interview with Annika Ülem, co-founder of hotel communication platform «Guestjoy»

In Estonia based company "Guestjoy" is a hotel communication platform which helps hotels to communicate with their upcomming guests. The platform also helps hotels to raise their revenue by activelly promoting their additional services. To get a deeper insight about what is "Guestjoy" and why it's expanding in Baltics, held and interview with Annika Ülem, co-founder of "Guestjoy". Could you please explain what is "Guestjoy"?

Annika Ülem: "Guestjoy" was founded in 2014 and is guest communication platform that connects hotels and their guests. A platform where hotel can communicate with their upcoming guests prior their arrival and get the review – feedback - after their departure. Also with "Guestjoy" it is possible for the hotel to share specific offers for the guest and insights about the city, if they choose to. Aren’t hotels already doing all of that at some level, even without "Guestjoy"?

Annika Ülem: Yes, some hotels are doing that at some level! We’re always making this joke that our biggest competitor is manual work – that means all of the work "Guestjoy" can do, has been shifted to the night reception, who has to do all of that manually. Take all the reservations and send the information manually. But to be frank, we do not have any competitors, who are doing that in a way we’re doing it! With "Guestjoy" the system runs automatically – when we’re sleeping, the system sends out pre-stay and post-stay e-mails in the right time zone for the upcoming guests. How did you come up with an idea about such service?

Annika Ülem: It’s a good question. I’m coming from the hospitality industry myself and I was running a hotel with tons of additional services. But the revenue from these additional services was low – because, let’s face it – the majority of reservations are coming from online reservation systems like, etc. And all the hotels are focusing just on selling the accommodation. But in the hotel there are so many square meters that stay empty – you should know how to sell those as well! But it was always very difficult to get to the costumer – because physically you do not have the time to communicate with every guest individually. So that was my problem – reaching the upcoming guests, provide them with information about additional services available in the hotel and other information about their stay!

And the other co-founder of "Guestjoy", who is responsible for the technical side of the platform, actually, is a tourist and at that time was traveling around South-America for a year – and he was always facing the same problems as I, but from the guests point of view! Every time he went to a new city, new hotel, he didn’t have enough information about the hotel. There were no directions, no information about the hotel and sometimes even a language barrier! And if you’re travelling, you do not really have the time to search for the information – does this hotel have a laundry service, will the reception know English etc. So, in a way I was representing the problems from a hotel side and he – from the guests point of view. So that’s how the idea of "Guestjoy" was born!

But now – we’re what we are only thanks to our customers! Tell me about the name of "Guestjoy". Who and how did end up with that?

Annika Ülem: [Laughs] I came up with the name in my bathroom. We had a total of like 100 ideas. Some were already taken, because it’s hard to come up with a name that’s not already taken! We definitely wanted to come up with a name that is related with guests and guest engagement. Because for us its all about the guests and the guest service… So, we came up with this name, it was available – than we asked couple of friends to tell about the associations with this name and it worked. But it took at least a week to play with the names! It’s simple and short, so it’s catchy! For example, in Latvia people already know the name, so if you tell that you’re from "Guestjoy", it’s easier to talk. But it’s part of your branding and you have to manage it. Everyone in the world, for example, know! Earlier you said that "Guestjoy" do not really have competition. It’s quite hard to believe – can you elaborate? There must be some kind of other platforms similar to "Guestjoy" – why aren’t they competing for the same market as you?

Annika Ülem: In Baltics we really do not have any competition! Of course, looking in global scale, there always is some kind of competition. There is no industry in the world where there are no competition! I would say that "Guestjoy" has some overlay with other companies. Some are stronger with review management, some, maybe, in getting more information about the guest – but there is nobody stronger than us in up sale! And that is our main focus for now – up sale. To make tailored offers for the upcoming guests. For example, let’s say that there are coming a family with kids to the hotel – than the family is getting individual offer for extra services. We’re providing very segmented offers in the right language. I believe that this is our main strength! Also I have to mention, that we’re the official partner of “Tripadvisor” what helps us to gather a maximum number of reviews! And how does that all work from the guest-point of view? Let’s imagine that I’m a upcoming guest at a hotel that uses "Guestjoy" – I will receive some e-mail or what?

Annika Ülem: Yes! We live in a service industry and every single guest wants to be properly served and hosted. But the whole service, actually, doesn’t start from the moment the guest arrives at the premise. It starts a lot earlier – when the reservation is made! So, with "Guestjoy", the guest receives a pre-stay e-mail, in a native language, with lots of valuable information – like how to get to the hotel, is there a possibility to book a transfer – if not – how to not get cheated by the taxi companies. Also, the pre-stay e-mail can contain some tailor-made offers – like for businessman with less time to spare – there can be some restaurant suggestions. For the guest, it’s very easy to browse through that information even on their mobile phone, even on the plane with no internet connection! If the guest has some special enquiries for the hotel, he can deliver them through our system – there is no need to call or write a specific e-mail! Also, we’ve noticed that chatbots are becoming more and more popular – so we’re also providing them for our customers. It’s faster, easier and the guest can communicate with the hotel when it’s convenient to him! So, the guest knows everything he wants to know without any surprises! I saw that chatbot is in Beta version – so that’s something new for you?

Annika Ülem: Yes, it’s new! We launched it just recently - in march, 2017! Tell me about the whole "Guestjoy" now, in 2017. And who are your clients – are they all big hotels or there are also small ones?

Annika Ülem: Currently we have offices in Tallinn, and a remote office in London. Our customers are both from large hotels chains and small independent hotels. Right now, we have more than 100 hotels from 12 different countries! Our smallest hotel has around 20 rooms and the biggest has 500 rooms! Mainly we work with small and independent hotels, including independent groups – like In Latvia, we have “Mogotel” group. Also, in Latvia we work with such hotels as SemaraH, PK, Centurm, Tallink, Wellton, Pullman and Mercure. At the moment, we are not focusing that much on the international chains – at least yet. Mostly we have 4 and 5 star hotels and independent hotel chains! I know that you have plans to expand further in Latvia. Why do you feel that there is room for your company to expand here and even – for the services of your company?

Annika Ülem: Of course, that’s not a coincidence that we want to expand in Latvia. "Guestjoy" was founded in Tallin, so it’s close. And when we first came to Latvia, we got really good feedback and we made good publicity of it. Latvians are welcoming us really really well – we got our partners very fast. We started talking really quickly and they understood that there is a need for "Guestjoy"! Also in Latvia, we have partnered with Aigars Gerhards, who is our Senior Advisor now. He has lots of experience in Latvian hospitality scene and he keeps guiding us to break into the Latvian market further! We’re planning to give seminars and share the knowledge to Latvian Hoteliers more often and for sure we hope to see more Latvian hotels signing up and using our service! And that’s why we decided to expand in Latvia, while also moving in Lithuania! I would say that all the biggest Latvian hotels are already using "Guestjoy", so now we just need to get the smaller ones! We have a vision for all hotels to become more modern and I strongly believe that there is always a room for us to grow! We want to help hotels around the world improve the quality of their service. During the past two years "Guestjoy" has been growing rapidly and we can see that the demand is growing! Every hotel wants to get higher revenue and they want to get more reviews as well – and that’s where we can help! When operating in so many countries – 12 in total, and having offices or branches in some of them, do you feel the differences in these countries as an entrepreneur?

Annika Ülem: Yes! Very strong ones as well! Every market is different – in some the most value comes from up sale, the length that the people stay at a hotel also differs – so some hotels want to focus on the review part. For example, in Latvia, as well in other Baltic countries, where the length of stay is shorter, they don’t have that much time to explore everything – that’s why some tailored offers are more valuable. Every market behaves differently! Of course, we still do the same thing everywhere, but we emphasize on details! When marketing your services to the hotels, what are you promising them? What is exactly the thing from business side that can "Guestjoy" bring in? Is there any percentage of increased revenue that you can guarantee or how do you convince potential customers of the value of "Guestjoy"?

Annika Ülem: What we can guarantee is that the return of the invest will always be 5 to 7 times! The minimum is 5 times! You keep mentioning that the hotels want more reviews. Why is it so important for hotels to ask for reviews from all their customers? Wouldn’t the clients who would not be satisfied, make a review anyway, expressing their dissatisfaction? Do clients even want to make reviews?

Annika Ülem:  Without the guest there would not be a hotel! And we’ve noticed that guests love reviews! They like to read it and they like to write about it! So, the more reviews the hotel has, the better position the hotel has on Search Engines, rankings etc. When the traveler starts to search for the hotel to stay, all starts with the reviews! Because there are two main things that people look at – the price and the quality. If the price and the quality is similar, the customer choses the hotel based on something else – mostly on reviews! And it’s not only that – if the hotel has really good reviews about their service, rooms etc., a person can chose it over other criteria – like location or even price! People rely on other experiences – on what they’ve experienced! It’s becoming more and more important for the hotels to get all the reviews from the guests, because if they are good reviews, it will improve the hotel’s reputation, increase hotel visibility on the internet, especially on Tripadvisor, and get more reservations!  And for the angry guests – if they are not satisfied and they write a bad review, the hotel knows about it, so they can manage the situation and make sure that doesn’t happen anymore. Also "Guestjoy"  can help to respond to the negative comment faster and settle the situation with the costumer faster! It’s part of your marketing and branding! And the clients, who think that they got good or an “Okay” service – nothing too good and nothing too bad to report? Do they even want to be asked to review something?

Annika Ülem: Yes, the human nature is to shout when something bad has happened and that’s what we sometimes see – we see more negative reviews than the positive. But that’s misleading, because the ones who are happy, they stay quiet! The ones who are unhappy, they make the world see that! So we’re giving the tool – as long as the power – to ask for reviews from every single costumer! Not only the ones who want to go online and write about their experience, but everyone! Of course, it’s optional – there are costumers who just close it, but we see that the majority – around 55% of the costumers leave feedback. And feedback is very important for the hotel! How long does it take for the customer to make a review?

Annika Ülem: It’s quick! Very quick. I think 2 minutes! The speed has increased since we partnered up with “Tripadvisor”. So, it’s very short and comfortable service!  We have less mandatory fields, so that quickens up the process! Tell me more about the team behind "Guestjoy". I know you’re the co-founder, I know Aigars Gerhards helps you in Latvia. Who else?

Annika Ülem: We have many supporters, let’s call them that all around the world. But in our main office in Tallin we have 5 persons – we have marketing specialist – a Thai woman. We have Jegvenia who’s responsible for the sales – she speaks 5 languages, so the sales is pretty much covered! Also we have developers – both front and back end. We’re small, but we cover pretty much everything. In other branches we mostly have a sales person who is responsible for the whole team in that country! In Poland, for example, we have two people like that! The marketing and the IT, of course, comes from the main office, but the active sales is always coming from the local representatives. The bigger the market is, the more we feel the need to hire someone there. After Latvia and Czech Republic, we have our eyes set on Germany!

But most of the team within "Guestjoy" is coming from Hospitality industry. Our marketing specialist is from Bangkok, there the industry is really big and she really knows everything. Jevgenia is coming from Travel industry and the founder is coming from Airforce industry. So he knows everything about planes. Also, as I said, he’s a huge traveler, so he’s traveled the whole world – and done it solo! That’s how we’re really combined. It’s not like we’re just random people who saw a hole in hospitality and decided to do it – we really felt the need for it. Latvians kind of believe that Estonia is an IT capital of Baltic states. Since you’re managing an IT company, can you explain from your side – do you feel it as well and why is that so? Do you have some really good support from the government? What helped you building an IT company?

Annika Ülem: We can’t say that Estonia is better than Latvia in IT. But yes, we have some really good success stories… Like Skype, Transferwise, what are globally known. I think that the start-up community is really good in Estonia and it keeps growing and growing! Everyone wants to be in the start-up community in Estonia! Is "Guestjoy" a start-up company as well?

Annika Ülem: Yes! For the first three years, we were in a IT business incubator. We’re still part of the incubator – so we have access to different start-up related information and opportunities. But in a way, we’ve grown out of the incubator, because our office is not located in it anymore, we’re situated in the city center of Tallinn now. About the future of hotels and IT industry - IT companies are expanding more and more in most of the industries – do you see room for any more IT services in Hotel management? Everything already seems to be connected with IT…

Annika Ülem: On the contrary! I feel that Hotel industry if very conservative industry, so the technologies are some steps behind other industries. Like in Latvia there are still many hotels who do everything manually! Doing the reservations, calling each customer… But it takes time and I know the labor costs of that. Also, it’s hard to find good people… So, we think that with technologies you still can have very personal approach, but it can help to reduce the amount of human work and costs! For instance, what "Guestjoy" does, is provides the contact between guest and the hotel, what didn’t exist before! As I said, the service does not start from the moment person comes in the hotel by the front door and ends when he leaves – it can start earlier and end later by actually asking good feedback. One customer can give you much more than just stay within your four walls! Where do you see Latvian tourism industry in 5 years?

Annika Ülem: The chatbots are definitely coming! Up on that, I don’t want to make predictions, but there already are hotels with mobile check-ins! So I think that the future belongs to online receptions. But I’m not talking about 5 years from now, but the future! Maybe 10 or 20 years. But I believe that there will be a day when front offices of hotels disappear! There already are hotels in Germany where you go to a hotel, you enter your details and code, get your key and go to your room! And you can still communicate with the staff – for example, through "Guestjoy"! If you have such a clear prediction, is your company planning to do it?

Annika Ülem: It has crossed our mind, but for now it’s a huge invest for the hotel. You have to change the door locks, change the system and the reception. I think it’s not yet possible for the most of the hotels! Will people travel more in the future?

Annika Ülem: They already are traveling! I think that the destinations are constantly changing. But I don’t think that people will travel more – maybe even less because of all the terror attacks and things like that. We’ve already seen some decrease of traveling volume in some countries! So the hotels have to think more of selling the additional services! I’ve red that virtual travelling is becoming more and more popular. What do you think of that? Will it replace traditional traveling and maybe you have an explanation why is it becoming popular?

Annika Ülem: [Laughs] I think that it’s even in longer future! But my personal opinion would be that no – it won’t completely replace traditional traveling! I think that time issues can be the reason why this type of traveling is becoming more and more popular. People do not have time to travel. And what about you? Do you have time? Time to travel, time to practice some hobbies?

Annika Ülem: I think that it’s all about the management of your time. We can all say that we do not have time! But I plan my days – in the evening I make plans for the next day. That’s mostly because I have a family, so I need to share my time with my work and family! How do you step aside your work? Some people run, some people go hunting – what do you do?

Annika Ülem: Yes, I started running! But, to be honest, I try to spend as much time as possible with my kids. That’s something that I would like to do much more. So, whenever I have time, I spend it with them. And what about your hobbies? Or your kids are your hobby?

Annika Ülem: [Laughs] Trust me – when you’re in a start-up, it is your hobby! [Laughs]. As I said, I like running. Traveling, of course – who wouldn’t like that! Actually, I’m travelling a lot, but mostly within Europe. Not so much in Asia, as I would like to! Are you travelling mostly for business or for leisure? Maybe you know how to combine both?

Annika Ülem: I would say 50/50. I get a lot of chance to travel to France – that’s for pleasure, but now more and more we’re traveling for the work-related topics... Maybe I could merge traveling to France with business, but not for now – we’ve decided to prolong moving into that market! Maybe in the future! What is your biggest obstacle as an entrepreneur?

Annika Ülem: Hmm. We would like to speed up the sales process. The biggest obstacle might be getting to the right hotels and to the right persons within those hotels. To get the right contacts! Because for us its crucial to grow fast – as everyone nowadays! But for us – we have to take the market faster than sometimes we feel that we’re doing. So, the biggest obstacle is that sometimes we don’t get to the right contacts as fast as we would want to. Than we feel that we’re wasting time! And why is it so, if you said that you can guarantee return of invest at least 5 times?

Annika Ülem: Because hotels have big systems. Sometimes we start at the reception and they just hang up. The sales process itself is hard. Even the management itself can sometimes tell you “no” without knowing what you’re offering. And it’s everywhere, not only in some specific country. And I think that every company can tell the same thing about this. But we’re definitely improving! And that’s why we’ve decided to take market by market. For example, in Latvia, we’re participating in seminars, gaining contacts and spreading the word. But as I mentioned, we’re a start-up, so we need to bring the innovation to the hotel. They need to understand the need for us! And hotels are old-fashioned, they like the old methods sometimes. And they don’t want to let them go. That’s why we’re targeting 4 and 5 star hotels – if we start from the top, organically it will grow in the 2 and 3 star hotels as well. Returning to you – what is the most exciting travel destination you’ve ever been to?

Annika Ülem: North pole! My husband works in a company who does such kind of trips, so it wasn’t a coincidence, it was sort of planned trip. We saw hungry bear! [laughs] No, but it is quite fascinating. We went there in the August of 2016 and the days were still quite light. We had a lot of daylight. We were lucky with the weather, because it was quite warm as well. There is absolutely nothing – no trees, no nothing. Also, to see the society who lives there – because there are people living there! We visited the North pole – we saw the Russian scientists; we saw a polar bear and many other things. Also in there it is really visible how the global warming is affecting the world. Everything is melting there… Let’s say you’ve won the lottery and you’ve gotten a blank ticket – to anywhere in the world. But you must travel tomorrow. Where would you go?

Annika Ülem: I think I would go to Japan. I’ve never been there! I find it fascinating. I love other cultures and experiences, and I’ve never been in Japan, as I said. The mentality, the lifestyle – it’s very different. Also, I’d like to go to South Korea. Interesting to see. Not North Korea – because I know that they are not really showing the tourists a lot. I mean, I’m really interested in North Korea, but I know that they are not showing much. It’s quite sad!



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