Connected hotel rooms: Balancing the risks and rewards
Connected hotel rooms: Balancing the risks and rewards
13 NOVEMBER 2019 1:00 PM

As guests’ technology needs evolve, the hotel industry must evolve with them, but not at all costs.

About 40% of U.S. households use smart speakers such as Google Home and Amazon Echo, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners data.

Like many, I routinely ask Alexa for help with things like playing a song, ordering online, checking my calendar or changing my thermostat as I’m walking out the door. As a hotelier, I’m always trying to make our properties feel as close to home as possible. So, does that mean integrating connected technology into our guestrooms?

The answer is complicated. As with any consumer technologies that are tailored to the hospitality industry, smart-home technology needs to have clear benefits for our guests that outweigh the risks and the costs.

Using the example of voice assistants, connected technology needs to have industry-specific software as the back-end control to handle guest requests properly—and, most importantly, safely. This customization allows a device to understand what to do when guests ask it to order extra pillows or place a wake-up call. The software also lets management clear the conversation history after a guest checks out, to ensure their privacy.

This type of software is becoming mandatory in new-builds across hotel brands. In 2018, Amazon rolled out Alexa for Hospitality, which is designed to work with smart-technology platforms that are already common in many hotels and let guests do things like change the TV channel, lighting or temperature in their rooms using smart devices. Web-enabled technology can also be customized for individual hotels, allowing guests to book a spa appointment or order roomservice.

But this increasing level of connectivity in hotel rooms leads to serious privacy and security risks that existing software doesn’t fully address. The more connected rooms become, the more opportunities bad actors, such as hackers, have to access valuable consumer data—through an internet port that controls a window blind, for example, or web-enabled access to a playlist.

Given the risks, do our customers really want more smart technology away from home? While a certain slice of consumers might be thrilled with the idea, many are understandably wary about having their every request—and personal data—digitally recorded and possibly exploited. With corporate data breaches regularly making headlines, it’s no surprise our customers are afraid Big Brother might be watching and listening.

As owners and operators, we have a responsibility to protect our customers’ security and privacy first and foremost. With connected rooms, that means keeping up with the latest smart technology and understanding if and when to implement it in our hotels. As with keyless entry, we should only roll out the technology once we can ensure the risks outweigh the rewards.

In addition to vital consumer privacy concerns, we have to keep in mind the substantial costs associated with connected rooms: acquiring the latest devices, subscribing to the appropriate back-end controls, installing and maintaining devices, updating and maintaining the back-end controls, installing other smart technology platforms, and insuring these pieces against unknown security or privacy perils that even the most imaginative actuary hasn’t yet dreamed up.

As an industry, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves when it comes to connected devices and smart-technology platforms. Consumers are clearly curious about this technology but not yet ready to embrace it completely. It’s still too much of an unknown, with risks that overshadow the benefits of using a smart device to order extra toiletries or a burger from roomservice.

Web-enabled technology in guestrooms is an exciting hospitality trend to track closely. But until we can ensure customer security and privacy, it’s not something to jump on at all costs. Instead, our focus should be to provide best-in-class experiences to each and every one of our guests. That includes bolstering the Wi-Fi capacity to accommodate guests with multiple devices, which is one example of how guest needs have continued to evolve and the hotel industry has risen to meet those expectations.

Shreyas “JR” Patel is the Founder, President, and Chief Operating Officer of Helix Hospitality, a multi-faceted, Chicago-based hospitality company with services including hotel investment, ownership, management and construction/renovation. Patel’s innovative leadership swiftly expanded the company portfolio to include 11 properties and 300 employees in under 10 years, and directly influenced the investment portfolio growth from under $1M to over $100M. His success earned him a spot in Crain’s 2019 Chicago Notable Entrepreneurs list, which profiles entrepreneurs who have influenced and made significant impact within the Chicago business community.

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