Technology is changing everything
The Plaza in New York, every guestroom is equipped with an iPad. At the Fairmont San Francisco, the Intersect media lounge invites travellers to play interactive games, listen to music and bond over spirited Wii golf competitions. This is not an episode of Th e Jetsons or the hotel ride at Disney’s Tomorrow Land; this is current-day, real-life stuff for modern hoteliers managing successful operations in an evolving landscape. Dismiss it as futuristic fantasy at your immediate peril.
THE GUEST EXPERIENCE
“From a guest perspective, the next two to three years will be about enhanced personalization and delivering a consistentcustomer experience,” says Vineet Gupta, senior vicepresident of Technology at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, giving voice to a widely held industry point of view.
Today, technology that maximizes guest experience with a brand is well in play before the customer even sets foot in the lobby.
Fairmont, for one, has enhanced its booking experience with the addition of Spanish-, German- and Chinese-language alternatives to its sites. More than that, the chain has introduced a new iPhone app, which provides access to booking, hotel information and destination recommendations.
IHG Hotels, for its part, has developed a patent-pending solution called Bottom Up Search Strategy or BUSS. With it, would-be IH customers can search for accommodation more efficiently than ever, thanks to sophisticated search technology that employs a bottomup approach as an alternative to the more conventional top-down route to identifying best bets. That means instead of finding the hotels
within a nominated city and vetting them according to rates and features after the fact, with this scenario, guests choose the attributes — price, location, amenities — they want, and are presented
with IHG properties that meet their criteria. “It’s going to make the whole booking process much friendlier and easier,” says Gustaaf Schrils, IHG’s vice-president of Global Technology. Only available to internal IHG players at the moment, BUSS will be released to the general public later this year.
It’s well acknowledged modern guests want to liaise with a hotel via mobile devices, and hoteliers who facilitate such a relationship will be rewarded. The ability to execute a room reservation via a smartphone is just the beginning of expectations, says Geoffrey Allan,general manager at Hôtel Le Crystal in Montreal. Indeed, he says, “We’v reached a place now where it’s fair to say that’s a standard, not a luxury.”
Once installed, a guest’s requirement for, and expectations of, technology increase exponentially. A quick, almost virtual check-in is increasingly the norm, and there are several solutions emerging, which can help make that a reality everywhere.
There’s a growing interest among hoteliers for kiosk systems, similar to those at airports, where guests can use self-serve check-ins. Some of the more storied players, such as Starwood and Delta, are already using or have done Beta and satellite tests with these kiosks. The challenge, says Allan, whose property is investigating the kiosk option, is ameliorating the loss of the personal touch in this critical front-line experience. “At what level do you remove that personalization?, he asks. “That’s the question.”
At IHG, the check-in procedure is enhanced by technology in multiple ways. In addition to kiosks, select hotel lobbies have been outfitted with info boards, an application that works on 42”-LCD screens with interactive touch-sensitive panels that allow users to identify local-area activities, access the news and chec the weather. IHG concierges are provided with an iPad and an “econcierge” application so guests canask the concierge for real-time information about activities, either in person or remotely via the website.
For its part, Hôtel Le Crystal recently undertook an experiment in which it removed newspaper availability for a three-week period and, instead, provided a tablet-based newspaper system that invited guests to read their paper on a Kindle or an iPad in the lobby en route to or from their room. “We had very little negative feedback to not having newspapers,” Allan reports. “Clearly, remote news-reading devices are popular.”
Fast-forward to the guest’s arrival in his room and the potential garden of stay-enhancing technologies that might await them there. More than ever, consumers expect a baseline standard of technological amenities in their hotel room. Understanding that the defining line is forever on the move, it’s a no-brainer that wired and wireless technologies are standard.
Increasingly, hotels that add a surcharge for such facility are becoming the exception. Up next? Available in-room video media and all the possibilities it allows.
One can take for granted that a room will feature either high-definition pay television or at least digitallevel television. More than that, though, the central piece of furniture — once, quaintly, the source of videobased entertainment alone — is now a rich gateway to other worlds. At Fairmont, the idea is to make television the “entertainment hub for all online and technology needs,” says Gupta.
Some televisions are already Internet ready, so guests can use them to surf the web. Sophisticated gaming technology is also increasingly standard in high-end hotel environments. And the humble telephone, once simply a means of internal and external communication, has been reinvented as a highend IP system that provides customers with easy uptake to the Internet.
It’s a natural evolution, says Allan, who notes hotels have long suffered contracting revenues from in-room telephones, as ubiquitous cellphones steal from their analogue-constricted usefulness.
In-room climate control systems represent another area in which technolog is changing the hotel experience. Smart-card door-access systems that allow in-room climate-control are becoming standard. At Hôtel Le Crystal, you can adjust the temperature from the front desk while the guest is in the room. “There’s a buffet of technology offerings out there now,” says Allan. “The question is which are the most practical, which have the highest return on investment and which should not come with a premium?”
Sophisticated technology tools have long been part of the back end of the hotel-management world, and multiple options are available for tracking guest segments so managers can better understand their revenue profile. Most recently, source code assignment, customer segmentation and an enhanced ability to segment customer profiles in an installed PMS syste that facilitates the transfer of personalized
services at the guest experience level, have evolved in sophistication and ease of use.
“You’ve got so many tangents to generating the demand through reservations, and there’s so much information technology out there that allows you to better see trends,” says Allan, who points to the usefulness of extractions from analytics and the employment of third parties for continuous feedback on market rates. Today, centralized rate-management systems allow hoteliers to establish rate parity
through multiple channels at the flick of a switch, eminently preferable to having to manually go into each distribution channel to discover this intelligence.
What’s more, re-marketing technologies give operators the ability to generate a report on how many individuals have opened brand sites. Moving from cost to control, Green Engage is a utility-capturing initiative in which IHG’s 4,400 hotels have been involved for more than a year. This application captures all of a property’s utility data, compares them to a competitive set within the family and generates recommendations on how to save on this massive expenditure — everything from energy-efficient lighting to robust energy-management systems that adjust air conditioning according to exterior temperatures. And IHG’s “hotel in a box,” packages a suite of available technologies inside a singlevendor offering from which owners might efficiently purchase. About two years old, this option seeks to address inherent incompatibilities in technology oversight.
“The industry has been working very hard to simplify the interoperability of disparate systems,” says IHG’s Schrils. “Most vendors have proprietary technology, and they’re not so into opening themselves up to other technologies to work with them.”
In the hotel world, there are a slew of marketing technologies to drive traffic and generate room revenue, and it’s no surprise this category is on the swiftest evolutionary track, with social media, broadcast-to-web technologies, SMS marketing, pay-perclick initiatives and organic SEO technologies leading the way.
Project Magic is a new application that draws on IHG’s loyalty and customer- relationship-management system, leveraging a rich database of guest profiles for target-marketing purposes. This way, says Schrils, “If, for example, a hotel is running low occupancy during a period, we can send out promotions to those people who are regular guests for that time.”
Beyond that, sophisticated webmanagemen platforms ensure a particular hotel website is weighted to be a higher-quality content provider in a certain field of expertise if qualified links connect it to other, highly referred-to websites, thus validating its reputation as a content-rich source.
“As a director of Sales and Marketing, you want a database that has as much information as possible about your clients, so when you want to send a campaign to a selected database, your response rate will be high,” says Allan. At his hotel, success is measured by the number of clickthroughs, visits and conversions on an offer. When there’s enough data about a client, it can be drawn on an SMS platform to revisit him with relevant special offers.
“With cloud computing and everything running on the Internet, more capabilities are being made available at lesser costs,” Schrils enthuses. “If a hotel has the proper infrastructure, a lot of apabilities exist today that allow it to significantly enhance guests’ experiences using technology. It’s an exciting time.”