What makes a hotel a smart hotel?

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An exploratory discussion with three industry veterans

by Sandy Smith

Today’s hotel owners are met with technology options on every side, from voice-activated room enhancements to information that drives more insight on the back end. So, how does a hotel owner become savvier as hotels become smarter? To find out, we asked three technology experts: Alexandre Simionescu, co-founder of Float4, which builds interactive and immersive experiences for a number of properties including hotels; John Edwards, CTO at RLH Corporation, the corporation behind brands like Red Lion and Americas Best Value Inn; and Dominic Locascio, VP, Americas, for InnSpire, which acts as a gateway to allow a simple, single interface for the hotel guest to access smart technology.

WHERE IS THE OVERALL HOTEL INDUSTRY IN TERMS OF USING SMART TECHNOLOGY TOOLS THAT ARE AVAILABLE?

Locascio: It is still early in the adoption cycle of these new technologies, but more and more guests have a better tech experience at home than at the hotel. Most hotels today do not have the need or budget to deploy a full smart platform, but it is important to make sure that whatever pieces of that puzzle you deploy to your properties today that those technologies are scalable and integrate well with other vendors.

Edwards: From the overall guest room experience, we’ve really been focused on a couple: guest security and making sure that we find the right solution that allows the technology to be simple and streamlined without any challenges or objections from the travelers on whom that is implemented. With voice-activated solutions, there is the issue that they are listening all the time. We’ve been really focused on communicating with our hotels to make sure that they know that and, at the same time, trying to help them understand what we’re doing on the back end to allow a guest to opt in to those services.

WHAT IS THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT THAT A HOTEL OWNER SHOULD KNOW ABOUT IN SMART TOOLS?

Simionescu: Given the immense concentration of applications that we have on our mobile phones, it is in integrating mobile platforms into the experience. It offers so many possibilities and it’s hardly something that is an emerging technology. It’s widely adopted.

Edwards: The focus for us in non-emerging technology has really been around our smartphone and our guest communication platform. We’re starting to drive the guest adoption around mobile check-in, SMS messaging to the hotels and getting that communication flow with the guest. We’re starting to look at ways that we can leverage artificial intelligence or call centers to get back information to the guests.

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HOW ARE ROBOTS BEING USED AND WHERE IS THE POTENTIAL?

Edwards: We have our two pilot hotels: Red Lion Anaheim (California) and Americas Best Value Inn in Hayward, CA. The operations housekeeping teams are working with the robot manufacturer, Peanut Robotics, to find ways that the robotic tools can enhance how the housekeeping team works through their day. Our housekeeping group in Anaheim is really excited that they have a new tool that actually directs the way they do their job, how well, and how fast.

Locascio: InnSpire currently has a hotel where guests can use their TV or a web app to order room service that is delivered by robot. This provides more than just a wow factor, but it dramatically impacts revenue. It may be 20 years before we see real scale here, but I believe that robots will definitely have a role.

WHERE IS THE MOST SKEPTICISM ABOUT THE VALUE IN CUSTOMER-FACING SMART DEVICES?

Simionescu: Technology evolves at a faster pace than ever, which presents both opportunities and challenges. When clients are building or renovating a property, their cycle is five, 10, or 15 years. But even within the smallest cycle, technology would have gone through at least one new generation. Like any person who makes an investment, you want to reduce your risk and maximize returns. Technology can create these opportunities, but it’s not a silver bullet. It’s an enabler, not the solution in itself.

Edwards: I think it’s about execution. We have a lot of pilots going on. Some work out and some don’t. The ones that don’t typically fail around, ‘Can we successfully execute this across all our brands or for the right customer set?’ That’s why our system-wide initiatives have really been focused around the low-hanging fruit.

MORE SPECIFICALLY, WHERE DO YOU SEE THE MARKET CURRENTLY FOR VOICE-ACTIVATED DEVICES IN HOTELS?

Simionescu: The fact that it is something being adopted in private homes will help it being adopted in places like hotels. It will be something that people are already used to.

Locascio: People use voice every day in their home or just to “ask Siri.” Adapting this technology for the hotel environment has great potential. Ten years ago, it was revolutionary to put AppleTV into hotel rooms; now streaming is commonplace. I believe we will see the same for voice in some form or another.

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WHAT CONCIERGE TOOLS DO YOU SEE HAVING THE BIGGEST POTENTIAL?

Edwards: There’s a ton of solutions for guests to get local recommendations. One of the things we’ve been focused on is making sure those are valid and up to date. One of the things that we’ve been working on that we’re piloting internally is the ability for our hotels to make enhanced recommendations.

Locascio: There are so many tools like hotel apps, smart TVs, web apps, and text-based services that can support the traditional concierge and improve the guest experience. I believe that hotels are at the tip of the iceberg in terms of maximizing this potential. The question is, will our industry outsource this expertise or will we integrate and leverage these tools to bring our own knowledge and experience into the process?

WHAT POTENTIAL EXISTS OUT THERE THAT HASN’T YET BEEN FULLY REALIZED IN TERMS OF HOTEL OPERATION?

Edwards: As an industry, it’s still a personal experience, so there’s always going to be a lot of human touch. Finding new technical solutions that enhance that overall experience, there’s still quite a bit of opportunity there. Getting more access to more data will continue to drive innovation within the industry. Not having to work as hard to get that data will drive innovation significantly.

Locascio: Whether it is streaming their favorite shows or ordering food through their smartphone, expectations are higher than ever for technology to drive a faster, better, and easier hotel stay. Our industry needs to get better at adapting our technologies to what the guest is doing rather than expecting the guest to learn different systems and processes. We need to find ways to expand integration into the tech they are already using to improve ease of use and speed of adoption.

FINALLY, IF YOU WERE TO FORECAST ONE YEAR OUT, WHERE WOULD THE GENERAL HOTEL INDUSTRY BE WITH THESE TOOLS?

Simionescu: It’s a very small amount of time considering how long it typically takes. It’s hard to say if there’s something that we currently don’t have that will be present throughout the hospitality industry in that short amount of time. What I think we will see is current trends and adoptions will increase.

Edwards: My goal is you would be talking about a bunch of robots in a bunch of hotels. We have a strong initiative and strong belief that the solution provider has a way to impact the way we operate our hotels. Our goal really is to get that out in those pilot hotels and not just one or two robots, but several within those hotels that we’re starting to learn from and roll out more widely.

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