REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Finding new and innovative ways to enhance the guest experience is a foundational pillar of the hospitality industry. What’s strikingly different today, however, is the ever-accelerating pace at which technology is driving such improvements.
“At one time, we looked at technology simply as something that could help us run our business more efficiently,” said Bob Habeeb, president and COO of Rosemont, Illinois-based First Hospitality Group, which owns or manages 53 full-service and select-service properties across a range of major brands. “And it does do that. But we’re only now understanding that the real benefit of technology is in the whole guest experience—the entertainment, the comfort, the extent to which we can do so much to personalize and enhance the guest experience.”
Habeeb cited the new Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund. “Although we all have motion sensors now to immediately deploy the air-conditioning and so on, their system turns on the bathroom light and raises the toilet seat when you first enter the room,” Habeeb said. “That’s just amazing, since the first thing almost every traveler does after they get to their room is throw down their bag and go to the bathroom. It shows you how far you can go in addressing a universal idea of guest comfort. We’re talking about an intuitive guestroom, where the room really anticipates your needs.”
Another example of cutting-edge innovation is the smart phone-based OpenWays technology now being deployed at the landmark Delano Hotel in Miami Beach by Morgans Hotel Group, as well as in other hotels. “If you’re arriving, I can text you, ‘Welcome to Miami,’” COO Dan Flannery said. “If you’ll text me when you land, we’ll check you in and send your room assignment, and you can go straight to your room and use your smartphone as your room key. It’s great technology.” Morgans also will roll out OpenWays technology at the Hudson New York this summer, before ultimately incorporating it at all of its properties.
Many hotels are wrestling today with the next iteration of room access, with many favoring smartphone applications. “But we have found that to be somewhat cumbersome,” Habeeb said. As a result, First Hospitality is focused on the latest iris scan technology. “You have no key, no card, nothing needed to open the door except looking into a camera,” Habeeb said. “We wanted something that is very simple. But iris scan technology is also very convenient and secure.”
Yet another new technology Habeeb finds exciting is Go Boards, large interactive screens in the lobby that enable guests to find a meeting room in the hotel, a restaurant in the neighborhood or an event at a nearby venue and print out directions. Habeeb discovered Go Boards, developed by Four Winds Interactive, when Courtyard by Marriott asked its operators to install them as a standard brand amenity.
“They’re really great,” Habeeb said. “And I think you’ll see something like them in all hotels in the future because they address a very basic guest need for information.” Based on their popularity in his two Courtyard by Marriott properties, Habeeb expects the technology to be deployed in more of First Hospitality’s hotels in the future.
Habeeb also touted the electronic translation system at the company’s very tech-savvy The Wit, A Doubletree by Hilton, in Chicago. “That’s important because we are a global industry now and we have guests coming in from all over the place, so we have to make things available in their local language,” he said. “For example, we now use iPad technology to provide a broad-based guest experience in a guest’s native tongue, including control of in-room media and entertainment. And for our Chinese guests, that now includes a Chinese TV station.”
Cutting across categories
Meanwhile, famously progressive operators such as Morgans continue to push the envelope when it comes to optimal exploitation of the best available established technologies.
Morgans was the first hotelier to adopt Interactive Customer Experience technology for the iPad from Intelity Corporation in 2010, just three months after the debut of the tablet device. Today, Morgans uses ICE-powered iPads in the lobbies and guestrooms of the Delano, as well as the Royalton and Mondrian SoHo in New York.
“It’s an amenity that covers the entire guest experience,” Morgans’ Flannery said. “You can use it to program wake up calls, order room service, order your car from valet parking or check your bill before you check out. But you can also use it to source TimeOut to find out what’s going on in town or where to eat, or OpenTable to make a restaurant reservation. It’s just an easy way to do a lot of the things you ordinarily do in a hotel on a single device.”
While hoteliers enthusiastically hail technologies that enhance the guest experience, some observers pose questions that only the market itself can answer over time.
“For example,” said Bjorn Hanson, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports at New York University, “will a guest really choose a hotel because of some technological attribute if the location, brand and loyalty program attributes aren’t at least equal to the hotel that doesn’t have that technology?”
If the choice is between two exactly comparable hotels, one of which is more convenient to a guest’s in-town itinerary and the other more tech-savvy, Hanson said the typical guest will opt for convenience as the traditional core benefit of a property selection.
That conclusion, he said, is supported by multiple-brand research he did while with PricewaterhouseCoopers that showed fewer than 10% of travelers would be specifically influenced in their choice of a hotel or brand by technology.
Another critical issue for consideration, said Frank Wolfe, CEO of Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals in Austin, Texas, is how the relative value of technology is framed as a benefit.
“A lot of technology advances are being driven by what the guest has at home,” Wolfe said. “Traditionally, hospitality technology trails what the guest has at home. But that gap is quickly being closed. And I’m a stepfather of two teenage boys. If we’re traveling together, the hotel better have good Internet access so they can play games or download movies. And because the bandwidth in people’s homes today is so good, it has to be that good in a hotel. And that’s because in the hospitality industry, we’re supposed to be renting a home for the evening.”
Given that fundamental reality, Wolfe said, the real end result of the latest hotel tech wars will be about being the first to completely close the gap between technology in a guest’s home and his or her hotel room by erasing any perceived insufficiency in the hotel.
That, he predicted, will be the true Holy Grail.