Jade Price, Insights Manager Europe at IHG, is one of the most fascinating speakers that will be presenting at 2018’s Festival of Marketing.

With her interest in the social and behavioural sciences, Price has worked as an academic anthropologist, and for the past decade as a market researcher.

We caught up with her ahead of the Festival, where she’ll be discussing uses of VR in hospitality, to get her take on how customer insight methods are changing.

How has your job changed over the past three years?

Jade Price: Like many organisations, we are experiencing two shifts – one, our business is increasingly focused on how we can use more effectively some of the vast data sources that are available to us (our loyalty club data, online review data, our own customer experience data, etc.).

Using this data in smart ways – to tailor our brand messaging, to enhance our hotel experience, or personalise the benefits we can offer our guests – is a real opportunity for us, and we’re looking to get this right. I think that we’re making progress on this front, and we have some exciting initiatives in the works – but like many businesses, we know that there’s more that we could be doing to wring the full value out of our data.

The other big shift that stands out to me is that the research industry has not necessarily been able to keep up with changes to the broader media and communications landscape. For most of our brands, we’ve adopted an always-on digital comms strategy, which allows us to maximise our media impact by targeting consumers ever more precisely. What we’re not able to do is to target our research with the same level of precision – in many cases because we remain dependent on consumer panels, which aren’t necessarily representative of the general population or may have a low proportion of the type of consumers we’re targeting (luxury hotel stayers, for example, or business travellers). This can make it difficult to measure the impact of our brand activity and the return on our marketing investment.

We’ve also seen real shifts in brand and comms content – to more personalised, engaging, and individually relevant creatives – but a lot of customer research can be tedious and time-consuming for those customers who are generous enough to share their thoughts with us. I see a big part of my role as trying to make research more interesting – or at least as painless as possible – for our consumers.

jade price
Jade Price, Insights Manager Europe, IHG

User researchers often say there’s no substitute for talking to and observing customers. But is there new tech that’s proving indispensable in your role?

Jade Price: We don’t generally see tech as a substitute for more traditional research methods – it’s just a tool or a set of tools that can make conversations with our customers more productive or enlightening. So taking virtual reality as an example, we can use that to share more of our hotel designs with more people in more places – and then we can gather the feedback we need in the traditional ways (e.g. qualitative interviews or surveys).

There are also exciting new ways we can collect behavioural data as well, which allows us to ‘observe’ our customers less obtrusively. One of our teams wanted to understand how people use our hotel public spaces, so they designed and built sensors that could be installed in our lobby seating. This allowed us to understand where people were sitting, for how long, in what day-parts, in what size groups, and so on. We can then use that sort of information to generate hypotheses about what motivates our guests, and we can design more traditional research projects to investigate those hypotheses in more detail.

I think that this is also where a lot of the value in ‘big data’ lies. It may not be able to tell us everything we want to know, and it may even raise more questions than it answers, but it can offer clear direction for further research, and it can give us the confidence that the questions we’re asking are the right ones.

Is the Instagram generation changing expectations of hotels?

Jade Price: We’ve definitely seen an increasing focus on both design and experiences-over-things in the hospitality industry, and social media is an important force that’s driving that.

At a fundamental level, though, I think that everyone who stays in a hotel is looking for the same things – environments that are comfortable and welcoming, great service, and a problem-free stay. There might be aspects of that that are ‘instagrammable’, but what stands out to our guests, what they want to share, can be any detail that captures their imagination. There’s a tendency to expect that this will be the hotel’s interior design or its beautiful food, but it can take a lot of other forms – a bit of humour in our on-property communications, a small but unexpected treat in the room, or a moment of relaxation that we facilitate.

The focus needs to be on creating experiences that are both enjoyable and memorable, not just those that look nice. No matter how beautiful a hotel environment is, it’s never going to make up for poor service.

What’s the most promising use of VR in travel?

Jade Price: One thing we’ve observed as more of the travel planning and booking process has moved online is an increasing importance of the ‘dream’ phase of travel. This is the point when people have decided they want to take a trip, but haven’t yet narrowed down to what that trip might look like. Many travellers put a lot of effort and research into this process, and they want as much detail as they can get. This kind of information-seeking is enjoyable for many people, of course – they may be planning a holiday, after all! – but a lot of it is also driven by the desire to be reassured that the destination or accommodation or activities they’re purchasing will deliver as promised.

So people search for images, read reviews, look at social media, browse online travel agents (OTAs), and just generally try to find out as much as they can. Virtual reality offers a really exciting way to showcase our properties and to really spark guests’ interest, and to give them the confidence and reassurance of ‘being there’.

This will probably become more relevant as VR technology becomes more widely adopted by consumers, since at the moment the hardware required is still fairly expensive. It’s also something that we can invest in to ensure we’re on the leading edge – for example, one way VR could be applied would be to have a high-spec VR station in each of our hotels that would allow guests to explore other properties, for example.

Even now there are inexpensive options like Google Cardboard that are widely available to anyone with a smartphone, and we can do more to use these as well (for example, we recently renovated one of our historic luxury properties and created a Google Cardboard fly-through that allowed guests to explore the newly-refurbished design).

The bottom line is that virtual reality lets people explore places and have experiences that would never be accessible to them otherwise, and that’s a lot of fun. At its best, travel is also about exploration and new experiences and fun. VR is just a natural fit for our industry and I’m really excited to see where it takes us!

Jade Price will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing 2018, Oct 10-11.