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A new perspective on hospitality: How Hilton uses VR to teach empathy

On a Thursday afternoon at Hilton’s headquarters in McLean, Virginia, several team members are in a conference room, excitedly awaiting their turn. They are huddled around two colleagues, each wearing an Oculus headset, clutching controllers and participating in a fully immersive and surprisingly engaging competition. The objective: Set up as many room service trays as possible within two minutes.

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“Our goal was to make our corporate team members virtually sweat,” says Blaire Bhojwani, Hilton’s Senior Director of learning innovation. “We want them to understand the physicality and complexity of hotel operations so they can better feel what it’s like to be in the shoes of a room service attendant.”

The 100-year-old company is pioneering VR technology to impart one of hospitality’s most essential ingredients: empathy.

To Bhojwani, this is no game. For the past 18 months, she and her team have introduced thousands of marketing, financial, and corporate team members to Hilton’s new virtual reality (VR) training program, called Hotel Immersion. Designed in collaboration with learning solutions developer SweetRush, the program uses both 3D computer graphics and 360-degree video to simulate tasks performed by room service, housekeeping, and front desk employees. Always a trendsetter — Hilton invented the airport hotel, the piña colada, and the first underwater hotel suite — the 100-year-old company is pioneering VR technology to impart one of hospitality’s most essential ingredients: empathy.

Among the thousands of talented new hires Hilton brings in to its corporate locations each year, only a handful arrive with hands-on experience working in hotels. That means they may inadvertently set policies that could make hotel team members’ lives more challenging. For example, adding a seemingly small task that may take housekeepers five extra minutes to clean a room compounds when you consider how many hundreds of rooms are cleaned every day.

With more than 6,000 hotel and resort properties in 119 countries and territories, Hilton has faced a logistical challenge educating its corporate team about the finer points of hotel operations. Although senior leaders have the opportunity to visit and immerse themselves in all the departments across a hotel — whether laundry, sales, or food and beverage — doing this can be a drain when multiplied across all corporate team members. VR was identified as a solution to scale the experience.

With VR training, team members can tour boiler rooms, visit kitchens, and — a fan favorite — ride the glass atrium elevator in the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner from their Memphis, Tennessee, office or anywhere in the world with a VR headset and an internet connection. They can also practice three hands-on operational tasks: setting up room service trays, checking in guests, and cleaning hotel rooms.

Our learners are shocked when they really experience how much housekeepers need to accomplish.

“In the housekeeping experience, participants have to take care of nine items in each room,” Bhojwani says. “In reality, housekeepers have 62 checklist cleaning tasks to accomplish. Our learners are shocked when they really experience how much housekeepers need to accomplish.” They’re also surprised by how deeply engrossed they become in the hands-on experience. Hilton determined this kind of training was essential to offer environments with a high degree of realism and authenticity.

In another experience, hotel team members discover what it feels like to be a guest experiencing a problem. In Exceed with Empathy, they face five frustrating guest scenarios: slow restaurant service, an improperly set up meeting room, a nonfunctioning digital key, a drawn-out checkout process, and a broken coffee maker.

 Learners, who are themselves team members, follow a choose-your-own-adventure format to experience the response when they exceed, meet, or fall below the guest’s expectations. “It’s really hard to practice those interactions in traditional learning formats,” says Jennifer Rinck, Hilton’s Vice President for learning. “I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and this is the first time I really feel like we have something that looks and feels like a real guest interaction.”

I cannot express how excited I am about VR, a fully immersive environment where learners can safely engage in hazardous activities or experience true empathy for one another.

SweetRush, whose focus is helping corporate clients improve the performance of employees, is always on the lookout for techniques and technologies to improve its training offerings. VR came into focus a few years ago in the learning and development world as lower computing costs made virtual training experiences viable. Chief Creative Officer JC Lozano summed it up this way: “Every day for 15 years, I’ve sought to change the way we dish up information to help people learn and change, and so we’ve led the charge in gamification, storytelling, animation, and so on. I cannot express how excited I am about VR, a fully immersive environment where learners can safely engage in hazardous activities or experience true empathy for one another. There is nothing quite like it, so we established our Spark team and are beyond excited to be leading the VR and AR journey with innovative clients like Hilton.”

The VR advantage has already begun to percolate throughout Hilton as it works to pilot further in its hotel operations. Hilton anticipates that the VR experience will shrink in-class training down from four hours to 20 minutes. And though some people may have hesitated to wear the VR headset at first, 75 percent walked away reporting that it improved their problem resolution and customer service skills, and 94 percent said it bolstered team members’ sense of empathy during its trial launch.

Hilton’s learning and development team has big plans for VR and its potential as a training tool. But for now, what it finds most gratifying are the moments when Hilton team members can look a disgruntled guest or colleague in the eye and say, “I understand how you feel.”

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