Dash for The Room
In-room automation is evolving into a dynamic, ever-changing concept. Can hotels keep up?
By Pradeep Suvarna
Guests are constantly seeking bespoke services, whether it is with culinary adventures or in-room experiences. Hoteliers are gathering as much information about their guests to better customise their in-room services through various amenities and services. They are also finding out different ways to use technology to operate room temperature, lighting, drapery and manage in-room entertainment – all in a bid to attract and retain customers. But the larger question now is how successful will they be at reshaping and re-imagining the guestroom, at a time when customer expectations seems to be moving north all the time?
Throw your mind back a few decades ago, when a big colour TV and air conditioning were big selling points for hoteliers. But once these amenities became commoditised, they quickly lost their lustre. A decade ago, WiFi burst into the scene but connectivity was slow and unreliable. Nitin Pathak, general manager, Novotel Pune Nagar Road recalled how the back-of-house areas were de facto dead zones. “Today, guests at even budget motels expect high-speed WiFi to be available everywhere on the property. With time, WiFi has gone from being a competitive differentiator to being a mere utility, no more compelling or unexpected than running water and electricity,” he pointed out.
These instances have taught hoteliers that the novelty of any tech-based amenity lasts only as long as the next new novelty comes around. Hence, in a highly competitive industry, to stay ahead of their challengers, hoteliers have to create differentiated products and services.
Pathak added that since technology has become critical to attracting and retaining hotel guests, it that means investing in a wide range of solutions that create immediate and personal engagement. “More recent examples include mobile keyless room entry and in-room tablets loaded with apps for controlling, among other things, Smart TV and air conditioning. With rising expectation, surprise and delight has been replaced by expected and assumed. Reservations must be easily made via any smart device, guestrooms must facilitate any type of content, networks need to be rock solid, and data is now your most valuable asset. Consequently the need of the hour is to create new modes and approaches for the experiential development of guest segments,” he inferred.
Sagar Gaonkar, director of rooms, DoubleTree by Hilton Pune Chinchwad pointed out that rooms are now bring designed with advanced features like a one-touch console for controlling the lights and the AC, streaming devices to the television or mp3 docking stations. The most recent introduction by Hilton is the key-less entry allowing the guest to enter their room without a key-card.
These smart guest rooms allow the younger travellers, who are more digitally savvy, to have better control over the personalised experience they seek. Through various technologies like mobile check-in, smartphone guest room keys, one touch button panels and live chat for real-time feedback, these rooms have everything a click away.
The guestroom is the most important aspect of a guest’s travel and every hotel company is trying to make it more comfortable for a guest, especially from a technology perspective. This includes providing good sleep, mood lighting controls, easy access to all functionality in the room like curtains, master switch, DND, etc.
Subhankar Bose, resident manager, JW Marriott Bengaluru, explained that the television could also be used as a monitor or an interactive screen for all his office work as well as watching a movie or screening his favorite soccer match. “All this technology has ensured that guest rooms are updated for guests, whether they are visiting for business or leisure. Moreover, multiple device connectivity on same the WiFi access has made life super easy specially when spending a lot of time in the room or in the hotel. Seamless access to a high speed internet network is a more basic necessity in a traveller’s life than anything else hence daily progress in this field is seen now than it was in the past,” he pointed out.
According to Sreenivasan Mohan, chief engineer, Conrad Pune, over the past few years, due to the presence of hotel apps, guests do not require to visit the reception to select or check-in for the rooms, they can simply check-in with the app using the mobile integrated key cards. “Guests can also personalise their basic room amenities such as choice of pillows, WiFi services by using the app. Hotels these days, also have sensor control panels throughout the room which helps customise lights and air conditioning functions. These sensors maintain the temperature and lighting according to the time and electronic remotes to adjust curtain functions and interactive televisions,” he added.
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
When it comes to technology spending amongst hotel companies, many are investing in payment security, guest room technology, bandwidth and mobile engagement. Pathak said that in India, some of the innovations that are accepted widely include hassle-free check-in via a lobby ambassador holding a special iPad or an iConcierge app or handing iPads to the guests preloaded with specific software in different languages to help guest access a variety of services.
Stephen D’Souza, hotel manager, Courtyard by Marriott Chennai, added, “Mobile check-in, wireless charging, keyless entry through smartphones, single-touch digital panels and tablets for room controls as well as personalised mood lighting have also become popular globally, all of which have made inroads in India. I think the major factor determining the popularity of these technologies is personalisation and adding that much needed wow factor to guest experience.”
According to Gaonkar, the Hilton digital check-in is a pioneering initiative allowing a guest to select a room from a digital floor plan or list directly from a mobile device, tablet or computer. Once the room is ready, the guest receives a notification about the room status and can access the room with a smart phone.
Cygnett Hotels has also incorporated some changes in tech framework. Shyam Bhethana, the hotel’s chief technology and strategy advisor explained, “We are integrating our property management systems with room sensors for optimal temperature and a room occupied sign upon guest check in. By using data analytics, we also match guests to the available rooms, based on their past data, for instance, a balcony, higher floor, a particular type of soap. Additionally, we offer personalised wakeup messages instead of buzzers and alarms.”
However, while globally hotel chains are embracing technology at full tilt in guest rooms, in India the adoption is still quite embryonic. Accepting this lag in technology adaptation, Pathak surmised that the reason Indian hotels haven’t kept pace with their western counterparts is probably the culture here still believes in emotions, human touches and artistry in any service, product or activity.
Gaonkar agreed with this conjecture. “In India, hotels are still very focused on a personal approach with guests, although there are many brands including Hilton which are now introducing digital options for customers. This is primarily being targeting to a more tech-savvy audience. We believe this trend will pick up over the years with many more guests opting for a quicker digitalised approach,” he explained.
This change will be driven by millennials who actively seek an elevated technology experience in hotel rooms as compared to the older generation. Since they travel with numerous gadgets and devices, they expect the hotel to allow these gadgets to work seamlessly, in every possible way including Wi-Fi access, plug points, working tables, etc.
The next demography that will propel this change are business travellers who are well-versed with technology and are constantly on the go. Many of these guests opt for mobile check-in as they don’t have the time to pick up the phone and go through the process over a call.
In the hospitality business there is one lesson that hoteliers have learnt over the years – always give the users as many choices as you can; chances are one of them will hook them in. That is the premise various brands are working on in India when it comes to accommodating technology comprehensively in guestrooms so that it is available if needed, but the guest is not entirely dependent on it.
D’Souza explained that Courtyard by Marriott Chennai provides options for seamless connectivity through high speed Internet, facilities for working remotely and 24/7 IT assistance. “We ensure that our guests’ can use their own devices and content and connect their personal devices to the guest rooms entertainment system instantly,” he added.
Pathak noted that once a technology playground of on-demand content and flat screen TVs, the guestroom has become a challenging area for hotel technology. “We keep on upgrading technology in our guest areas like boosting bandwidth in order to support the content and devices that guests are carrying with them. We are also looking at the opportunities to invest in delivery platforms to elevate the in-room experience and catch up to what guest have at home. This means bigger, better TVs that interface easily with guest mobiles devices for a great viewing experience,” he said.
According to Ajit Singh Garcha, general manager of The Park Bengaluru guests across the board want technology for an elevated user experience in their rooms, while for millennials it is a necessity. An example of this would be that while a conventional guest likes to watch content on TV, a millennial wants to watch their own content from their devices on Netflix or Amazon Prime etc. “So, we have now placed intelligent TVs all across The Park Hotel properties, which allow guest to watch their own content from the mobile device on TV by mirroring it using WiFi. In fact, intelligent TV’s, RIFD door locks for better security, Hi-speed internet and WiFi are available in our guest rooms. While it is difficult to assess and evaluate its bearing on increase in business, it is 100% true that not having these technologies will reduce the business substantively,” Garcha added.
According to Bhethana, what is ideal is a simple OneTouch app that can accomplish what most guests need in just a few clicks. In addition to this, the hotel should provide a 3D tour of the neighbourhood and attractions on the any of the interactive devices like the TV. At the same time, booking a suitable guide based on guest preferences retains the human touch.
So the big questions that emerges is this, is the application of technology in guestroom more for augmenting guest experience through personalisation, or can it also help in streamlining operational processes for the hotel, thereby reducing costs?
Bhethana stated, “It definitely reduces costs. For example, sensors to enable and disable devices greatly reduces power consumption.”
Gaonkar, too, felt that the use of technology helps hoteliers enhance the guest’s experience through personalisation, but it also helps them reduce the paper work and streamline the processes internally and make them more effective. D’Souza gave the example of an example of the live chat through the hotel’s app, where Courtyard by Marriott Chennai started giving guests a simple and easy option to personalise their stay experience and get immediate assistance. “This does help in streamlining the operational process by saving time and reducing additional expenses by eliminating a long process of transferring communication,” he opined.
Pathak quote the example of Hotel Lowes 1000 in Seattle, which has introduced hotspot rooms with heat detecting body sensors that act as occupancy detectors. “These sensors can definitely replace lot of paper work and human intervention with better accuracy. Virtual concierge is another example which can help guest with multiple help options without running an actual concierge desk with extra manning and systems,” he elucidated.
Every time hoteliers consider investing in new technologies, they need to think several years ahead so that the technology does not become obsolete. After all, technology has an increasingly short shelf like, and reinvesting in it will have a negative effect on its RoI. The ideal way to do this is by staying on top of evolving tech trends across business and consumer platforms. Then, based on current consumer demand, hotels can develop pioneering initiatives to gain first-mover advantage and offer guests a variety of new options as part of their stay experience.