On a rainy May morning, six hospitality professionals met with HOTEL MANAGEMENT in Washington, D.C., to discuss the evolution of technology in the hotel industry and how it continues to affect both guests and operators. The topics of the discussion ranged from the industry’s ever-growing vault of data and how to defend it from cyber criminals, the power of modern revenue-management tools, the next wave of media-streaming technology and ways hotels are expected to shoulder the bandwidth burden. The discussion also touched on the difficulty of investing in technology, which grows ever more expensive and requires more training with each passing year. Finally, the panelists looked to the future, sharing their expectations for the guestroom of tomorrow and what hotels will look like 10 years from now.
The roundtable’s participants were, from left to right: Elliott Mest, associate editor at HOTEL MANAGEMENT; Rick Day, VP of marketing for Real Hospitality Group; Vikram Singh, VP, hotel demand generation for The Rainmaker Group; Eric Tagliere, SVP, application development and enterprise architecture at Marriott International; Chris Green, principal and COO of Chesapeake Hospitality; Vivek Shaiva, EVP and CIO of LQ Management; and Jim Lamb, chief information officer of Interstate Hotels & Resorts.
The discussion began with a look at how hotels determine the technology they choose to invest in, with Green saying the decision often comes down to the return behind an investment and the impact it will have on the guest experience. He said that when hotels are forced to make a decision between upgrading the aesthetics of a hotel versus customer touch points, interactive options almost always win out.
“Whether it’s your Wi-Fi or your connectivity in the guestroom, you’ve got to be at the edge of that space,” Green said. “The No. 1 driver right now for guest satisfaction is internet speed, not the bed.”
Lamb described the rate of change for technology as “vertical,” meaning it is nearly impossible to sort through new developments as they appear. Instead, businesses and hotels should focus on things that are relevant and meaningful specifically to their customer and employee segments. “It comes back to things that are going to make a difference,” Lamb said. “We want to move the needle on the guest-satisfaction survey, but at the same time allow our folks not to be tied up with technology and focus their time delivering services to our guests.”
On the topic of being overwhelmed, Tagliere spoke about the high tide of data that hospitality is currently swimming in. According to Tagliere, most companies are suffering from the same challenges, but said hotels can look to social media and financial services companies as successful big-data models, and learn from their successes and mistakes. Of chief importance to Tagliere is making sure data isn’t just being collected, but being used to create a better hotel experience.
“Unfortunately, a lot of our technology, just because of the scale of our industry, is driven toward a more transactional mindset,” Tagliere said. “Let’s process the reservation, let’s price the room product, let’s check the guest in. But how do you personalize at scale? The only answer we see is… you have to know a lot about your guests. A lot more than we do today.”
According to Shaiva, the most appealing aspect of big data is the potential to feed it into a system in real time that will allow a hotel to immediately react to guest actions, such as negative comments on social media. Theoretically, a negative tweet could be analyzed and a response fed back to staff before the end of a guest’s stay, potentially changing the guest’s perception of the stay and influencing review scores.
“It can get a little creepy, too, at some point, but that technology exists today,” Shaiva said. “One can do it if you get the right brains together and get to that.”
The Creepiness Factor
The ubiquitous nature of modern information-gathering systems was addressed by Green, who expressed his interest in location-based technology for hotels. Green referenced Disney’s experiments with wristbands that track customer movement through heat maps, allowing for better customer support through its parks. “Imagine a day when you are in a… big convention hotel and you know a group, whether or not they are [members of your loyalty program] and their location,” Green said. “Do we need to deploy support staff to restaurant A over restaurant B? The applications are enormous.”
Green also addressed what some at the table referred to as the “creepiness factor” of always knowing where your guests are, saying that the youngest generation of travelers does not find it awkward to have their movements or preferences tracked.
“For me, if I walk into a hotel in Monterrey and they say ‘Oh, Mr. Green, welcome back,’ and I’ve never been there, that’s odd, it’s a little strange,” Green said. “I know what they’re doing, because I’m in the business, but if my son did it, he’d be fine. He’d be like, ‘This is the coolest thing ever.’”
The Bandwidth War
When it comes to costs, few things are more expensive to hotels than bandwidth upgrades. Singh said the problem was twofold, first with the cost of upgrading the bandwidth load for hundreds of rooms at a time, but is also held back by the flawed internet infrastructure in the U.S. when compared to other countries.
“We’re really lagging behind, so it’s not just that hotels don’t want to give fast internet; this is the fastest it’s going to be,” Singh said. “I feel a lot of that burden is not just the hotels are not investing in it, it’s just that we as a nation are really lagging with internet speed.”
“The question we often ask is, ‘Who here is spending less on technology than you did two years ago?” Tagliere said. “The reality is, technology is penetrating more and more of your lives… so therefore I’m spending more than I ever thought I would, and now it’s become essential.”
An Automated Future
Another technology trend new to hotels this year is the growing prevalence of automated systems, including robotic concierge services at hotel front desks. When asked how far we are from seeing a fully automated hotel, Shaiva said the industry is still several years away, and that hotels are still using technology as a means to augment, rather than replace, their workers. Currently costs and the degree to which automated services such as robots can be scaled are still limiting factors, but Day said that there are some emerging players in the space.
“It’s not cost-effective for a property at this point… but it’s a great novelty that makes a fun story,” Day said. “But you still need the people to engage with it, because you are going to have hiccups and people may not treat [robots] the way they should until they become commonplace.”
Tagliere was more skeptical. “This probably sounds weird from a technology guy who has spent his life building technology, but I think this is much more of a question around the business and the guest experience than it is on the technology,” he said. “The technology is in many cases there, and we could push harder on the cutting edge to go and deploy this stuff. I think the application around removing the human element is much more questioned around ‘should we?’ rather than ‘could we?’”
When asked if any uniformity has emerged across chain scales to allow for an easier adoption of new technology, Tagliere said the industry is stuck trying to embrace the consumer electronics base, which is inundated with technologies that don’t interface with each other. In addition, the largest tech players are choosing to compete rather than cooperate, creating a confusing environment that ultimately creates unsatisfied guests.
Green gave the example of using his phone to print a document somewhere else in his house, a procedure that should be simple but the high number of competing technologies makes this difficult to achieve in one hotel, let alone across an entire portfolio.
“If somebody could ever do plug-and-play for me, I’m going to buy all of it,” Green said. “That’s what I want to experience at a hotel room, and that’s what our guests are expecting.”
In closing, the table was asked to speculate about what the hotel guestroom would look like in 10 years, with Lamb saying that 80 percent of the technology we will use on a daily basis 10 years from now has yet to be invented. Using 2006 as a reference, Lamb pointed out that there were no iPads, and the mobile space had yet to be reinvented by the iPhone 4.
“I think it is about consumerization, it’s about plug-and-play, it’s about allowing you to take what you experience in your home and have accessibility to that in your hotel room, because the technology… it’s not in your face, it’s a little more covert and allows you to operate,” he said.