With the rapid technological evolution, various stakeholders in the hotel business discuss the emerging and reimagined innovations that can offer better value to their companies
By Pradeep Suvarna
When it comes to technology, there is a lot of white noise flying in all directions. Guest needs are constantly evolving and keeping up with these means making significant investment. Most of these investments, believe it or not, end up with the tech bucket, because increasingly hospitality is transforming into a tech-oriented industry.
Two hospitality professionals – Zahid Memon, director, IT, Keys Hotels and Rajinder Kapur, VP, finance and legal, Choice Hotels – give they distinct viewpoints on how they determine the technologies that their brands should invest in based on the attributes which will bring in better value to their organisations. What’s more, we also discover whether emerging technologies, like AI and machine learning, can truly enhance guest experiences, especially when many hotel companies are struggling with unresponsive or outdated websites, which are sometimes not mobile-friendly.
As technology keeps advancing, how do CIOs and CTOs decide which technology will bring enhanced value to their company?
Zahid Memon: Personally, I feel technology should be evaluated keeping two key stakeholders at the centre of the decision-making – consumers and employees. Selecting the right technology will really depend on how the brand’s core target audience is evolving. For example at Keys Hotels, we cater to young millennials who prefer to explore our website through their mobile devices. Hence, we have ensured that our website is mobile responsive. We also saw a need for a chat option, through which our guests can interact with us without having to call us. At an organisation level, technology should enable its employees to take quicker and smarter decisions that eventually should lead to better productivity.
Rajinder Kapur: It various from company to company. Each receive various reports, which provide data and analysis to the management, within organisation and that of competitors. This in turn helps them make the right decision.
Which is one innovation that your company is planning to invest in, which it believes will have a direct impact on its bottom line?
Rajinder Kapur: We are planning to invest in an interactive website, which we have been considering for a while.
Zahid Memon: To ensure that we deliver on our brand promise to deliver happy experience to our guests seamlessly, we have implemented tools that allow us to listen to our customers across social media and also give us a deeper insight into guest preferences and trends. As a brand, we love to hear our guests and offer them a memorable stay without an exception. At the core of our business, we have a team of talented revenue management professionals who operate above property. In the near future, our focal point will be to equip the team with a dynamic revenue management tool to optimise the pricing decisions.
Can emerging technologies like AI and machine learning truly help in enhancing guest experiences, especially when many hotel companies are still struggling with unresponsive or outdated websites, which are sometimes not mobile-friendly?
Zahid Memon: Guest experience through AI-powered concierge robots, digital assistance, voice-activated services, travel experience enhancers, automatic data processing (machine learning) has already paved its way in the western world, though it is still at a nascent stage in India. These technologies certainly add to the overall experience, but they are not necessarily important attributes in our segment in the purchase cycle, which is mid-scale.
Rajinder Kapur: I agree with the conjecture that we need to first set our existing IT structure right before moving towards AI technology. We have to upgrade our websites to match with the present requirements, like smart and mobile-friendly websites.
Which are the areas in the hospitality business where AI will play a significant role?
Rajinder Kapur: AI technology is likely to play a very significant role in the hospitality business provided we implement it gradually and prudently. Firstly, we have to upgrade or revamp our existing websites with responsive and mobile friendly ones. Once this is done, we may need to systematically move to AI technology, which can then be implemented in almost all the functional areas of the hospitality business, starting from guest enquiries to check out.
Zahid Memon, director, IT, Keys Hotels: As the learning models evolve, AI powered booking engines will drive direct bookings by interacting with the guests, customising offers and thereby improving guest experience. It will assist in managing large volumes of guest data more effectively. It will simplify the process of collecting and analysing the data to understand guest behaviors. Pricing strategy done based on real time supply and demand inputs would help the brand to get better ROI.
Which are the more prudent technologies that CIOs should concentrate on to have a robust infrastructure that will also help them in providing better guest experience?
Zahid Memon: Having a robust data management system that is integrated with all channels of distribution is inevitable. This will allow brands to capture guest journey across multiple channels, giving a holistic view of guests’ buying behaviour and product preference. With data flowing in increasing quantum, brands have a responsibility to take care of its security and privacy. Further, guest facing technology infrastructure elements such as better Wi-Fi, in-room automation, Smart TV’s etc. create an impact to the guest in-room experience.
Rajinder Kapur: Guest expectation should be recognised and various recommendations should be offered to them as per their choice. This can be done only if brands have access to updated and easily available database. The best way to avail of this database is to store it on cloud, which is easy for archiving and retrieval.
The hospitality industry is experimenting with voice-activated technology. Is this a fad or will it become a mainstay in the hotel space?
Zahid Memon: Advancement in the voice-recognition technology will be one of the most interesting evolutions that the industry will get an opportunity to witness. With Alexa enabling in-room automation and now with Google Duplex, voice assistance will drive the next wave of consumer experience.
Rajinder Kapur: In recent times, Google has been experimenting with Google Assistant to replace human interfaces. If the hotel industry were to try to add voice-activated technology to various fields in a similar fashion, it will improve guest experience.
How can technologies like virtual and augmented technology help in enhancing guest experience?
Rajinder Kapur: Technology is changing very fast, the implementation of virtual and augmented technology would be beneficial and would enhance guest experience, but it requires accurate database. Further, the capital investment would be higher but it would reduce the recurring expenses and enhance guest experience, which is the backbone of the hotel industry.
Zahid Memon: Our industry is already a front-runner in giving consumer experience through virtual reality and artificial intelligence. For example, a virtual tour can become a smart replacement of the traditional brochure, allowing hotels to offer a more immersive experience through 360-degree view of the hotel. Another initiative that we have seen emerging is interactive chatbots.