At HOTEC Operations, hotels confront what guests want versus what they need

HOTEC North America Operations is a three-day meeting forum of prescheduled appointments between suppliers and decision makers in the hospitality industry. Photo credit: Getty Images/Rawpixel (For hotels, investing in technology comes with significant overhead and downtime between spending and implementation. That's why it pays to predict, not to react.)

CARLSBAD, Calif. - Everyone wishes they had more time to plan ahead and react to trends and changes in the business climate, but time is rarely forgiving. For this reason, the HOTEC North America Operations networking event was formed as a venue where hospitality professionals could meet one-on-one in an intimate setting. This year’s event took place at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., and in the spirit of the event the day began with a panel of professionals who discussed methods for improving communication throughout the industry.

“I think I speak for everyone in this room in saying I wish we had more time to devote to planning and strategizing and those types of discussions, whether it’s internally or if it’s with each other,” said Ken Gastro, director of sales at lock manufacturer Assa Abloy Hospitality. “It’s more important than ever for vendors and hoteliers to plan ahead because of what technology is bringing us.”

As Steve Jobs once said: “You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new.” This is an apt statement for the hotel industry, where investing in technology comes with significant overhead and downtime between spending and implementation. In fact, Gastro pointed out that the hospitality mindset of serving guest needs is sometimes detrimental to achieving real innovation in the space.

“In the culture that we're in, it’s easier to pay attention to what’s in front of us and listen to the customer rather than surprising them,” Gastro said. “Having those discussions about what’s next, that has to happen within the vendor community and the hotel community to see improvements.”

Guido Kerpel, VP of operations at New Castle Hotels and Resorts, pointed to the antiquated “jack packs”  that hotels adopted roughly six years ago. These jack packs allowed hotel guests to plug in phones, DVD players and other personal tech devices directly into the guestroom TV. The devices sounded good on paper, but they disappeared from hotels unceremoniously as superior technology emerged.

It was an expensive mistake.

“A lot of times we have to put the brakes on when it comes to bleeding-edge technology, unless of course [brands] can figure out if the customer embraces it,” Kerpel said. “Then, let’s jump on board with it. I think you can do that in a boutique hotel, but in large boxes it works but it’s too expensive.”

The 2018 HOTEC North America Operations event took place at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif. Photo credit: Omni Hotels & Resorts

Alissa Mendelsohn, operations manager at Denihan Hospitality Group, supported this statement. In her experience, boutique and independent hotels are ideal playgrounds for emerging technology because a successful implementation relies on only one property. She also spoke about changing trends in design purchasing where hotels are investing in creating “Instagrammable” spaces to capitalize on the power of social media. This trend is blossoming in all corners of hospitality, partly because the desire to stay in beautiful places is universal and more evergreen than consumer-facing technology trends.

“I was recently staying in an airport Marriott and it had a grand staircase that’s great for posing in its lobby, and it changes the whole feel of the space. Things like that are making us ask where we can install these vignettes, these memorable moments where you can Instagram yourself in our own hotels,” Mendelsohn said. “It’s a whole new generation of travelers. Of course, we travel based on points, but we also don’t want to stay at your standard hotel. What if there was something cool at the front desk, that kind of stuff is new and exciting, and it shows hotels adapting to new travelers.”

Gastro said a piece of that adaptation can be seen through the increased adoption of mobile key, which allows access a guestroom without stopping at the front desk. While mobile key is nothing new to the hotel space, Gastro said changing attitudes toward adopting new technology have improved the relationships between hotels and tech companies.

“Even in the last year my discussions with brands and what have you are different now, they’re not as siloed,” Gastro said. “Traditionally discussions about locks were [a furniture, fixtures and equipment] discussion, now my company is part of a technology discussion. We spend very little time talking about hardware and software. It’s about how are we integrating. And that’s a change for procurement folks, as well. The silos are done.”

OTA Moves

Toward the end of the panel, the panelists addressed the concept of online travel agencies making their way into the hotel space. Kerpel said it may be difficult for OTAs to find financing for hotel developments without an established brand attached to the project, but he wouldn't be surprised to see the industry’s largest OTAs take a swing at it.

On the other hand, the question of Airbnb’s place in the overall travel market was also questioned. Over the past year or so, industry analysts have posited that the Airbnb guest may not be the same as the traditional hotel guest, which is a sentiment that Kerpel took issue with.

“I don’t have any empirical evidence to support that it is or isn’t the same customer, but I think if you just look at the traveling public, it hasn’t necessarily grown a lot. If so, the airline stocks would skyrocket,” he said. “The pie hasn’t grown. I just think we’re slicing it up between different players, Airbnb being one of them.”

Mendelsohn, however, had a different take.

“I haven’t met a guest that is sitting at their computer trying to decide between an Airbnb and a Hilton,” she said. “I haven’t seen the customer who is shopping for a studio apartment also shopping for a Denihan hotel.”