Smart devices create new opportunities for guestroom design

The Internet of Things is gaining ground in hotel guestrooms, with smart devices making it easier than ever for travelers to manage their room preferences and get information wherever they stay. After all, as Larry Zerr, a director of research and development for mirror developer Electric Mirror, said, guests aren’t looking for local information from the books and binders on the guestroom desks anymore. “It’s like your card catalog index at the library,” he said at his company’s BDNY booth in November. “There was a transition there where you just look it up on the computer. That's starting to be taken over in hotels as well.” 

The new devices are changing the way guestrooms look, with small tabletop devices or wall-mounted mirrors hiding next-gen technology, many of them compatible with popular consumer-facing programs like Amazon's Alexa or the Google Assistant.

Tabletop Devices

Just has smartphones have combined entire desktops of gadgets into one pocket-sized device, new tabletop tools can combine a range of important room elements into a single unit that serves as the air conditioning control, TV remote control, radio, lighting hub and—yes—the phone to the front desk. 

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“Technology has really passed the majority of the hotels by,” said Yani Deros, CEO of Cirq+, who argued that hotels are now “scrambling” to modernize guestrooms. “What they have is a very costly and dated [private branch exchange] phone system that nobody uses. You have an alarm clock radio that nobody uses and—most of the time—is unplugged. You can never find enough power chargers next to the bed.” At the same time, he noted, many midscale hotels lack a dedicated energy-management system, and the environment suffers (as does a hotel’s bottom line) when empty rooms have air conditioning on full blast and lights at full brightness. “So based on all that research, we found a massive opportunity to consolidate devices [and] unify a technology platform,” said Deros. 

During remodels and renovations, Deros added, hotels are spending “thousands of dollars” on wired headboards with integrated cables, plugs and switches. “That's not necessary anymore,” he said. “[A freestanding option is] a fraction of the price of all this furniture that's being put in and it can be retrofitted ... It can either be on a small bedside table or it could be mounted to the wall.”  

Many of the new devices are voice-activated, meaning guests don’t need to download apps to their phones or read small instructions on the sides of units. “Voice recognition in the guestroom is gaining momentum and usage around the world,” said Mitch Heinlein, VP of sales and marketing at tech company Bittel Americas, whose Moda devices can control a room’s heating, air conditioning, lighting and window treatments. The units also can replace the guestroom phone, offering one-touch buttons to contact the front desk instead. (The device connects to the property’s existing phone system, Heinlein said, and does not require additional wiring behind the walls.) “Hotels, in general, are trying to understand what skills they want to support and how fast they want to implement them. Many are installing Moda with the understanding that they will or could implement [virtual reality] in the future.” 

Both the Cirq+ and Moda units are modular, allowing hotels to add new functionalities as needed.

Smart Mirrors

Smart mirrors have been popping up on hotel room walls for a while now, and as they gain ground, manufacturers are updating the technology to cater to new demands. Séura’s Smart Speaker Lighted Mirrors, for example, can be installed in bathrooms or bedrooms, and come preinstalled with Amazon’s Alexa. “We can set up menus for people to ask Alexa questions related to that particular hotel—like, ‘Alexa, please tell the hotel to send me two towels’ or ‘Alexa, where's the best Mexican restaurant to eat in the vicinity?’” said Rian Cain, the company's VP of sales. “That could all be preprogrammed for how the hotel wants to use it in terms of getting revenue streams.” The devices are also Bluetooth-enabled so guests can listen to their own media through the mirrors while they get ready in the morning.

Related: Smart mirrors are helping redefine the hotel guest experience

At 2017’s BDNY conference, Mirror Image Hospitality announced a partnership with cloud-based management platform Keypr to create Remi, a “smart mirror” that doubles as a TV and a virtual concierge platform. Two years later, the company launched a new unit. “We decided that there was a gap between our backlit mirrors and our Remi mirrors, and while our Remi mirror is our premiere product, we wanted to be able to offer a technology that was a little bit more affordable and within reach,” said Paige Neugarten, president of Mirror Image Hospitality. At this year’s conference, the company launched its new Lunar Mirror, a voice-controlled project that can be customized with appropriate features for different hotels. 

The mirrors allow the guest to communicate with the hotel—requesting roomservice or adjusting the room temperature—and also allow the hotel to communicate with the guest, sending alerts to all rooms booked under certain conference codes, for example. Depending on a property’s needs, different features can be added or removed.

Logistics

As more devices require Wi-Fi, hotels may need to upgrade their bandwidth capabilities to accommodate growing demand from guestroom users, but that's an issue that manufacturers are keeping in mind. Electric Mirror’s Savvy smart mirrors are built on what Zerr called a “very light protocol.” Once data is downloaded, he explained, the information is stored on the device and cached. “So the Wi-Fi doesn't need to be super resilient or super strong,” he said of the products. “It works on a very low bandwidth, low transfer, and it is a very small hit to the hotel's pocketbook on that side of things.” 

Likewise, Heinlein said that as long as a hotel’s Wi-Fi network is good, a property will not need to add extra wiring or enhance the existing signal to use Moda products.

And while guestroom phones may be gathering cobwebs, Neugarten does not expect smart devices to replace them entirely just yet: “The only reason that phones are so necessary is because of the emergency calls that still may need to happen,” she said. In other words, until everyone is comfortable adapting to next-gen technology in their guestrooms, some classic elements may stay where they are.

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