It may sound like a cliché, but smartphones are changing how hotels do business. Now that most people check-in armed with the hungry little devices, hotel staff can feed guests data and services on the fly — from pictures to maps, bookings and more.

The only caveat is hoteliers must be networking experts to keep up with the dizzying ways to communicate with guests. “As more of our business is shifting to mobile, Best Western uses a number of channels to reach smartphone users,” says Karmela Gaffney, managing director, Marketing & eCommerce at Best Western. “These include mobile search, mobile display advertising, quick-response codes on printed collateral and mobile video.”

And, smartphone applications help determine what content is most relevant to specific guests. At Best Western, for example, it’s geo-coded search, local content and property searches. “Our Best Western mobile app is used by many of our most loyal guests, including elite members of our Best Western Rewards loyalty program,” says Gaffney. “The app allows them to manage their account, search for properties and book their stay.”

Of course, the emerging power of the smartphone does more than enhance the guest experience; it can be used for mobile customer relationship management (CRM) applications that are powerful tools for personalized marketing campaigns. Engaging guests on smartphones via social media, and using the data driven off such platforms, is becoming an effective way to extend a hotel’s brand.

“We are one of the first hotels in Western Canada to use GuestDriven,” says Liliana L. De Cotiis, marketing director of Loden Hotel, a 77-room boutique property in Vancouver. “The application can be downloaded for free by our guests; it helps them explore and engage with us.”

An application such as GuestDriven — developed by Montreal-based Mconcierge Systems — allows guests to make service requests to hotel departments such as dining and housekeeping. But, perhaps most interesting, is its ability to drive data off social media to help a hotel operator target-market to specific guests. “We provide our clients with the ability to understand their guest,” says June Tang, VP, Sales and Marketing at Mconcierge. “We do this through a social API [Application Programming Interface] that unlocks data about the guest.”

With consent from the user, GuestDriven can track social media and use data such as ‘likes and dislikes’ to help a hotel accurately address and market to unique guest requirements. “Our system crawls the Internet for an individual’s digital footprints,” says Tang. “It aggregates that data, and can build a profile of up to 300 categories on a particular user. This only tracks information that is being browsed through the application. So, if you are searching Google through another browser, we aren’t seeing that.”

However, the Loden’s De Cotiis admits powerful smartphone applications, such as GuestDriven, can present challenges, given that customer care is taken to a level never experienced before — and certainly beyond a landline-supported automated wake-up call. “This is about being available to our guests as best we can, but it’s a learning curve,” says De Cotiis. “A smartphone application assumes that you are on 24-7, and that level of availability is something we are still adapting to.”

The beauty of the GuestDriven application is that it’s software as a service (SaaS), which means it can be used by small or large organizations and doesn’t require an on-site implementation. “We are constantly working on the product and can automatically upgrade,” says Tang.

But, to get the full advantage of applications such as GuestDriven, a property has to have solid cellular coverage. In larger properties, or those in remote areas, or in locations where there can be significant building interference, cellular coverage can be a challenge. “We are based in Drumheller, Alta., and have had trouble getting cellular coverage,” admits Kevin Murray, director of Information Technology for Canalta Hotels. “It has gotten worse with the growth in smartphones and tablets. We have put in repeaters at our head office to address the low-signal strength — it makes a difference.”

Canalta, a family owned company, has 36 hotels in Alberta and Saskatchewan and expects to have 38 by the end of this summer. Murray says that the repeater technology called Roam Boost — and made by Danvers, Mass.’s RoamingAround — could apply to some of Canalta’s rural properties. RoamingAround certainly sees the market value: the company’s products, which include a mobile-marketing platform, are specifically geared to hotels and resorts. “This is a targeted solution,” says Sarah Smith, VP of Sales and Marketing at RoamingAround. “It helps in meeting areas and lobbies. We can amplify signals for all carriers in 5,000-sq.-ft. increments.”

RoamingAround also develops mobile applications, notably its Mobile Key, which allows a guest to use a smartphone as a key. “We can embed Mobile Key into a pre-existing application, or we can deliver it as a stand-alone,” says Smith. “A user retrieves the key via a text message — it doesn’t require a software download.”

With Mobile Key it’s easy to establish staff master keys and to control access from a central point. When a room is ready, guests receive a text and go directly to their rooms. This technology, plus many more being developed around the world, has put the smartphone at the centre of the user experience and is part of ongoing and dynamic change in the market. “The greatest challenge marketing to smartphones, and mobile in general, is the speed at which the technology is evolving,” says Gaffney of Best Western. “New capabilities are being added almost daily, devices are becoming more powerful and developers, entrepreneurs and competitors are innovating to deliver value through the devices.”

More and more data will be transferred from smartphones to wireless networks. So, the hotelier who can get the most out of his applications, ensure the best coverage and continue to enrich the guest experience while providing value, will be the smartest.

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