A digital revolution is hitting the hotel world and while less contact with guests might seem like a paradox in an industry built upon hospitality, guests and hotel staff seem equally ready to embrace the change.
Options like digital key cards and direct text messaging with hotel staff may feel like a novelty for some guests, but a digitized guest experience isn’t a new concept, according to Tanya Pratt, VP of strategy and product management for OPERA Cloud PMS at Oracle Hospitality.
“We’ve been talking about this in the industry for a really long time, but what the pandemic has done is pushed it to the forefront and made it more of a must-have,” she says.
Adam Kramer, hotel sector lead for Deloitte, explains that the upfront cost of tech updates, such as the funding needed to retrofit doors to accommodate digital key cards, was a sticking point for many hotels until the pandemic forced contactless solutions to the top of their priority list.
“It was always going to be a trend, but it was going to be a bit of a slow burn because of the cost implications,” he says, “but COVID put it on steroids.”
As the use of QR codes and other contactless tech ramped up across many industries during the pandemic, guests also became more accustomed to interacting with it and ready to see it integrated into their hotel experience.
“We’ve really seen the program take flight here as business has started to pick up for everybody,” says Sean Muir, director of rooms for Kimpton Saint George in Toronto, speaking about the IHG Hotels & Rewards app. Among its many features, the app encourages guests to share their approximate check-in time before arriving at the hotel.
“As the system initially rolled out, it was a little bit slower — people were maybe not too keen on using it — but we’ve really seen a good chunk of guests using it here in recent months,” Muir adds. “Once they use it once and they get comfortable with it, they’re more willing to continue to use it if it’s working to their advantage.”
Indeed, the right technology can make meaningful improvements for guests. Muir notes, for example, that a digital check-in option allows guests to customize their arrival experience.
Returning guests who are familiar with the property might choose to check-in digitally and go straight to their rooms, while new guests may opt for a traditional check-in at the front desk so they can get a run-down of the hotel’s amenities. “It gives us a really good opportunity to get the guests in as quickly as they want to get in,” Muir says.
A digitized guest experience also allows the hotel to replicate the conveniences guests enjoy in their day–to-day lives, increasing their satisfaction with their stay.
“Guests are bringing their own personal expectations into their hotel experience, so if I can WhatsApp with somebody in my personal life, I should be able to do it when I’m in the hotel as well,” says Oracle’s Pratt.
Additionally, with staffing problems continuing to hamper the hotel industry, tech may offer relief. “It does allow the hotels to do more with less,” says Pratt, pointing to digital check-in as an example. “You’re directing the traffic from the front desk directly to the room.”
Deloitte’s Kramer says that while a more digitized guest experience doesn’t necessarily make it possible for hotels to operate with smaller teams, it can automate manual processes, which ultimately frees up staff time and workload capacity.
He notes that digital solutions that allow guests to place direct requests for services, for example, can streamline staff time. “Five to 10 years ago, if you needed shampoo or towels, you would pick up the phone and someone would spend time talking to you and then fill in a request on the PMS,” he explains.
“If you can automate that step and get rid of the phone call, get rid of the conversation and the manual entry, you’ve already saved a little bit of time. Now, you add that up over all the rooms in the hotel and all the guests and those savings really do add up.”
Kimpton’s Muir says that the IHG app’s check-in time feature provides peace-of-mind for guests who want to know if their room will be ready when they arrive, but it also allows his team to optimize their work flow. “One of the first things we do the morning of arrival is we go through all those rooms and try to prioritize them to get those guests checked in and ready to go,” he explains. “All that information is as beneficial for us as it is for the guests – to have an idea of our arrival patterns.”
Like Kramer, however, Muir says tech aids in the labour shortage indirectly, rather than completely eliminating certain staffing needs. “The items are here to help the team be more productive versus replacing a task for them,” he says.
Deloitte’s Kramer adds that tech may also indirectly impact the labour shortage by increasing employee satisfaction and retention. “We’re able to streamline some of those manual processes that people used to deal with, so you’re able to dedicate the people you do have on your team to more value added activities and hopefully more employee engagement,” he says.
This sentiment is echoed by Dan Morton, Hilton’s VP of guest experience, who says that features like digital check-in, make both guests and employees happier. “It enables our team members to engage more deeply with guests who need or prefer a more personal touch,” he says. “We really are working on these things not only for our guests, but to make our team members’ lives better, too.”
A more digitized guest experience also opens up new potential revenue streams for hotels. Morton says that digital check-in, for example, creates excellent opportunities to present upgrades and other offers to guests.
He adds that many global Hilton properties also now offer digitized hotel guides — a feature that may soon be coming to the brand’s Canada properties as well. “You can scan a QR code and you have everything on your phone, which is contactless and super convenient for guests to have that with them as they walk around the property or come and go,” he explains.
“It provides a really interesting opportunity over time to further connect digitally to other services at the hotel — whether a restaurant or a spa — which connects to visibility and then potential revenue opportunities directly through that.”
Deloitte’s Kramer says hotels are only just beginning to tap into the ancillary revenue potential that comes with integrating new tech. “I think this will be an exciting focus area in the next five years or so — all the creative ways hotels are starting to increase their ancillary revenues through technology,” he says.
Kimpton’s Muir says that tech like Kipsu, which Kimpton uses to communicate with its guests via text, allows hotels to create a new type of connection with guests but one that’s no less personal in spite of being digital. “I think it goes so much further to let guests know that there’s someone there who’s personally interested in their stay and what we can do to help them,” he says.
BY JESSICA HURAS