From underwater speakers to holographic technology, hotels are leveraging technology to enhance guest stay experiences
Technology is revealing new aspects and upgrades constantly, and newer generations are perfectly at home with the pace of change
Are you the sort who likes airline kiosks and gets a thrill when the full-body scanner does that quick snap as it scans you head-to-toe? Well, you fit right into the rapidly changing world of hospitality tech — where the pace of technology-led change has been unprecedented in the previous decade. From underwater speakers to holographic technology that makes 3D image projections of meeting attendees or work presentations possible, mood lighting pads or even the digitally-interactive Pokémon hunt — hotels are going out of their way to make technology help enhance the guest experience and make any stay memorable.
The larger trends in the wider world are impacting the hospitality sector. As new generations come into the workspace — ones that have been part of the technology era from their birth, there is bound to be a fundamental shift in how they interact with their environs. Technology is revealing new aspects and upgrades constantly, and newer generations are perfectly at home with the pace of change. Then there is the increasing adaptability, especially in geographies that did not demand priority attention earlier.
Japan has been a global leader in tech innovation and user for long, but the rest of Asia is upgrading itself on the new technology front and hotel brands are having to play catch-up to just match guest expectations. Many Indians, with their love of smartphones, are among the tech-savvy guests Hotels in India, unfortunately, are not often leading in technology innovations — a miss in attracting the more tech-savvy potential guests?
Accor Hotels now have a smart room concept, which makes the hotel room experience more accessible and personalised.
There is, however, a lurking perceived threat — from both the guest and the industry side. Will greater automation lead to less personal interactions? For an industry where a smile goes a long way, surveys have indicated that the human behind the desk is much appreciated. Well, the answer perhaps lies in creating a balance. The hotel wants to enhance the guest experience and if technology helps to improve a hotel’s revenue, it’s a win-win for both. However, for that, the sector needs a fine balancing act, one that is already in operation, but does not always yield the results it wants.
Also, technology implementation has to be done right. For years, guests have struggled with sheer variety — and inexplicability of the simple switches in their hotel rooms. Indeed, just last year, The Financial Times carried an article headlined ‘Why are hotel light switches harder to solve than a Rubik’s Cube?’ Guests would be forgiven for thinking that the lighting designers wanted some diabolical revenge for unknown slights in the past — for almost every hotel guest has played the game of ‘which switch will put out all the lights?’ Not even a master has helped always. The last thing a tired guest needs is to puzzle out switch conundrum.
Switchable privacy glass in the Equinox Hotel provides a discrete and aesthetically pleasing privacy solution for shower room separation.
The technology transformation Let’s look at some recent advances in technology that hotels are adapting. What we often forget is that this is a transform-ing phase — not just in global history but also in technology — and developments may often be fleeting. Here are some significant changes:
• Check-in/Check-outs: Hotels recognised check-in/check-outs as a pain point and remote check-ins have helped improve the guest experience considerably. While they have helped in cut-ting labour costs, the benefits are not limited to check-ins only. The software used for check-ins creates alerts for guest arrival times, offering various services and upgrades and creating a better experience. A related but still less ubiquitous experience has been the replacement of the key card with access via their smartphone app. Hilton and Marriott have famously led the way, but progress remains tepid at best.
• Room service: How often have you been drawn from your luxurious mid-morning bonus slumber by a ring on the doorbell — with the voice behind inquiring if it is the right time to clean up your mess? Smart occupancy sensors help hotels arrive at the best times to service the room without the guest being disturbed unduly. Indeed, the service also extends to offer other hotel amenities — perhaps monsieur would enjoy his nap better in the overpriced but oh-so-luxurious spa on the 45th floor? Or check specials in the room service menu? Of course, another solution is infrared sensors, which detects and emits infrared radiation of its surroundings. They detect body heat, alerting the housekeeping staff on whether or not a room is occupied. The tech-savvy guests are digital natives who expect the places they interact with, to keep up, hotels being no exception..
• Virtual reality: Most people want to assess any potential hotel they might be looking at booking. This is where Virtual Reality (VR) is significantly changing the way guests view the properties. Going beyond text and images, VR is helping to bring alive the potential hotel experiences a guest might have, particularly enticing for the leisure resort traveller trying to choose between rival hotels offering similar-sounding attractions — a pristine beach, an infinity pool, an all-day diner, etc. Move aside Instagrammers; quality VR videos is what determines a booking today.
• Tech-loaded rooms: They are crucial to happy, repeat customers (along with loyalty memberships, of course). Welcome to the era of connected rooms. Digivalets and chatbots are transforming the in-room experience in modern hotels. Fuelled by technology and the immense power of the Internet of Things (IoT), consumer expectations are growing rapidly. Voice-control for turning on TVs, or controlling the temperature, or even the drapes is a go-to technology solution for alluring the guest. How soon before they tire of their voices and seek mind control is a when and not if!At Marriott hotels, in some territo-ries, guests can simply log into their Netflix account and stream the show on a net-connected smart TV. Smart showers will automatically control the temperature and power of your water with pre-set preferences. London’s Eccleston Square offers shower walls with an instant frosting option. Flat-screen televisions embedded in bathroom mirrors now feature in mul-tiple luxury hotels around the world, though they seem to find little use! The guest room experience is already changing; expect more surprises in the near future.
• Using data to predict guest needs: This brings us to ‘big data’. Yes, the absolute mother-lode of power and control — and pos-sible answers in our digital times, big data at its best can indeed make any guest stay more pleasant. However, big data needs — well — lots of data, and that can take a while to gather. Ms Hyde-Smith/ Mr al Hasan/Mrs Wong wants scones with their high tea when in London, but a bagel in Berlin and a macaroon in Marseille? They prefer their sheets to be Egyptian cotton with a thread count of 600 or above, and vacillate between chamber or microbead pillows — depending on the weather outside in their temperature-controlled room. Their shopping preferences vary comaccording to their whims, but they want the best suggestions from the concierge (a.k.a. now called smart data), who also must be up to date with the latest Broadway pro-ductions for their New York visits, along with Macy’s sales timings.
• Laundry must be at 8pm each day, but the morning wake-up call dif-fers according to the day of the week. They prefer Cloudy Bay Sau-vignon Blanc in balmy settings and their martinis shaken and stirred!
At Capsule Hotel, Lucerne, the exceptional and innovative accommodation offers incredible value for money in tech-driven space design.
Now multiply them with, well, the number of premium and luxury guests in a hotel and the number of hotels in that chain! You see what big data is up against! With time, big data is aggregating more and more information about us and making it actionable, with better solutions and suggestions. It is particularly effective with the middle-of-the-road predictive guests. However, an attendant challenge has been the leaking of data, which almost every leading hospitality chain has suffered at one point or another.
• Cloud-based technology: The shift to cloud-based technology is helping the sector as it provides for more flexibility in operations, allowing remote control of hotel operations, reservations and room bookings. A cloud-based property management systems (PMS) have also demonstrably improved efficiency of the staff, often freeing them up for more direct guest interactions.
• Energy savings: A Booking.com survey, on Global Sustainable Travel report, stated that 65 % of global travellers show a strong preference for eco-friendly accommodation. While there may be an element of greenwashing here from both guests and hotels, a big perception change has been in guests expecting hotels to be more energy-efficient and eco-friendly. Hotels have responded by getting certified as carbon neutral. ITC Hotels in India has been a leader in the wake of taking multiple small steps — the most recent of which has been the removal of plastic straws. However, the real change has come in the back-of-the-house operations; from better construction standards to improved heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems that reduce energy consumption. Hotels are increasingly using smart heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, which measure and regulate occupancy, allowing them to optimise energy consumption at any given time. This extends to lighting, too. They track occupancy (yes, you might have noticed hotel corridor lights come on when you approach) and analyse demand load patterns. Smart thermostats and occu-pancy sensors have often helped cut energy costs for hotels sig-nificantly — some have cited numbers between 20 and 30 per cent — directly impacting bottom lines. Then there are towels for reuse, or toiletries no longer in cute, ready-to-be-carried away sizes, no more straws, toothbrushes and combs made of recyclable material, even the emergence of sporks!
• Predictive maintenance: A related change, again at the backend, is predictive maintenance, which allows hotels to monitor, track 89and optimise energy consumption. It allows hotels to utilise sensor data to identify uneconomical or unrequired usage, which then alerts the staff to check on any given area of the premises’ energy usage. Pre-dictive maintenance has proven to be particularly effective in HVAC operations, but is also effective in areas such as water overflows.
• Smart devices: The use of multiple ‘smart’ devices from thermostats to eco-friendly laundry units, motion sensor lighting systems, energy-efficient appliances and LED light-ing, all contribute significantly in cutting carbon emissions.
2020 should see a combination of these tech-led changes being offered to hotel guests. Maybe not quite at the level of the Pengheng Space Cap-sules Hotel, which has an entire staff of robots: doormen, waiters and front desk attendants, while glossy, neon surfaces, robo-waiters and banks of computers are just some features that make this hotel a sci-fi real-ity. Beds are designed as innovative space station bunks. Nevertheless, changes are in the offing, driven as much by revenue needs like the desire to make the guest experience memorable. Of course, both guests and especially staff will need training in technology adaptations, something hotels over-look often. Also, given that more and more millennials and Gen-Zers are travelling, one can only hope the rate of adaptation for some of these picks up for the Indian hotels as well!
The future of technology
A robot room service or robot serving you food will become a common sight.
Laser lights on demand? Robot room service? Voice-controlled shower? At least two of three are already on offer in some hotels! If keeping up with all the technology changes has been an exhilarating and often demanding ride, there’s much more to come in the near future as hotels at the cutting-edge of technology push boundaries to ensure an increasingly customised experience for their guests.
Facial Recognition Technology
You may not be comfortable with the idea of facial recognition technology, but future hotels are looking to integrate it into their operations. Among the benefits they expect are enhanced levels of security and privacy, access to only authorised personnel to enter specific areas as well as its use for electronic payments as another form of verification.
Hotels are in the process of offering branded apps, designed to ensure that the guests have an even greater level of connectivity and correspondence. Future offers could have virtual payments or immediate contact with a concierge.
Chatbots, which are already changing the way guests interact with hotels, is set to offer guests a host of options. Their main benefit is expected in offering hyper-personalised offerings and search re-sults along with being able to interact in various languages.
The use of robots is likely to be the reality for hotels soon, though not quite in the Hollywood sense. However, automation is headed towards hotels. Robots are likely to take over some of the heavy lifting though — from baggage handling, including delivering to your room. They could also answer FAQs, common questions that concierges have to field endlessly. Then there is the potential use in backend operations, though that is likely to be a more expensive investment in the future.
Virtual Reality (VR)
Move aside, user photos are here! The greater advent of virtual reality will mean its use in showing the amenities, services and rooms that a hotel has to offer. Expect virtual hotel tours/ 360 videos to be a reality soon as hotels race to present their best sides to prospective guests.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Related to VR, the value of Augmented Reality will be to offer in-house interactive elements. This could include the lay-out of the hotel, especially useful for spread out resorts. It could also provide relevant information for different parts of the hotel — such as menus, whether at restaurants, bars or spas, or information about various parts of the hotel at your fingertips.
The hospitality sector is preparing for smart hotels. This one is likely to impact multiple aspects of hotel operations. Smart technologies will find application in multiple ways — from cus-tomised controls within each room to linking up with the IoT for ever-increasing customisation of services and more. Within the same hotel, it might be possible to have entirely different experiences depending on what you choose, providing a fully customised experience — isn't that an ultimate goal?