HITEC roundtable explores robots, augmented reality in hotels

Pictured from left to right: Chris Petroff, co-managing director, GreenTree Hospitality; Joel Cisne, hotel systems manager, Cornell University School of Hotel Administration; Jeffrey Stephen Parker, VP of hospitality systems, RLH Corporation; Elliott Mest, associate editor at HOTEL MANAGEMENT; Todd Davis, CEO at SkyTouch Technologies and CIO, Choice Hotels International; Jake Necessary, chief information security officer, Interstate Hotels & Resorts; Jonathan Rojas, co-founder, Whistle Messaging; and Christopher Hovanessian, co-founder, Whistle Messaging.

What level of IT experience is the employee of tomorrow expected to have? Is technology making it easier to connect with guests and travelers, or is it allowing them to side-step human interaction faster than operators can adapt? Are robots and automation going to take everyone’s jobs, rendering the entire discussion irrelevant? On a warm June morning during the 2017 HITEC conference in Toronto, seven technology professionals gathered to share real insight into the industry—not just artificial intelligence.

Effective Technology and Secure Data

There is a stark difference between being effective and staying safe. For instance, credit and debit cards are an easy way for consumers and businesses to handle transactions, but they also attract hackers. Jeffrey Stephen Parker, VP of hospitality systems at RLH Corporation, said the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do in the fight against hackers when compared to the rest of the world, particularly when it comes to chipped card readers.

Cloud-Based Solutions

All doubts about the cloud have fallen to the wayside. Chris Petroff, co-managing director at GreenTree Hospitality, discusses the hotel industry's gradual shift to cloud-based systems and how they have changed the way operators are running their hotels, both on and off property.


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Expectations for IT-Level Experience

Machines and technology make things easier to do, or so we are led to believe. As technology becomes more advanced and simple things become even more simplified, Joel Cisne, hotel systems manager at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, said the need for employees with technical skills is gradually being reduced. Others on the panel disagreed.

Security in Payment Processing

Jake Necessary, chief information security officer at Interstate Hotels & Resorts, said the hospitality industry has been on the defense against data thieves for too long. What he believes the industry needs is an offensive stance, with tools that protect hotel systems embedded as deep as the kernel layer of a system.

Distribution and Interactivity

Christopher Hovanessian, co-founder of Whistle Messaging, said interactivity is always high on the list for hotel operators' aspirations, but many hotel companies are unwilling to experiment. Without the willingness to try and fail, Hovanessian fears hotels will forever lag behind competitors who are out there taking chances.

Early Adoption and Standing Out

Technology excites both guests and operators, but it also is attached to high costs. Because hotels have to invest in technology wholesale in masses of rooms or properties at a time, Parker said hotels need the willingness to test, fail and re-test before settling on a technology or initiative.

Robots Vs. Humans

Can a robot ever replace the human element in hospitality? Cisne thinks these machines serve as a novelty for guests, and will eventually replace menial tasks such as room service, but others on the panel are unsure of their place in the business. Perhaps digital chat bots will be more effective that physical machines, but time will tell.

Data Collection and Alexa

Some see Amazon's Alexa, and other associated voice-focused technologies, as a game changer for hospitality. But first, hotel companies need to navigate the "creepiness factor" associated with a machine that listens to guest conversations and responds. Privacy is a major aspect of hospitality, and it has major ties to security concerns as well.

Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and TV

Augmented reality is another big draw in hospitality, with many operators and hotel companies coming up with novel ways to utilize the technology to improve guest immersion — on the drawing board, at least. Todd Davis, CEO of SkyTouch Technologies and CIO at Choice Hotels International, said the success of augmented reality will hinge on consumer adoption, and fears this technology may take some time to mature.

What's Next?

Thinking outside the box, Davis has concerns for the industry's most classic properties: roadside hotels. With self-driving cars growing in popularity, and even autonomous cars beginning to hit the road, will a time come where guests are no longer checking into roadside hotels?


The Experts Weigh In

Just a few years ago hotels were talking about migrating on-property systems to the cloud, but the process has long been completed. Chris Petroff, co-managing director at GreenTree Hospitality, said almost everything at his company’s hotels is cloud based, from the property-management and central-reservation systems to the guest applications they are running.

“You look at how the users' technology environment is controlled and you mentioned it's all mobile based, it's all tablet based,” Petroff said. “As an organization, that is very important to us because there's an additional security level of there of being cloud based if we do bring systems in house.”

Todd Davis, CEO of SkyTouch Technologies and CIO at Choice Hotels International, said SkyTouch was created with a “mobile-first” mentality in order to build upon trends that were coalescing in the industry. The goal, at the time, was to create a service that would allow operators to have control of their hotels from wherever they were sitting, whether they wanted to check in on housekeeping, revenue management or any other components of their system.

“[I was sitting at] the Choice Hotels franchise conference back in Vegas a few months ago, where franchisees were sitting there changing rates while they're in their corporate session,” Davis said. “It's amazing what they can do. The point is, if there's something going on at the hotel that somebody can't figure out, somebody else can do it remotely. You don't have to be on site, which is the way it used to be.”

Joel Cisne, hotel systems manager, Cornell University School of Hotel Administration (left); and Chris Petroff, co-managing director, GreenTree Hospitality (center); listen as Jeffrey Stephen Parker, VP of hospitality systems, RLH Corporation, discusses the level of technology experience needed by operators today.

Experience Necessary?

While the tools allowing operators to control their property from afar are designed to be user friendly, using them effectively is another story. Joel Cisne, hotel systems manager at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, said that despite increased reliance on technology, the need for employees who are skilled with technology is actually subsiding.

“I’d say the [level of experience needed] is much less than it used to be,” Cisne said. “There's a lot less IT experience that is required of an operator. We leave it to the IT security experts on the back end if there needs to be issues to be troubleshot between systems.”

Jeffrey Stephen Parker, VP of hospitality systems at RLH Corporation, took a contrarian stance. He said that while operators no longer need to know how to navigate systems running on command prompts just to check someone in, the challenge now lies in keeping the large—and growing—list of networks a hotel puts to use from falling apart. He admits that the level of hands-on technology experience needed to operate may have waned, but now operators have different concepts to learn about.

“A GM now has to know what a data closet looks like, they have to understand what a patch panel is, they have to know the difference between a router and their W-Fi system,” Parker said. “So, I disagree, I think they just need to know different stuff. I think we've got so many different systems that if you're not some level of a technology expert, you're not going to be a good operator.”

Todd Davis, CEO at SkyTouch Technologies and CIO, Choice Hotels International (left), listens as Jonathan Rojas, co-founder, Whistle Messaging (center), talks about wooing guests as his partner, Christopher Hovanessian, looks on.

Paying It Safe 

Hotels have grappled with data security challenges in recent years, particularly in food-and-beverage locations, which are targeted by hackers looking to skim payment card information. The industry is in the midst of switching to chipped card readers, which allow for the tokenization of data as opposed to sharing raw numbers that can be copied, and Parker said the U.S. is lagging behind much of the rest of the world in the push for chipped card readers.

Jake Necessary, chief information security officer at Interstate Hotels & Resorts, said his company is switching its posture from defense to offense to combat data thieves by looking to the next generation of security measures rather than relying on what is available today. Necessary is after tools that protect individual touchpoints of a hotel’s system, particularly those that sit at the kernel layer of a system.

“Typically, it's not the swipe process that's a problem,” Necessary said. “It's something on the computer or it's something that's gotten installed to allow remote access. Those are really the attack vectors, that or something someone clicked on.” 

Another Reality

When asked how guests want to interact with hotels and if those needs are aligned with how hotels are designing technology today, Davis said he primarily thinks about what guests will be after over the next three years. Guests and technology companies are interested in concepts such as augmented reality, Davis said, but while hotels may be in a hurry to implement this technology, its success will hinge on consumer adoption.

“That’s why we are going to be stuck for a very long time with a proliferation of web browsers, and phones, and different devices of different sizes that we're going to have to be able to provide content to in some way, shape or form,” he said.

Christopher Hovanessian, co-founder of Whistle Messaging, said he hasn’t seen too many hotel companies taking extra steps to dabble in different technologies due to high development and implementation costs. However, he has gradually seen more companies rise up and pitch ideas to hospitality companies—and individual hotels. He wants to see more controlled experiments take place across the industry to assess and evaluate new technology going forward.

“[We] have seen a lot of phobia in terms of adopting new technology, and that's something that's finally starting to change,” Hovanessian said. “We're seeing that there's this new mindset moving forward where everyone's starting to scramble to adopt new technology, which has been great, but there's also that balance of agility and risk assessment that you need to be mindful of when you're moving forward.”

Davis (left) speaks about controlling a hotel PMS from afar.

Steel Butlers

Parker, who has deployed automated robots in his hotels, said guests love to interact with these machines but need to have their expectations tempered.

“I think that some level of, not necessarily roomservice, but grab-and-go,” Parker said. “I think there's some places there where it will enhance guest service, but just be clear what your model is for that guest service enhancement because if all they want is for the robot to show up, then the robot could deliver anything.”

According to Cisne, robots currently have two main purposes in hotels: The novelty of the robot itself on the guest side and the automation of repetitive tasks for the benefit of operators. More appealing, in some cases, are chat bots to interact with guests, freeing up time for staff for other activities on property. Petroff said that guests have mixed feelings about these bots, and sometimes ask in text communications with hotel staff if they are bots or not, and Necessary said it will be necessary for hotels to learn to not overuse chat bots or risk having them go the route of automated phone services—unwanted and a cause for frustration.

“We’re still looking at different ways to innovate and different ways to bring something new to the table in this area, not just have a basic guest interaction but provide them with something that kind of woos the guest,” said Jonathan Rojas, co-founder of Whistle Messaging. “As guests get used to something it becomes part of their everyday norm. How do we continue getting this guest to be interested?”

Chris Petroff discusses what life is like interacting with hotel guests who assume staff members are automated bots.

Taking Stock

Cisne and Parker both discussed devices such as Amazon’s Alexa and its ability to listen for prompt words to interact with guests, and consumer concerns about privacy. Both said the technology excites them from a business standpoint, but it also presents privacy and security challenges.

“At this point, we have to have a way to shut it off that the guest knows it's shut off, [and it] doesn't interrupt the next guest,” Parker said.

Considering the future and how rapidly new technology is adopted by businesses and consumers, Davis said he is interested in the impact autonomous cars will have on roadside hotels.

“We have so many roadside hotels, is it possible that nobody would ever stop at a roadside hotel anymore in the future?” Davis asked. “Ride sharing is more real today, and it’s one of those things my kids are used to. A lot of them don’t have drivers’ licenses yet, and they may never get one. What the impact might be from an industry standpoint… we’ll see.”