Technology can be found in virtually every aspect of today’s hotel operations. From self-service kiosks and in-room sensors to kitchen appliances and door locks, chains and independents alike are seeking innovative ways to streamline operations, reduce costs and, most importantly, enhance and customize the guest experience. Much is hidden behind the scenes in cloud-based services for back-end functions, such as reservation systems, customer-relationship management and energy-usage monitoring. Then there are the customer-facing technologies that are adding wow factor to the guest experience, such as mobile check-in, in-room streaming, interactive display panels; the list goes on.
But there is one underlying trend that plays a role in just about every innovation out there and it’s one that hoteliers are constantly having to invest in with each passing year — connectivity. Whether talking Wi-Fi or mobile, the ability to connect the technology dots is becoming the lynchpin in any hotel-tech strategy. Whatever the plan, Gary Patrick, CEO of Hotel Internet Services in Clearwater, Fla., says hotels must be on top of their networks at all times. “Hotels have to make sure that whatever they do, connectivity is always on and their network is as robust as it can be to handle traffic. It has become a top guest demand.”
Warren Markwart, president, MK2 Hospitality in Toronto, confirms that Wi-Fi continues to be the single biggest aggravation for hotel guests. “If a guest walks into a room and there is a dirty bathtub and bad Wi-Fi, they will complain about the Wi-Fi first. It is the number-1 guest complaint today.”
Another key buzzword dominating the connectivity conversations is IoT (Internet of Things). “There’s a lot of talk about people starting to build this into technology, including HVAC systems, door locks, lighting, alarm clocks, thermostats, vending machines, mini bars, kitchen appliances and beacons for tracking hotel guest activity. Anything with an IP address can be monitored and maintained,” Patrick explains.
Then, of course, there is the mobile factor. Digital engagement via mobile is becoming a must-have in hotel operations, Markwart says. “Digital customer engagement is about the way hoteliers talk to their customers and how the customer talks to them.”
He cites studies that show between 50 and 60 per cent of all same-day reservations in the leisure category are made on smartphones. “It’s one of the areas that is the most explosive in terms of what is happening in hotels right now. Requesting towels, late checkout, connecting with room service — all of these can be done [with mobile devices].” Sunray Group in Toronto is banking on digital engagement with its new GuestLink service — a tablet-based system being rolled out in the company’s guestrooms. The interactive devices can be programmed to broadcast information on daily specials, late checkout, daily news, local attractions, and menus. Guests can place tablet-to-tablet video calls within the property, or make requests to departments without having to speak to someone. “That will make things pretty efficient for us and our guests,” says Kenny Gibson, president. As Sunray looks to its tech future, Gibson says one of the biggest technology areas has been in and around check-in and check-out processes. “Over time, there has been a movement to do away with room keys and replace them with the guest’s mobile device.”
Marriott was one of the first to introduce mobile-check-in and room-ready alerts in 2014, says Laura Pallotta, regional VP of Sales & Marketing at Marriott International in Mississauga. It is continuing to add features to its branded mobile app platform, such as room-upgrade or late-check-in requests. “In a recent re-launch, we also expanded the Mobile Key function, so members can check in using their mobile device and go straight to their room using [their device] to open the door.”
The in-room experience is another area where hoteliers are putting emphasis on innovative technologies. A big trend is replicating the seamless at-home entertainment experience, Markwart says. “Guests want to walk into a room and function like they do at home. They want the pictures and sounds to be the same,” Markwart says.
However, it’s not quite as affordable as the mobile app scenario, he cautions. “You need smart TVs and the right connectivity. That often requires a large capital expenditure.” Hugo Germain, director of Development at Group Germain Hotels, says two of its newest Alt properties in St. John’s and Calgary, will include the latest iteration of in-room connected panels that allow guests to perform multiple functions — from controlling entertainment systems to in-room temperature, lighting and blinds — from their bedside. The intent, Germain says, is to simplify the guest experience.
While it may sound mundane, easy access to connection points in guestrooms is a critical factor for guests these days, whether it’s a control panel, USB ports or standard outlets, Germain says. “We are making sure these are above tabletop level and next to each side of the bed so it is always convenient for guests,” he adds.
While the furor of activity revolves around connectivity on all fronts, there is the question of what the next wave will be. Markwart has his own “future think” list. On it is some “small stuff” such as new charging needs for devices and self-service systems that will dispense wine with a swipe of a room card. “The iPhone 8, for example will generate demand for different connectors.”
Already on the scene, but growing fast, are interactive wall panels that are evolving into powerful marketing and information-delivery tools. “There is some fascinating stuff going on in lobbies and convention floors,” he says.
Then there is the stuff of science fiction, such as robotics for routine room-service functions, Markwart notes. Even virtual reality is on the radar, but that will take some time before it can be applied in a way that makes sense, he believes. Not all tech innovation is about saving money, he says. “It’s about how they can use it to enhance and improve guest service.”
Volume 29, Number 4
Written by Denise Deveau