HOSPITALITY TECHNOLOGY (AUG. 31, 2018) — Guest experience is top-of-mind for hoteliers and should be for bottom-line reasons. According to Hospitality Technology’s 2018 Customer Engagement Technology Study, almost half (48%) of consumers say that high-tech features in the guestroom will influence them to book at a particular hotel. In a broader sense, 33% said that a hotel simply having cutting-edge technology would drive a booking decision. IT investments for hotels, however, are notoriously skimpy – with the average technology budget coming in at 4% of overall revenue in 2017 according to Hospitality Technology’s 2018 Lodging Technology Study. About three out of five (61%) of operators plan to invest more in technology in 2018, but with lack of budget and the burden of maintaining legacy systems being named the top two challenges facing hotel IT departments, putting IT dollars in places that will reap ROI is a top concern for those holding the purse strings.
In this special report, HT takes a look at five major areas where technology is going to shape the hotel guestroom in the near future and in many cases is already having an impact. These are areas that will require investment and can offer returns as HT’s research reveals that 65% of guests are willing to pay more for hotels that offer the technologies they deem important.
It starts with booking & room selection….Many say that revenue management is all about “heads in beds.” Well, before that can happen, hotels need to address the booking path. If hotels should look to any industry on how to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world, it would be retail. What is happening in retail is an indicator of how customers want to interact with a brand and for hotels that starts with the website.
Aqua-Aston Hospitality recently conducted an extensive overhaul of its brand website (AquaAston.com) to engage potential guests with mounting pressure to offer a better e-commerce experience. The new site focuses on a more customer-specific experience. The company introduced a parametric search feature to allow consumers to more easily navigate through the brand’s portfolio of properties by being able to filter through personal preferences and needs around budget, location, guest count and desired activities. To compete with OTAs it also redesigned the Aqua-Aston website to prioritize customer engagement, steering away from an internet marketplace that simply sells and price checks hotel rooms. The site now focuses on a new shopping experience through an interactive platform that spurs engagement during a traveler’s “dreaming” and “planning” phases.
“Consumer e-commerce sites from companies like Amazon, LL Bean and Zappos are great examples of how websites are successfully catering to consumer behavior and interests to drive enhanced customer service and experience,” states James Karabelas, senior director, digital marketing & eCommerce, Aqua-Aston Hospitality. “We wanted to go beyond selling hotel nights based on location and price, but also based on whether the hotel has amenities that make it the perfect match for the type of trip the customer is planning.”
Hotels are starting to eye the concept of room selection with increasing fervor – and should. Hilton became one of the first major brands to offer room selection via its Hilton Honors app in 2014, but industry-wide adoption remains slow. Johnathan Capps, vice president of revenue at Charlestowne Hotels, says part of the reason for this sluggishness is that cross-industry collaboration is needed to move the needle. For hotels, there could be four or more different technology partners that would need to be aligned and invested for meaningful change and innovation: PMS, booking engines, CRS, CRM, etc.
Charlestowne Hotels is interested in offering guests the option to peruse available rooms within their booked room type or even specific upgrades to which they have access.
“This would allow more flexibility with room types and possible incremental revenue through upgrading,” Capps notes. “Facilitating this interaction and collaboration among technology partners is a differentiator for Charlestowne Hotels. As an operator of a majority of independent hotels, we are able to use our economies of scale to elicit integrations and innovations that would otherwise be inaccessible to single properties. We push because we’ve long recognized that we cannot be last in innovation but expect to be first in revenue.”
*65% of guests say they will pay more for hotels that offer the technology they want.
Mobile: increasingly the platform from which to innovate…Due to guest demand, hotels must find ways to incorporate high-tech touchpoints into high-touch elements. As experience is dictated by digital, mobile is the platform for brands to base innovation. Mobile rollouts cannot be without strategy and clear operational goals however, as guests expect and demand functionality through this channel.
“It’s more about choice and less about standardization,” explains Jeff Bzdawka, senior vice president, global hotel technology, Hyatt Hotels Corp. “We believe future guest-facing technology will originate with providing seamless guest experience, friction-free, mobile or digital experience. It is more about choice, and less about standardization. It is about providing choice and not forcing customers to change behavior.”
Reports indicate that more than six billion people in the world have mobile phones; as that number grows, the number of travelers utilizing mobile devices for imagining, planning and booking travel will only increase, Karabelas points out.
“A mobile-first strategy is imperative to capturing guests’ interest and business,” he says.
A key component to the reinvestment in Aqua-Aston’s digital operations and its new brand website was the launch of a mobile-first strategy to further optimize the travel shopping experience. As such, mobile responsiveness was a priority for the new website, which is powered by a proprietary algorithm to simplify and expedite the booking process.
“Our goal is to offer our guests a seamless, innovative shopping experience across any type of device,” Karabelas says. “Whether they prefer to call, text, visit our website on a desktop or mobile device, or chat with us online, our central reservations office is available to assist 24-hours a day, seven days a week.”
Mobile technology is only going to improve and become more relevant. Hotels must prioritize goals to adapt technology to meet consumer needs. Karabelas foresees the mobile-first culture also driving content sharing and socialization, which in turn will dictate purchasing habits.
Bzdawka agrees that as technology permeates lives and all industries, it is setting guest expectations for frictionless ease of access and accomplishing tasks in as few clicks as possible – ala Amazon and Instacart. He contends that hospitality must evolve to meet those expectations. Hyatt is doubling down on its investment to lever the digital experience throughout the guest journey, but Bzdawka cautions that the industry has far too many standalone solutions.
“Integration is the key to success,” he says. “It’s not just about putting technology in place – you have to start designing guest experience before you start solutioning.”
For Bzdawka, the ideal scenario is rather than having dozens of apps – having a single app where all features are delivered through for the guest. He contends that a single app will have higher engagement and satisfaction while seeing greater utilization and stickiness.
“As an industry, we have consolidation cleanup to do,” Bzdawka says. “Vendors will say that all a guest has to do is download the app, but that’s the last thing I want our guests to have to do.”
The ultimate goal of any technology must be to make something easier and more efficient. This is driving dependency on mobile devices and wearables – and it will increase exponentially. Hotels are slowly closing the gap between guests’ demands for mobile key and implementation. According to HT’s 2018 Customer Engagement Technology Study, 41% of guests want to access guestrooms via smartphone and 35% of hotels offer the technology.
Many hotels are still stuck in a chicken-or-egg quagmire, insisting that guests won’t use the technology, but data clearly indicates that guests are comfortable with using mobile technology in all areas of their life.
Hotels are recognizing the need to have adequate infrastructure in place to support mobile key and have taken a first step by implementing RFID locking technology at guestroom doors. Ed Nickelson, director of IT Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, admits that in order to enable a true self-service tech roadmap for its guest-facing technology, the property installed RFID locks from ASSA ABLOY (www.assaabloy.com).
“Keyless entry, self-check-in, mobile apps for services – all of these technologies are part of the buzz, but the challenge for our industry will be to keep the hospitality part of our service at the fore,” cautions Lesli Reynolds, senior vice president, operations, Aqua-Aston.
Beyond mobile payment and check-in, Gustaaf Schrils, CIO, White Lodging, believes hotels should be turning attention to empowering guests to use their own mobile devices for ubiquitous hotel services. This could include: ordering room service, adjusting the temperature, being the in-room remote control, selecting content, placing a room in “Do Not Disturb” mode, or signaling housekeeping for service.
“All these are possible and are being done but not yet affordably because more focused efforts are needed in making all these disparate technologies adopt standard protocols to allow interoperability,” Schrils says. “HTNG has been the pioneer on this front, but more vendors need to adopt these standards to facilitate a great mobile guest experience.”
In the case of one large, independent property in the Northeast, a renovation led to the implementation of several technologies that the ownership hadn’t initially intended, but has yielded big benefits. The resort changed to RFID locks and were able to leverage Telkonet (www.telkonet.com) technology to communicate with the doorlock via Zigbee for door contact information rather than needing a separate contact in the door jam. This enabled the property to update its in-room HVAC and lighting controls to support its green initiatives and to enhance the customer experience.
Adapting automation to be personalized for high-touch hospitalityAs guests invest in voice-enabled controls and automated innovations in their homes, hotels will need to identify ways to design and enable the guestroom environment in similar ways. Bringing the smart home concept into the hotel room will require integration and connectivity.
LG addresses this for hotels with its Pro:Centric Smart platform that allows guests to benefit from enhanced offerings — ordering room service, requesting a car or checking out directly through the TV — and snappy UI (user interface) performance, while hoteliers benefit as these powerful smart hotel TVs become more easily customized to guests’ needs. LG contends that these types of solutions mark the evolution of the hotel TV from a television to a gateway, opening the door for AI.
For Schrils, he sees the real power of AI in the combination of various pieces to create a truly powerful impactful innovation. One example would be fully automating the check-in/out process, including room selection, with biometrics (facial recognition), artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain.
“If you combine machine learning, artificial intelligence, motion sensors, beacons and robotics together with a vacuum cleaner you can have an intelligent vacuum cleaner that can automate the carpet cleaning in the entire hotel,” he says. “With voice recognition, machine learning and artificial intelligence and an Echo you can have a successful automated concierge and even a PBX for calls, wakeup alarms and service requests.”
Darren Clark, vice president of technology at Viceroy Hotels & Resorts believes the next-generation of guest mobility should offer a seamless experience and that should include services from arrival, pre-check-in through the entire stay with mobile key and payment all through the guest’s own device. Beyond this, Clark believes that AI will be imbedded in everything from chatbots at the time of booking to being a guest’s personal concierge on property.
“Voice controlled services will have an impact within the guest room experience,” Clark says. “There will be integrations for hotel services, TV, AC, and lighting controls.”
Hospitality Technology’s 2018 Lodging Technology Study reports that 70% of hoteliers’ believe AI/voice-enabled devices have the most potential out of emerging technologies. InterContinental Hotels & Resorts recently collaborated with Baidu to offer guests at its InterContinental Beijing Sanlitun and InterContinental Guangzhou Exhibition Centre access to AI Smart Rooms utilizing voice control technology. The voice tech allows guests to use more natural phrases, instead of commands to control the room's lights, curtains, etc. For instance, "I'm going to bed" will trigger the curtains to close and lights to dim.
Implementation rates of voice-enabled technology are starting to soar as options have become mainstream to say the least. Amazon announced Alexa for Hospitality and Marriott International became the first to introduce the new Alexa experience at select properties. Guests are able to ask Alexa for information, request services, call the concierge, and more. Alexa can also be configured to allow guests to control and adjust in-room devices like lights, thermostats, blinds, and TVs to their individual preferences or ask Alexa to play music.
“So many of our guests use voice technology in their home, and we want to extend that convenience to their travel experience,” says Jennifer Hsieh, Vice President Customer Experience Innovation, Marriott International. “Guests of Charlotte Marriott City Center and Marriott Irvine Spectrum will be among the first to experience a curated list of Alexa for Hospitality features. We will be evaluating guest feedback and adoption to inform how we expand the skills, features, and functionality offered through Alexa in our hotels.”
Alexa for Hospitality will support the ability for Amazon customers to temporarily connect Amazon accounts to the Alexa-enabled device in their room. Once connected, guests will be able to play their personal music from services including Amazon Music, Spotify, and Pandora; and listen to audiobooks with Audible. Hoteliers can also use Alexa for Hospitality to measure engagement through analytics and adapt services based on guest feedback.
*53% of hotels plan to add, upgrade or change suppliers of smart televisions in guestrooms.
TVs evolve to be a platform and service facilitatorThe hotel television has reached a tipping point. No longer can a large piece of glass be counted upon to be impressive to guests that have such technology in their own homes. Now the litmus test of innovation will be the integration of guestroom televisions to guests’ personal devices. According to HT’s 2018 Customer Engagement Technology Study, guest demand and hotel implementation of guestroom televisions syncing with guest devices has evened out (35%). This indicates that now the next phase is upon us. Those who truly make strides in this area now set the bar for experience – and the technology exists, so winning market share and loyalty could be an “easy get” conceivably.
“Our chain is only chain that has integrated with the STAYCASTTM experience through the World of Hyatt app,” says Hyatt’s Bzdawka. “We’ve given guests seamless connectivity and the ability through the app to broadcast whatever content they want on a nice piece of glass in the guestroom.”
Streaming content to the in-room television will continue to be the path of the future, in part because this is how guests view content in their own homes. Bobby Aitken, maintenance manager of Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa, Luxury Hotel in Johannesburg, agrees that streaming has become the norm.
“It’s the new way to watch TV,” he says. “We use Exterity for our TV system so guests can watch their content straight through the TV in the room.”
Aitken also acknowledges that teaming with Exterity was only part of the strategy for televisions. The company utilizes Samsung Hospitality televisions because their televisions interact with Exterity seamlessly and don’t require outside set top boxes. With Cisco WiFi guests can connect to Netflix and stream directly from their service provider or they can watch via the hotel’s system.
While Saxon currently only uses Exterity for the television platform, should demand necessitate, the hotel could implement capabilities to enable guests to order services through the television.
LG has introduced its hotel TV smart ecosystem that enables end users to work with a range of leading external partners, including compatibility with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. With Pro:Centric custom application, users can utilize 4K streaming and HDR. LG’s voice assistant compatibility can allow guests to control other smart devices in the room, including lights, drapes or door locks.
Hotel networks flex their fiber muscleHotels are constantly playing catch-up with what guests want, and nowhere is this more evident than in the network. HT’s 2018 Customer Engagement Technology Study reveals that 85% of guests will choose a hotel based on whether or not it offers free, reliable WiFi. The “reliable” part is the sticking point.
“What the guest really wants is what they have at home and the ability to support those devices in the guest room,” says Dick Wagner, network architecture and emerging technologies at Marriott International. “That is the ability for a guest to come to the hotel and use the devices that they normally carry now and in the future and have them seamlessly integrate into the hotel's environment (network and devices).”
Wagner believes that passive optical networking (PON) will be key to enable this and future-proof hotels, negating the need to recable in the near future.
“I would also like to see the ability to implement a smart room where each guest room has an individual processor that is the network hub of the room and thus allows the hotel to implement any new technology as needed,” he says. “This may also allow the hotel to delay the requirement to move to IPV6 since each room could use the same IPV4 design.”
Anticipating what guests want is key according to Javier Garcia, director of network infrastructure, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (MOHG). Garcia explains that chatbots and voice control are here to stay and with the explosion of IoT, the heavy use of apps for all manner of services from Uber to Yelp, and the streaming of content, he constantly looks at what is needed to support that connectivity.
“A couple years ago we didn’t have too many options,” Garcia notes. “Today fiber optics have evolved and companies like Corning are doing hybrid cabling. This means fiber optics will have a couple of strings of copper that will allow hotels to bring power.”
Garcia foresees that eventually guests’ itineraries will be complemented and connected to all services available. Uber pickups and reservations for restaurants will all be scheduled automatically as the hotel reservation will guide guests as soon as they wake up and leave a hotel.
Currently MOHG still uses fiber to the room as Garcia feels it provides the best service and “pipe,” but he says copper is playing a good game of catchup. Garcia says that today hotels can have multi-gig technology with copper. This new type of switch with the NBASE-T standard can negotiate different speeds of bandwidth and enables the network to have more than 1 gig of throughput, which is excellent in a high density area.
Nelson Garrido, senior vice president information technology, Thayer Lodging, Brookfield Hotel Properties, agrees that fiber is currently the way to go so hotels don’t need to revisit the network in the next 10 to 15 years.
“No matter what you’re putting into the room, you’ll have the pipe to handle it,” he says. “It’s only going to require more and more bandwidth going forward. Everything is going to be on an IP network going forward. Just like homes – TV, Alexa, thermostats, door locks … it will be the same thing in the guestroom.”