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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022
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Engaging Guests

Communication platform Whistle has broken out of startup mode. The Westlake Village company, founded in 2015, makes an automated, cloud-based software for communication between hotel management and guests. And having proven its viability, it’s looking to scale up operations, according to Chief Executive Chris Hovanessian. “There are opportunities for us to accelerate growth even further because we have our model correct,” Hovanessian told the Business Journal. “We’re now looking to replicate on a larger scale.” Whistle’s platform integrates with a hotel’s property management system and aggregates customer communications into a simple chat interface. It automatically greets every guest with a welcoming text message when they check in. If guests have requests throughout their stay, say for extra towels, they can ask for them in the text exchange. Based on the complexity of the request, Whistle either automatically files a service order or dispatches the message to a housekeeper or other human employee, then notifies the guest when the task is done. Hovanessian said this concept effectively solves the problem of guest engagement in the modern hospitality market. “Today’s guest would rather not interact in person or pick up the phone and get placed on hold. That’s why intermediary review sites are so popular to retroactively manage feedback,” he said. That degree of separation between guests and staff means some guests won’t notify hotel management if they’re unhappy with aspects of their room or service. But those same discrepancies are likely to show up on review site Yelp, possibly deterring other travelers from staying there in the future. Whistle eliminates that disconnect and helps hotels give guests more personalized service – through automation – thus improving guest experiences and customer feedback. Gus Sader, chief executive of L.A. hotel management and turnaround company Sader Hospitality, said hotel communication software was born from the need to cater to two generations of travelers with wildly different hospitality preferences. Travelers ages 50 and above are more traditional and like interacting with human employees, he said. The new generation of travelers in their 20s, however, prefer privacy and seclusion. “How can we maintain our business with our traditional customers and bring new business from the new generation?” Sader asked. “I always support technology in the back of the house, but always prefer a human touch in the front of the house. Hospitality is not a robot business – it’s a people business.” He said communication software for hotels first hit the market about 10 years ago as the smartphone generation began to travel on their own. Fitting the market Hovanessian acknowledged competition from concierge apps such as RoomAssistant and HelloShift but contended that Whistle’s user interface is the most effective: “Hotels rank us as easiest to use,” he said. It also sidesteps some competitors by targeting boutique or independent properties as clients. “Our portfolio is about 50-50. The other half is branded properties or chains,” Hovanessian said. That diversity means Whistle serves such clients as five-room bed and breakfasts while also working with 3,000-room resorts such as Vacation Village in Orlando, Fla. “We can operate pretty much anywhere across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, Europe, Singapore and a lot more,” said Hovanessian. Whistle’s pricing depends on what package a hotel chooses. It costs $1 to $4 per room per month, on average. Contracts are negotiated on a month-to-month basis. “We want to earn our customers’ business every month,” Hovanessian said. For Big Bear Cool Cabins, an independent rental management company with 400 quaint units in the mountains of the San Bernardino National Forest, that meant customizing Whistle with a new employee-to-employee chatroom. “Whistle is the tool we didn’t know we needed until we had it,” said Reservations Manager Trish Armstrong. “We can’t live without it.” Armstrong said Whistle’s most attractive feature to Big Bear Cool Cabins is the ability to reach employees in the field. Because housekeepers and other service workers are rarely in the company’s office, organizing cleaning arrangements and filling service requests was once a convoluted process that required lots of phone calls. Keeping guests appraised at each step added to the inconvenience. When the company first started using Whistle in March 2015, Armstrong asked Hovanessian to build an internal employee chatroom to help with these communication bottlenecks. “Now with Whistle, that entire process comes as a text,” she said. “It streamlines all of our tasks.” Sader, the consultant, said the initial capital investment required for a communication software means it might not be right for every hotel — it depends on a hotel’s category (two-star, three-star, four-star, etc.) and the guest profile it targets. He said programs such as Whistle would be most helpful for business hotels in major markets like L.A., New York or Atlanta, especially those that host big conventions. “If you have 800-rooms-plus, you must have technology that meets guest expectations at every level,” Sader said. Perfect timing Whistle got its start at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where Hovanessian met his eventual co-founder Johnathan Rojas. After walking different paths early in their careers — Hovanessian in corporate relocation and John in hospitality — the two realized they’d experienced many of the same communication pain points in their work and looked for a solution to apply within the hospitality industry. In 2015, the duo had built a demo of what would become Whistle. They debuted it that year at the Entrepreneur 20X start-up pitch competition at the HITEC trade show hosted by Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals and placed first, winning “most innovative idea.” “That gave us the confidence that the industry needed this and the timing for market was right,” Hovanessian said. Through a connection on the fledgling company’s board of directors, Whistle was able to snag office space at Hub101, a small business incubator in Westlake Village run by California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. It still uses the facility as its headquarters, with a satellite office in Long Beach. “I check the mail here,” said Greg Monterrosa, community manager at Hub101. “When I started noticing the checks made out to them needed their own separate box, it became evident they were a real game-changer in their industry. They went from a handful of checks a week to needing their own box in our mailroom.” As it turned out, Whistle’s timing to market couldn’t have been better. “When we first debuted, it was an uphill battle in terms of educating hoteliers about the need for the solution because messaging wasn’t as prevalent then. (Hotels) figured traditional channels of customer service were still applicable. Now, it’s more of a focus on which solutions or provider is best for their property,” Hovanessian said. Today, the company has nearly doubled its revenue each of the past three years. That growth means Whistle, currently a compact eight-person team, is looking to hire. Hovanessian said the company is seeking additional employees in marketing and sales. “(Hub101’s) metric of success is how many high-paying jobs we can create in the region. They’re doing that. They’re going to start hiring neighbors of ours, people that live in our community,” said Monterrosa. “I’m proud of Chris and the whole team for going at the speed they have and putting that work in.”

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