Why the hotel industry should be finding inspiration at CES


What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, though not for the swarms of people who descended on Sin City this week for CES, the world's largest consumer electronics show. They are there to test out and see the coolest gadgetry going and decide their implications for everyday life.

And while the show has traditionally lured tech heads and electronic manufacturers, a mounting number of Fortune 500 businesses are showing up for inspiration and to show off what's up their sleeves.

Consider Carnival Corp., whose CEO, Arnold Donald, delivered a keynote at the show. (He also posted a blog post explaining why Carnival decided to come to CES.) The cruise company, which operates more than 100 ships worldwide under 10 brands, is getting into wearables. It unveiled a new app and quarter-sized "smart medallion" called the Ocean Compass at CES. Travelers can reportedly put the device in their pocket or on a bracelet or necklace. This will surely come in handy on some of Carnival's gargantuan cruise ships. As The Wall Street Journal reports, the device has "sensors to allow people to locate family members onboard and pass security checks for getting on and off the ship faster, for example."

The wearable can also unlock a cabin door and check you in for a reservation at a restaurant. The device also is designed to help staff predict passengers' likes and dislikes. Say a passenger orders a martini with dinner. The next night the waiter might bring another or recommend another vodka-based cocktail.

“With this interactive technology platform, we are poised to have our global cruise line brands at the vanguard of forever changing the guest experience paradigm — not just in the cruise industry, but in the larger vacation market and potentially other industries,” said Donald.

Where Hotels Fit In

The hospitality industry is a space ripe for disruptive change in technology. According to a recent study by the Consumer Technology Association, which operates CES, 97 percent of travelers use their devices to enhance their travel experience, "and many want a customized experience based on personal preferences."

And the hotel industry should be on the cusp of this new technology. Let's be clear, hoteliers: You have a captive audience and many of them dig new technology that is hip and, of course, easy to use.

Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Technology Association, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal just how much the hotel industry can benefit. “Hotels are one of the areas I think most ripe for innovation and for change,” he said. “You have long-lived capital assets, hotels that last 50-60 years, but technology that’s changing rapidly every single year," he said.

Some hotels have already jumped in full bore. Consider Wynn Resorts; last month it announced that that each of the 4,748 guestrooms at Wynn Las Vegas and Encore will have an Amazon Echo by summer. The device, commanded with a series of voice commands via Alexa, the brain behind Echo, is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic and other real time information. It can also control several smart devices using itself as a home automation hub.

Steve Wynn, chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts, for one, is quite taken by Alexa. "As we have moved through the years, technology has always played an important part in our resorts," said Steve Wynn, chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts. "The thing that Amazon has done with Alexa is quite perfect. If I have ever seen anything in my 49 years of developing resorts that has made our job of delivering a perfect experience to our guests easier and help us get to another level, it is Alexa. The ability to talk to your room is effortlessly convenient."

With Echo, guests will be able to verbally control every aspect of lighting, temperature and the audio-visual components of a hotel room. Pretty cool, especially if, like many hotel guests, finding the light switch can be a scavenger hunt.

DuBravac thinks so. “Voice recognition, whether it’s Amazon’s Alexa or other things, makes a lot of sense in hotel rooms, where you may not know where the light switch is, you may not know how to close the blinds,” DuBravac told the Review-Journal.

Beyond guest-facing technology, hotel operations are also set to profit. Think of the security and sustainability implications, such as newfangled cameras and room-automation technology (hello, Nest); the latter allowing a guest to set the optimal temperature in a room. Is there anything worse than walking into a great hotel room only to be greeted by desert heat or tundra cold?

"You could imagine that, while I’m out of the room, the temperature sets to whatever is most energy efficient, but then when I approach the hotel, it recognizes based on my geolocation, that room starts to adjust to my preferred temperature accordingly,” DuBravac said.

And don't forget robots. Starwood got the ball—motors—rolling on that back in 2014 with its Botlr robotic butler—because who doesn't want Rosie bringing you fresh linens?

The futuristic Jetsons technology is only going to proliferate, according to DuBravac. “We expect home robots to grow from about 2.9 million units here in the U.S. last year to about 5 million in coming years,” he said. “Almost all of them will use voice as the interface.”

If people are using robots at home to perform quotidian tasks, you can expect that they will become more prevalent in the hotel space. Pretty soon, they might be checking you in, or you can do it on your own via a smart device.

“The entire hotel experience is changing. We’re moving away from a traditional front-desk experience because we now all have our mobile devices,” DuBravac said. “Those mobile devices can double as keys to our room. We can check in online and go straight to our room. As a result, there’s less touch between the hotel property and the individual.”

Finding the Right Blend

And that's the rub. How much do we want hotels to become less hospitable and more programmable? It's a delicate balance that will certainly have all chain scales trying to figure it out.

You might expect that hotels at the luxury level would be most apt to implement these new types of technology: digitization, sensorization, artificial intelligence, to name a few. Technology can be expensive and luxury travelers, who have higher discretionary incomes, for the most part, would presumably be more inclined to have and use it.

Not so fast. Brands like St. Regis, Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton attract a clientele that still wants and demands that personal touch. While being able to open a guestroom with a smartphone is fine, conversing with a robot at check-in is not.

In fact, these applications are more relevant to downscale brands in the select-service and limited-service spaces, where guests are usually less finicky and more perfunctory.

Nevertheless, the hotel industry needs to stay abreast of trends in technology and gadgetry. It's a brave new world and hospitality needs to be part of it.