There’s no escaping it. Technology continues to advance at an alarming rate. Several technological innovations we rely on today were once unfathomable. At first blush, Twitter sounded like something from a Saturday morning cartoon. And who could have predicted the massive appeal of Facebook, a social-media channel that asks users to tell the world their “status.” And, social media is just one piece of the technology puzzle. Today, cloud-computing, mobile optimization and increased bandwidth are topics of interest at hotels across the globe. It’s clear, big business is tethered to the digital world, so hoteliers need to reduce costs, increase their efficiency and gain an edge — something technology is helping them do.
Hotelier recently chatted with three IT executives in the hotel industry to find out how technology trends are affecting their hotel companies and the industry overall. Our panel was comprised of Vineet Gupta, chief information officer, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts; Charles Bureau, director, Information Technology and Communication, Groupe Germain Inc.; and Geoff Allan, GM, Hôtel Le Crystal, Montreal.
Hotelier: What do you see as today’s top tech trends?
Vineet Gupta: From services to support, technology continues to play a very important role in the travel industry. Looking at some of the top tech trends influencing our business, I have to say “big data” has huge implications for almost every operator in our sector. Compared to many other industries, hotels have been slow in addressing data-driven marketing. That’s not to say hotels don’t have a lot of information on their customers and operations — most do — but many have been inadequate in fully leveraging, consolidating and segmenting this data.
Another area that’s getting quite a bit of attention is cloud-computing, and it’s something we’ll be focusing on at Fairmont. Recently, we employed a cloud-based solution for a new recruitment tool we rolled out globally, and there are other applications we can explore as well. A few other game-changers include mobile and social networking, and security is always a top-of-mind area.
Charles Bureau: First of all, mobility is a big trend. Everything needs to be mobile. People want to access content and our reservation systems wherever they are, be it on their tablets, phones or laptop. Cloud-computing is another trend. It is one of the better ways to achieve mobility and allow companies to concentrate on their core business instead of hardware maintenance. The fact that cloud-computing doesn’t require any capital expenditure is interesting. However, security options must be closely analyzed.
Also, we can’t discount social media. For Groupe Germain, social media is not necessarily a trend but rather an additional way of extending our client experience. We’re active on various platforms and leverage them to engage our current and future guests.
Other top trends include CRM [customer relationship management] and ERP [enterprise resource planning]. CRM helps hoteliers optimize guest-information management while ERP allows hoteliers to optimize their financial management and interpretation. Lastly, guest apps are huge. For example, we have a virtual concierge app for Alt Hotels that allows guests to find local hot spots, make reservations and access hotel services. Wake-up calls, for instance, can be programmed from the palm of their hand.
Geoff Allan: A few of the things we’ve been working on are seamless connectivity upon arrival; mobile-office accessibility for researching the property and viewing services in-house; automated check-in/device room access; content rich data on mobile platforms and increasing our bandwidth.
Hotelier: Name a few guest-friendly technologies your hotel is considering.
VG: For us, having a secure and reliable high-speed and wireless network continues to be of utmost importance. This infrastructure is critically important to everything we do on the technology front. So, for us, it’s about maintaining this but also taking it to the next level with the increase in bandwidth usage we’ve seen over the last couple of years. Layered on top of this, we’re looking at mobile applications for both colleagues and guests to help make the stay experience as seamless as possible. For example, we’re piloting the use of tablets for check-in at some of our locations and have received excellent feedback from guests. Another great example would be Fairmont Pacific Rim, where we recently equipped our housekeeping staff with iPads to help them stay up to date on guest requests and preferences and manage task lists.
CB: We have many projects in mind, but one that was recently implemented, and is quite innovative, is the elimination of video-on-demand services in our hotels. We have found more and more guests are streaming their own movies and video content online instead of using the video-on-demand service. We chose to facilitate their access and improve their viewing experience by increasing the bandwidth available at each of our Le Germain and Alt Hotels. We now have fibre-optic connections that provide speeds of 15 to 30 Mbps. We’re closely monitoring the bandwidth usage and can increase it as the need arises.
GA: Something else we’re keen on is RF [radio-frequency] and GPS-proximity indicators. This would allow us to “expect” the guest. Recognizing guests in the F&B area, our spa and our shops via “e-signature,” or other similar RF technologies, is also on our mind.
Hotelier: What current or emerging technology excites you the most in terms of its potential to boost your bottom line?
VG: Hands down, it would be mobile devices. There’s great upselling potential we’ve only just scratched the surface on — whether it’s our customers’ own devices or ones we’re providing them with in the hotel. We’re allocating substantial resources to look at and take action on how we market to, upsell and communicate with our guests through mobile.
CB: Guest applications and mobile platforms that, on a daily basis, are increasing in use. By being present on mobile platforms, we are, in essence, always with our guests and have a closer relationship with them even when they’re not physically in our hotels. This keeps us top of mind. The combination of increased presence and new mobile online reservation tools will have an impact on our bottom line.
GA: I would say automated check-in and device room access in addition to in-room cloud access.
Automated check-in gives guests control of inventory and they can “opt in” on amenity offers. It’s a faster check-in that guests control. The guest makes their own personal choices. Our thinking is: for various market segments it’s relevant, convenient and would likely increase revenue.
Device access is about “card-less” processes. No more cards — it saves time at reception and, again, makes the guest feel their suite is theirs. We expect that seamless integration of this system will take some time.
In-room cloud access is already available and simply transfers the residential experience to the hotel level, giving the guest the ability to access files, media, use social media, playback media, print — all features we use at home. This standard will soon be the norm. However, questions about in-room interfaces — for example, Pay TV, the conduit to the outside — could be raised [in reference to] whether they’ll help or hinder cloud integrations.
Hotelier: Which social media channel is giving you the most traction?
VG: Social media has emerged as a very important marketing tool for our brand. We see Facebook, Twitter and other sites as places where we can engage our guests, heighten awareness of our product offerings, drive customer loyalty, provide customer service and more. We’ve had the most traction though, by far, from Facebook and Twitter. We’ve seen significant increases in bookings and page views on a year-to-year basis. They’re sites where we’ve seen the most potential and benefits; however we’re also exploring Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube. And, we’re in the process of redesigning and expanding our Everyone’s-An-Original community site, which is a mix of user-generated and Fairmont-populated content.
CB: We are active on different platforms for each of our brands and each platform helps us interact and continue to engage our guests. I can’t say that one channel gives us more traction than another as Twitter offers a completely different appeal than Instagram. For example, we leverage Twitter to respond to guest queries and help them stay in touch with what’s happening in the different cities where we are located. On the other hand, we held a photo contest via Instagram to create a collective work of art designed specifically for the Alt Hotel Toronto Pearson. More than 80,000 images inspired by a daily colour theme, were submitted by participants from all over the world during a two-week period. The final installation features thousands of Instagram pictures and LCD screens that display the contest photos as well as new photos submitted by hotel guests in real time. It’s a feature that has become key to our guest experience at the property.
GA: Facebook gives us the most traction. It has a mechanism where users ‘like’ what they’re reading and can share what they’re reading with friends. So, Facebook gives us measured audience feedback on special promotions we offer; Facebook offers measurability to its community, so it’s the most tangible.
Some of the other social media doesn’t excite me as much. For instance, LinkedIn is a business channel and Foursquare is not really a commercial market to be communicating on. So, we’re happy with Facebook as a community. Something else we like about Facebook is when the community makes comments about our offers, we can see who made the comment if we do a link. We can actually see the referral source through Facebook.
Hotelier: How are you targeting mobile users?
VG: Mobile is a key area of focus for us. Mobile devices are always on and consumers are using them to access the Internet when it’s convenient for them. Guests accessing our sites via a mobile browser are generally very task-oriented. They’re looking to book a room, retrieve a reservation, log in to their account or find specific information. To ensure guests can do business with us using mobile devices, we’ve streamlined navigation on our website, made the site fully compatible with smartphones and tablets and have also ensured media used on our site is fully optimized. We’re also looking at how we can better tailor content based on the user’s current situation and create a relevant experience. For example, is the user at your property, at the airport, in the same city as your hotel? What services might they need in these different situations?
CB: It is clear guests are looking for more mobile options when they’re travelling. They want to access interesting content, make reservations or personalize their stay wherever they are. This year, we will focus on ensuring our web platforms are optimized for tablets, smartphones and laptops, starting with our reservation system.
GA: We’re targeting mobile users with easy-to-access content on our mobile website; a faster-loading website. By having a mobile site, it allows us to facilitate the enquiries or traffic of mobile users. We’re targeting them by simply allowing them access through a mobile site.
Hotelier: What percentage of your sales stem from the mobile market?
VG: We’ve seen exponential growth from the mobile market over the last few years, and I expect this segment to grow at a rapid pace in coming years.
CB: As a private company, we don’t publicly disclose sales data. I can confirm that we have had a steady increase in reservations from mobile devices over the past year.
GA: Very few sales stem from this market. It’s our belief mobile transactions aren’t perceived by guests to be secure. Hence, we see high shopping rates on mobile, in the range of 22 to 30 per cent, with less than two per cent of that traffic doing transactions. I don’t think the comfort zone is there yet, at least when it comes to large transactions with credit cards going online. But we see people shopping online and then calling direct. Our direct booking percentage is more than 30 per cent.
Hotelier: Do you expect to spend more, less or the same amount of money on technology this year?
VG: Fairmont has always invested in technology, and we view our core infrastructure as a competitive advantage. This remains a key focus and an area we’ll continue to invest.
CB: We will be increasing our technology spend this year, as we’re expanding. We’re building four new Alt Hotels, one at Halifax Stanfield International Airport, one in Montreal’s Griffintown, one in Winnipeg’s sports, hospitality and entertainment district and [another] in downtown Ottawa.
GA: We plan to spend more, but we’ll spend more efficiently than we have in the past. The evolution of platforms, social media, pay-per-click (PPC), search-engine optimization (SEO), and Web 2.0 search criteria, is so fast and so expensive, we need to know more about it ourselves to make better decisions, so we can be careful how we spend. I consider analytics and everything around it as “life’s second language.” You need to know it to succeed.
Hotelier: In terms of technology, what will be your focus in 2013?
VG: A few of our top priorities in 2013 include exploring different applications for cloud-computing and rolling out mobile and tablet solutions that enhance the guest experience.
CB: We’ll be focusing on performance, and by that I mean improved bandwidth, Wi-Fi coverage and equipment for our team’s working environments.
GA: At Le Crystal, we’ll be looking at a seamless guest-arrival mechanism, which will work much like an airport kiosk. Other technologies we’ll focus on include in-room, bluetooth cloud access. And, we’re eager to use a method to [learn] who the guest is, before they tell us.
Hotelier: How will the hotel industry use data to drive the bottom line and increase customer service?
VG: It’s imperative for hotels and other operators to have a clear strategy for their business intelligence and customer relationship management areas, especially since many
consumers now expect personalization, customized communication, tailored offerings and more. To fully leverage customer information for things like marketing, operations and guest retention, companies must have a reliable platform that ensures data is clean, streamlined, unified and secure, while also making the information easily accessible to different functional areas within the organization.
CB: I can’t speak on behalf of the industry, but what I can say is that Groupe Germain has built its reputation on the hospitality with which it welcomes its guests. We view each contact with our guests as an opportunity to learn more about them and their needs. We then adapt our services based on the direct feedback we receive. Social media channels such as TripAdvisor are also a great source of feedback for our team.
GA: In short, “data mining” helps us better target performing markets and thereby reduce dilution in marketing costs due to speculative expenses.
Marketing segmentation optimization allows us to focus on performing segments, while “booking codes” for campaigns allow us to see which campaign by which media achieved the most effective penetration. Source code analytics help us determine where clients are booking, and analyzing referral sources teaches us which websites are “clicking through.”