What are the most common challenges hoteliers are solving with technology?
David Caffo: At Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, everything we do is about delivering on customer experience. Technology helps us focus on and prioritize this mission. Looking at the corporate office and how we manage finances, incorporating technology into our spend-management process, through solutions such as SAP Concur, helps ensure end-users within our corporate team can focus on the most-important tasks in their days, rather than doing things that can be automated.
Ted Helvey: Since the mass consumer adoption of Wi-Fi and quickly emerging IoT-based services, hoteliers have come under significant pressure to offer the same technology-enabled services guests have become accustomed to at home. With that in mind, thoughtful property owners are pursuing new technology solutions that meet these guest expectations in order to maximize guest satisfaction, convenience and loyalty. Yet, as with any business, they’re seeking benefits that justify the initial purchase cost by providing new revenue opportunities and improving operational efficiencies.
Richard Bradbury: For the property- and regional-level hoteliers, the problems are truly “regional.” Areas with workforce shortages are trying to use technology to augment the performance of limited staff. In our region, there is a shortage of housekeeping staff, which impacts guest service, room cleanliness, staff stress levels and the usable life of the hotels FF&E — and the life of the physical property itself. Technology that reduces repeat trips to a room can greatly improve the productivity of an already fully leveraged team. Other regions have weather-related concerns — storms, rapidly changing weather patterns and extreme temperatures chip away at the exterior of a property. Technology that allows for customized preventative-maintenance plans help identify structural risks, such as window seals, roof leaks and hallway wear and tear, in time to fix the root problem and avoid asset loss, lost room revenue and guest complaints.
John Attala: Hoteliers implement technology for a variety of reasons — be it to improve the overall guest experience or to automate certain tasks that used to be done by hotel employees, such as turning down the thermostat in [a vacant] guestroom. Ideally, these investments in hotel technology will also save the hotel operators money long-term.
How can hotels use technology to enhance the overall guest experience?
DC: In a large hotel organization, there are many pieces that come together to create a seamless guest experience. The digital transformation of our finance department has improved our internal processes which, in turn, impacts how we deliver service, as well as the overall guest experience. By using automated solutions, we were able to eliminate time-consuming tasks, enabling our employees to spend more time focusing on guest engagement, satisfaction and recognition.
TH: Voice and AI technology in particular are now being seriously evaluated by hoteliers to enhance comfort, convenience and communication. For example, using Angie [guestroom assistant], guests gain the ability to easily control the TV, request housekeeping and other services and even check out. In some properties, Angie controls other room features, such as lights, drapes and thermostats, responding to a guest’s voice or touch-screen prompts. This eliminates the need for guests to locate a switch or figure out other room controls in an unfamiliar environment.
JA: More hotel brands are leveraging technology to improve guest experience and achieve operational efficiencies. One such example is Hilton, which, with its Connected-Room initiative, allows the guest to check in remotely via their smartphone, avoiding lines at the reservation counter. Furthermore, it’s also integrated temperature control and even Netflix accounts into the TV, providing further opportunity to personalize the guest experience and ultimately drive brand loyalty.
What other roles does technology play in a hotel setting?
DC: The integration of automation in the finance department has made a huge impact on improving our finance processes. Before integrating our current automated-expense system, Concur Expense, we used to process around 120 expense reports a week, which could take up to 110 hours to do. Since implementing Concur Expense, it now takes our team less than 30 hours. This time savings have been significant. There are a number of manual tasks that hoteliers are still processing by hand, where they could benefit from faster and more accurate automated processes. Think of what else your organization could be doing with that time back.
TH: With hoteliers serving one of the most internationally diverse clienteles in the world, successful engagement also relies on guests being able to communicate and make requests using their preferred language. This not only enhances convenience, but also maximizes the guest’s experience and ultimate satisfaction. Virtual assistants have the ability to instantly overcome language barriers, which not only enhances guest-to-staff communication, but also allows hotels to promote and engage in more appealing and effective ways to a greater range of guests — increasing both revenue and loyalty.
RB: Technology can play a role in every part of hotel operation, from augmenting the guest-arrival process with mobile keys to automatically scheduling room cleaning based on guest habits and requests. The trick is to make all the systems work together. Technology works only when the effort it saves is greater than the effort expended to do the same work without it.
JA: Technology can serve a variety of roles in a hotel setting. For example, the incorporation of smart speakers, such as Google Home or Amazon Echo, may make guests feel more at home. Hotel smartphone apps, such as the Hilton Honors app, incorporate loyalty programs, guestroom technology and a mobile check-in experience to improve guest experience while simultaneously achieving operational efficiencies.
What new technology is making its way into hotels?
TH: AI and virtual-assistant technology can provide the most-efficient means of connecting a hotel’s departments and operations with each other and with its guests. This means virtually all of a hotel’s departments are able to benefit from the implementation of a virtual assistant that reduces strains on resources and allows staff to spend their valuable time focused on important high-touch areas.
RB: AI is taking on a more robust role. The same software that’s exposed as conversation management (Voice Response trees) with in-room voice-command systems can be used in operational decision-making outside of the guest-communications world. When system-to-system communications can be run through the same decision process, the end product is more reliable. For example, if I ask the voice-command system to send more towels to the room, the AI may ask what kind of towels I want. Based on my answer (hand towels, beach towels, bath towels, et cetera), that system may order beach towels from the service-optimization system. But, if I run the tablet requests through that same decision process, I should get the same result — beach towels. If I leverage the same decision process in the guest-texting solution, I get the same result — beach towels. This provides for a more consistent guest response.
But what if the housekeeper needs to restock his/her cart? Use the same decision tree in this application and you only have to have one system that knows the difference between beach, bath and hand towels.
JA: The use of virtual reality in the hospitality industry has been discussed for some time, but consumers seem slow to adopt this new technology. Virtual and augmented reality does present a unique opportunity for guests to experience both the hotel environment itself and the surrounding sights and sounds of the destination city, thereby increasing the chances of guests staying at a particular hotel.
How is existing technology evolving to meet changing operator needs?
TH: With hoteliers constantly needing to balance guest demands with property budgets, solutions are evolving to offer an array of multifunctional and scalable abilities, allowing hotels to address multiple, changing guest needs in an affordable way.
RB: Most operators compete on service to avoid competing on price. Guest-service scores tend to be based on speed and consistency. Technology has shifted to address guest needs faster and more reliably. This has been achieved through guest-communication apps, service-optimization apps and in-room technology. The upside is higher satisfaction scores, which drive RevPAR.
JA: The best example of this is the evolution of the use of the smartphone. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the smartphone was used solely to book a reservation. In 2019, we’re seeing the smartphone as a means of keyless entry into more hotel rooms and as the central hub for guests to customize and personalize their experience.
How do you determine which technology is a good investment for your property?
DC: As technological capabilities evolve, it’s important to pick the right tools and technology that will fit with your business model and scale with you. There are a number of considerations hoteliers can make. First and foremost, understand and prioritize your issues. For example, if too much time is spent on administrative tasks such as filing expenses, consider investing in technology that can make those processes simpler so your team can focus on more productive projects. It’s also important to consider technology that is intuitive and user-friendly. Teams need to see the value early on so they can advocate for the new technology and champion a larger digital transformation. As a finance professional, implementation cost is also another important factor that we take into consideration. What is the fee structure? Do you have to pay per user or per transaction? Consider solutions that have pricing options to scale with the business as it grows, especially if that growth means international expansion.
TH: Any technology being considered should first be examined to determine whether it offers genuine guest service in a way that feels natural, is easily accessible and offers the potential for enhanced engagement. Looking at consumer adoption of similar technology is an excellent indicator of lasting value in the hotel room, but it’s critical that hoteliers select enterprise solutions built for the hotel environment and not simply try to place consumer devices in a guestroom.
RB: Hotels continue to add those technologies that enhance guest service, security and staff productivity. Fad technologies need to enhance one of those areas (without causing undue impact on the others) in order to gain wide-spread adoption.
JA: Being a hotelier who is an early adopter of new technologies can have its pros and cons. On the one hand, new technologies can be a novel way of attracting guests, but can also result in wasting of precious CapEx dollars should the technology not catch on. The Asian markets are typically early adopters of technology, and one such failed investment was in robots meant to essentially replace housekeepers. Somewhat unsurprisingly, guests actually preferred interacting with real people and the robots were promptly removed.
How important is staff and customer buy-in?
DC: Internal buy-in is critical for the long-term success of technology-transformation projects. It’s important to look at implementing tools and processes that will streamline tasks and empower employees to focus on the strategic work they want to be doing. Providing employees with tools that make their lives easier and feel effortless to use is the best way to see adoption. If employees can simply snap a photo of their receipts with their mobile device and submit it directly to be reimbursed, this makes the integration of digital expense-management systems easy. Having employees champion new technology and become internal drivers of digital transformation is ideal to evolve company processes.
RB: Vitally. Systems that require complicated configuration and maintenance to operate don’t add value. If the staff won’t use it, it’s worthless. Customers want to get the same value if they’re going to invest time in a system. It had better work and deliver what they expect.
JA: Buy-in from customers and staff is very important. Since staff are often counted on to manage various interfaces behind the scenes, their understanding of the technology is key to ensuring optimal performance and quick resolution in case of malfunctions or guest complaints. From the customer point of view, each guest will have different sensibilities and levels of comfort with various technologies. It’s important that hoteliers allow guests to opt out, or disable, technologies they may not be comfortable with.
What role do robotics/automation play in the hotel industry?
DC: From a finance perspective, automation will continue to improve many of the cumbersome tasks that take up time and help ensure employees are focusing on more strategic tasks and initiatives that serve to move the business forward.
RB: Robots can play an important part in guest-service delivery, saving labour and time — when the price comes down. The inversion point will come when the reliability and number of use cases addressed goes up and the cost (purchase and maintenance/replacement) is offset by labour savings. Some use cases are already being explored — room service and amenity delivery, automatic restocking of housekeeping carts, self-cleaning bathrooms and industrial robotic vacuums.
How might technology transform hotel experiences in the future?
RB: The more information guests are willing to provide, the better their experiences at a hotel can be. Hotel systems can provide the right beverages, music and pillows in the room. It can ensure your drapes are open when you arrive and closed when you sleep. It can offer you the right room-service menu for your dietary needs in the language you speak. It can change your check-out time when your flight is delayed. The hotel staff can recognize a guest as they approach when their mobile device detects a guest is near and shows their face and name. They can have the room-cleaning schedule automatically adjusted when the room detects it’s empty and automatically call for reinforcements when lobby occupancy goes up.
JA: The future of hotel guest experiences will continue to evolve around the personalization of the overall experience and the removal of friction points. As more data is collected, the hotel will develop a more complete and unique set of recommendations for you, improving your experience and encouraging brand loyalty.