The future of hotel technology is in your hands — or your pocket, judging by Hotelier magazine’s recent panel discussion, which invited hospitality executives to weigh in on how technology is changing the way they do business. While mobile innovations topped the list as the most pressing trend, hoteliers are also coping with a customer base driven by instant gratification, whether that pertains to a seamless check-in process, limitless in-room entertainment possibilities or communicating via social media.
Revealing what’s in store for the new year and beyond is Dave Norton, regional director of IT for Stamford, Conn.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts; Warren Markwart, president of the Toronto-based MK2 Hospitality Inc. consulting firm; Steve Giblin, president and CEO of Vancouver-based SilverBirch Hotels & Resorts; and Chris Day, senior director of Marketing for Toronto-based Expedia Canada Corp.
HOTELIER: What will be the most important technology trends of 2014?
Dave Norton: Cloud computing is on everyone’s radar. Hotels, including Starwood, are constantly looking to standardize the environment for many reasons. It means easier deployment of new applications, and it enables us to share important insight and information about our customers with our global team more seamlessly than in the past.
Steve Giblin: Hotel guests travel with an increasing number of personal devices and their own information and entertainment content. We have to respond to this trend with guestroom technology design and high bandwidth availability. For example, a guest should be able to use their Netflix account in their room. Guests also prefer to interact with hotel staff through technology rather than picking up the phone. Check-in can be allowed through iPad, mobile apps or check-in kiosks. Guest service issues can be monitored via social-media monitoring tools and responded to in real-time — the objective is for the guests to make their request electronically while hotel personnel deliver the personal service.
Warren Markwart: Mobile check-in is the game-changing prelude in how we transact and communicate with our guests. It will give the arriving guest more choice about their stay, the type of room, its location and rate. It will give hotels more certainty of the needs and wants of the guest and also confirmation of when the guest is actually arriving.
Chris Day: Not only are Canadians using their mobile devices for GPS services, staying in touch with social networks while on vacation and checking the weather while away, but more and more they are using it for booking travel. According to a survey conducted by Expedia.ca earlier this year, almost 90 per cent of respondents — 88 per cent — say they find it very useful to have up-to-the-minute information about hotel reservations, flight status and other details available on their smartphones; and 79 per cent of Canadians said they always bring their smartphones when travelling within Canada.
HOTELIER: What do operators need to know with regard to moving data to the cloud?
DN: Starwood has taken the approach that we will move applications and data to the cloud where it is appropriate and makes sense. Some things are easier to move than others and can be done ex-peditiously. Owners are concerned about whether these costs will hit the bottom line. Typically, cloud applications need more justification in terms of return on investment as year-one costs are almost always higher and decline substantially in years two through five. One of the major challenges of moving to the cloud is potential performance issues. Not only is bandwidth required for guest needs, but admin users will need additional bandwidth for these applications. It is a difficult juggling act and one that we will face more and more going forward.
SG: Storing data in the cloud is a personal choice each individual organization needs to make based on risk and/or reward. There are cost savings associated with certain services, however there are also increased costs in operational budgets by going to Software as a Service. As well, operators need to be keenly aware of what data they can move to the cloud and what systems can operate and integrate with cloud data stores.
HOTELIER: What software is changing the way you do business in your hotel?
SG: SilverBirch Hotels & Resorts recently launched LobbyFriend, a temporary private social network for hotels, exclusively distributed by [the U.K.-based] Quadriga. To access it, guests are provided with a PIN upon checking in and invited to download the free LobbyFriend app to their mobile device. Once logged on, guests will have immediate access to information, including local events, restaurant recommendations, and, best of all, the hotel’s exclusive deals and special offers.
DN: Mobile has become a major focus in terms of how guests find our hotels and book their stays. In September, we launched the new SPG App for iPad, joining SPG’s iPhone and Android apps to provide a seamless guest experience for both our business and leisure guests.
HOTELIER: Which social-media stream is your operation focusing on right now, and what impact has it had on your business?
DN: Starwood has a worldwide team that monitors social-media activity for our hotels. Spread across five offices around the world, staff monitors it 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. They monitor online activity — Facebook, Twitter, forums, YouTube, photos, blogs, news and reviews — for comments, both positive and negative, about brands and hotels worldwide. This team is able to answer questions and work to resolve guest issues before, during and after stays. Social media gives us the tools to interact with the guest while still on the property, to engage in resolving their experience issues personally.
SG: We focus on many social-media streams, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs and Pinterest as well as actively ‘listen’ to all online customer feedback from multiple platforms. Focusing on so-cial-media streams increases knowledge of and engagement with the customer, again leading to a better guest experience and a sustainable competitive advantage.
CD: The travel booking industry relies heavily on word-of-mouth recommendations — building and maintaining meaningful relationships with consumers keeps our brand top of mind, and Facebook is a great avenue to connect. Given that travel is such a visual and emotional activity, Facebook also allows us to connect with consumers by highlighting key travel destinations with photos and fun facts.
HOTELIER: Guests expect free Wi-Fi in hotels, so how can hotel operators handle bandwidth challenges?
SG: We provide free Wi-Fi at our properties. Depending on total available bandwidth, we use tech-niques to limit the available bandwidth per individual connection while still providing the guest the ability to stream online media services, such as Netflix. Bandwidth requirements will continue to rise as more devices are brought onto the property. Whereas in the past, we could expect one device per guest, today we calculate, on average, three portable devices per guest. We expect this trend to continue to increase.
WM: Operators can implement dual-level Wi-Fi. [It could be] free or a reduced cost for slow speed — for email and general web surfing — and [require] an access fee for high speed, for video streaming and high-volume downloading. Wi-Fi can be offered in data packs where guests can purchase a set amount of data, similar to how you buy a cellphone or home Internet access… Guests will be demanding more Wi-Fi access as video streaming and data-hungry apps consume more and more data.
HOTELIER: As hotels move towards sustainable operations, what types of technological in-novations are you implementing?
DN: About four to five years ago we introduced a desktop tool that will turn off monitors after a period of inactivity. Over that period we estimate we have saved over $2 million in energy savings. Just this past year, we started virtualizing our server stacks, resulting in smaller footprints and further energy savings.
SG: We have reduced our footprint on physical servers by 99 per cent. This means, we use less electricity and generate less heat, not to mention the added benefits of reducing infrastructure ad-ministration.
In addition, we recycle all computing equipment by donating to charities, non-profits and low-income families.
HOTELIER: What technology trends can we expect the industry to embrace beyond 2014?
DN: Mobile technology, especially tablets, will continue to explode, and desktops and laptops will continue their steady decline in sales. Starwood will continue to focus on mobile development and deepen support in four key areas: seamless booking, social integration, personalization and state-aware [technology that can change and pivot depending on where a guest is or where they are in the booking process].
SG: Guest service starts long before arrival. For example, it is already common to book online or from a mobile device using a hotel’s app, checking real-time availability and amenities. However, this experience will get slicker and more integrated, as the booking system recognizes that this reservation is from a repeat client and immediately applies their preferences to the booking — not just room preferences but also personal preferences such as room temperature and lighting.
CD: As we move into 2014 and beyond, we anticipate Canadians will continue to want both quality and convenience, especially when it comes to travel.… We’ve seen travel [booking] move from brick-and-mortar agencies to online, and now we are seeing a shift to mobile. The growth of the Expedia Mobile App is forcing us to continuously reinvent ourselves and our offerings, and that’s a good thing. We recognize the user experience for booking on mobile is different than booking online; therefore it needs to be that much easier, quicker and better.
WM: Millennials are becoming the road warriors of travel, and they communicate and transact in ways that couldn’t be imagined 10 years ago. Our business is still selling clean hotel rooms, serving good food and giving them a place to interact with other people — we are evolving in a multitude of ways in how we will transact and interact with our guests.