting the Internet connection cords to the wall instead of storing them in a bag in the room's closet. "We're able to find out what our guests think quicker and respond," Wolf said.

Front and Rear Boarding: In an effort to get passengers on and off their flights faster, several airlines are testing boarding and deplaning aircraft from their front and rear doors.

AirTran, JetBlue and Southwest Airlines are using the two doors on limited flights to gauge response and improve departure times.

AirTran is testing the procedure at Tampa International Airport; JetBlue is trying it at 23 destinations, including one gate at Dulles International Airport.

Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said the airline uses both doors only in Burbank, Calif., and at one gate in Austin.

Using an aircraft's rear door can present some challenges, the biggest being finding a movable staircase to get the passengers on and off the aircraft. Passengers have to negotiate the 15 to 18 stairs and walk across the tarmac to the gate. The airports, not the airlines, pay for the staircases.

US Airways Changes: A year after US Airways and America West announced their merger, both airlines officially combined their Web sites over the weekend. America West's Web site no longer exists. Instead, Web users who type in are automatically rerouted to US Airways' Web site. Both frequent-flier programs also have been merged into one US Airways program.

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