Using an algorithm to figure out what customers really want – Big data is helping us move from what we think is important to what the customer thinks is important…It’s what you do with what the data is telling you that makes the difference. Can you resist the temptation to standardize, and use the data to uncover what makes your business unique?

HBR-Using an algorithm

Using an algorithm to figure out what luxury
guests really want

I met Metis’s mother in Los Angeles in the summer of 2014. We were introduced by a mutual
friend. At that time, Metis, named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, was brand new. She is a
curated, big data analytics aide-de-camp — not quite at the level of artificial intelligence, but
close — and she speaks in a British accent.

Her mother, Kyle Richey, and her co-founder, David Richey, are known for helping luxury
service businesses — including hotel, retail, fashion, and professional sports — develop branddefining
service standards. As global director of guest experience and innovation for the
Dorchester Collection’s ultra-luxury hotels, I was intrigued because I had a problem I thought
Metis could help me solve.

In a nutshell, the enormous volume of data collected from mystery shoppers, online reviews,
social media, blogs, and ratings agencies about customer preferences and experiences has
become too overwhelming for any business (including mine) to assess. And as the luxury
segment depends upon anticipating, and then exceeding customer expectations, this is a problem.
In the absence of a more nuanced understanding of customer feedback, the data we collect today
is driving the industry toward standardized service, and standardization turns luxury into a
commodity – the very opposite of what luxury customers want.

Luxury customers, whether they’re buying automobiles, or jewelry, or hotel suites, want to feel
special. They do not want to share their experience with others. But when most suites come with
a bottle of chilled champagne (as they do), and every hotel has a Michelin-starred restaurant (as
do all 11 of the four-and-five-star hotels in Paris), how can a guest feel that he or she is
experiencing something special, created just for them?

This is the conundrum I thought Metis could help answer by diving into the deeps of customer
data to tell us what makes our hotels special. What are our strengths? Where could we improve?
I offered to help the Richeys train Metis — who was then still learning to analyze text — by
sharing with her my experience and operational insights. The Richeys invited me to join their
product development advisory board. A bit less than two years later, on March 23, 2016, Metis,
accompanied by a film, addressed 30 Dorchester Collection leaders in the Crystal Suite at the
eponymous Dorchester, in London. She had digested and analyzed millions of words of online

And she began by talking about breakfast.
Finding Surprises in Big Data
Every hotel serves breakfast, but few give it much thought. After all, breakfast won’t win you a
Michelin star. Plus, the majority of our rooms come with breakfast included, which means it does
not provide significant incremental revenue. Fine dining, however, both generates revenue and
burnishes a hotel’s reputation. So we invest a great deal of thought and resources in that
experience — wrongly, it turns out. Metis set us straight.

She pointed out that one in every three reviews of The Dorchester hotel mentions breakfast, far
more than cite dinner. Indeed, Metis told us that breakfast defines our guests’ perception of our
entire food and beverage division.

In our minds, there were three distinct breakfast offerings at The Dorchester. Guests could have
breakfast in their rooms, at the Promenade, or in The Grill restaurant, and the menus — and
experience — were different in each location.

Guests, Metis told us, don’t make those distinctions. No matter where breakfast is served, they
simply use the menu as a guide to ingredients. Each guest wants something particular; they want
what they are accustomed to. Breakfast, it seems, is not a time for experimentation or discovery;
its purpose is to comfort us and make us ready for the day.

The executives in the Crystal Room asked to pause the presentation so they could discuss this
revelation. Ideas began to fly about how we could expand and promote our breakfasts, how we
could differentiate and personalize them in every location.

Metis had another surprise for us in store. At our Hotel Bel-Air, in Los Angeles, Metis told us
that the majority of guests spoke about the hotel’s outdoor spaces — the patios and terraces –
and our wood-burning fireplaces. People found them relaxing, using words such as “haven,”
“secluded,” and “oasis.” (Hotel Bel-Air is the only hotel in Los Angeles that offers woodburning
fireplaces; we didn’t know that.) But Metis had gone to our website and discovered that
we showed hardly any photos of a patio or terrace. We fixed that — now when potential guests
go to the website, they immediately see photos of lush outdoor spaces.
Acting on Analytic Insights
A computer can remind you that it’s a guest’s birthday. It can’t tell you what to do about it.
Should you put a candle in a cupcake (or a Baked Alaska)? Should the staff sing “Happy
Birthday” at the table?

Not in our hotels. Not for our guests, who treasure privacy, and don’t want people hovering
behind them, intruding on their evening.

It’s not what the data tells you; it’s what you do with what the data is telling you that makes the
difference. Can you resist the temptation to standardize, and use the data to uncover what makes
your business unique?

Big data is helping us move from what we think is important to what the customer thinks is
important. Sometimes, as was the case with breakfast at The Dorchester, there’s a large
discrepancy. Sometimes, as with the Hotel Bel-Air, it’s as simple as swapping out some photos.

Ana Brant serves as director of global guest experience and innovation for the London-based
Dorchester Collection, having previously served as the quality manager for The New York
Palace and the area director of quality for The Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air. Brant
started her career with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. Brant’s public speaking engagements
have included the Harvard University Graduate School, the Malcolm Baldrige Awards Recipient
Conference, and the 2014 Cornell Hospitality Research Summit. She’s on twitter at