Technology is enabling hoteliers to connect with guests in new and innovative ways, delivering the customized experience that each visitor craves
by Lisa Gordon
It’s not easy being a hotelier in 2019.
Some guests want a unique vacation yet demand all the comforts of home. Others expect a personalized guest experience but want to minimize face-to-face interactions with hotel staff. And still others prefer to control every aspect of their stay – from booking to checkout – through their smartphones.
But no matter what type of guests you are entertaining in your hotel, they probably have one thing in common: They want to be connected.
CONNECTIVITY IS KING
“From a guest perspective, Internet connectivity has become one of the most important things,” said Jeff Shockley, vice president of asset management and operations for Hotel Equities, which specializes in managing Marriott, Hilton, and IHG hotels.
“Technology that allows guests to stay connected has become an expectation. They expect it to be free, high speed, and able to support a minimum of three or four devices. It’s important that we monitor and stay in front of that expectation because it really drives guest satisfaction.”
Hotel Equities manages 80 hotel properties in the U.S. and Canada, with another 63 in development or under construction. Shockley said Hotel Equities has implemented a number of technological improvements over the past few years, including mobile key services, which have been offered at the company’s new properties for the past two years.
“Mobile key enables customization of your stay,” he said. “You get the opportunity to pick your room off a map before you check in. Then, you check in on your phone and use your phone as a key.”
Shockley added that mobile key is a work in progress at legacy hotels, although the end of 2021 is the target for North American activation.
Once the guest is in the room, many Hotel Equities properties feature smart thermostats equipped with motion detectors and a smart TV entertainment platform that will be standard at all facilities by the end of this year.
Of course, high-speed broadband Internet is a must, and Shockley’s properties respond with 100 Mbps to 200 Mbps of bandwidth, depending on the number of rooms in the hotel. “I think we’ll always be chasing bandwidth as devices pull down more data,” he said.
He added that Marriott’s new guest chat system, Empower GXP (Guest Experience Platform), provides the opportunity for guests to communicate with the front desk to ask for special services, restaurant recommendations, or extra towels.
From a property-management perspective, Hotel Equities is working on developing a business-intelligence platform that will access forecasting, accounting, and guest-feedback systems to pull everything into one report.
Shockley said the platform is key to enabling “real-time decisions to make the hotel more profitable and keep guests happy.”
DRIVING GUEST EXPERIENCE
Radisson Hotel Group told Today’s Hotelier it is investing in technology to give customers the experience and choice they expect.
With seven hotel brands and more than 1,400 properties in operation or under development, RHG is preparing to roll out a new reservations and on-property experience platform called EMMA (Every Moment Matters).
“EMMA will be the backbone of our future data-powered innovation and will enable our hotels to fulfill these delightful experiences guests desire,” said Bill Baltes, RHG’s senior vice president and interim chief information officer for the Americas. “This system will remember each of our guests’ preferences, allowing us to provide a unique and memorable stay within our global portfolio of hotels.”
EMMA will streamline the check-in and checkout process for both guests and hotel staff. A profile is created for a guest after his first stay, which informs RHG of his preferences when he books a future reservation.
“This data allows the hotel staff to create an individualized and unique experience for each guest,” Baltes said, adding that a key consideration is safeguarding customers’ personal information. “With EMMA, Radisson Hotel Group is driving a technology-enabled ecosystem that enables rapid innovation.”
RHG also recently launched Radissonhotels.com, a new multibrand and mobile-first website. At the end of July, RHG also launched its Radisson Hotels app.
Baltes said it’s important to allow guests the choice of how they want to interact with the hotel – whether through personal interactions with staff, phone messaging, streaming content to a room’s TV, or online check-in and mobile key.
Mobile key was introduced with the launch of the Radisson RED brand of properties, and the group is now considering chatbot pilot programs to facilitate guest interaction.
“We want to make each guest’s stay as convenient and carefree as possible,” Baltes said. “Leveraging a high-speed hotel Wi-Fi system allows us to expand our content offering. At Radisson RED, guests can stream their own content from their devices to our TVs.”
DEFINING THE CUSTOMER JOURNEY
At Best Western Hotels & Resorts, the focus is on cementing customer relationships from the outset.
With more than 4,500 hotels in nearly 100 countries, Best Western’s mobile concierge application, implemented two years ago at select properties, allows guests to customize their stay.
“We find out if it’s business or leisure,” said Ron Pohl, the hotel group’s senior vice president and chief operations officer. “What are their needs prior to arrival: early check-in, food or beverage amenities, any other requests?”
He said that like airlines, Best Western’s guests can check in using their mobile device, which then becomes the key to enter their guest room.
“We’ve been preparing for that for a number of years,” he said. “You need the correct locking technology, and we are currently testing that technology at Best Western hotels. You can bypass the desk and go right to your room, and that now activates the ability to begin texting the hotel with any additional requests.”
Pohl said many customers would rather text than pick up the phone, so the mobile concierge meets their expectations while simultaneously creating better efficiency for the hotelier since responses can be tracked.
It also allows Best Western to upload local restaurants, attractions, and staff recommendations, and provides for a quick and easy checkout.
Looking ahead, Pohl said the ability to stream content to room TVs will be rolled out over the next few months and will most likely be offered to Best Western Rewards members first.
The chain’s more upscale brands will soon offer the ability to control other devices in the hotel room; that’s a 2020 initiative for hotels that have the capability.
Behind the scenes, Best Western’s staff completes computer-based training using a platform that replaces old-school roleplay for those in customer-service positions.
“This is all virtual reality, computer-based training that can put our staff into these challenging situations and allow them to practice in a real-life scenario,” Pohl said. “The system can identify facial expression, voice tone, etc. We have over 30 different scenarios for the front-desk staff alone.”
EMPHASIS ON SAFETY
Technology plays an important role in staff safety, too. Everyone interviewed for this article is concerned about employee safety and plan to implement various forms of personal-safety devices.
“We have begun a pilot project using panic buttons for hotel employees,” said RHG’s Baltes, adding that employees can summon help to their exact location with the touch of a button.
Hotel Equities’ Shockley said that by January 2021, all Marriott employees will be outfitted with personal-safety devices. “Next year, in the first quarter, they’ll be in our capital budget to ensure all Marriott hotels have them,” he said.
Likewise, Pohl said Best Western has committed to rolling out these devices by the end of 2020 at all North American hotels. “We have eight different options, and we want to work with hotels to ensure they adopt the right one.”
HOSPITALITY WILL ALWAYS NEED PEOPLE
Even though technology has become entrenched in the hotel industry, it’s also true that it’s called the hospitality business for a reason. Apps, chatbots, and virtual attendants can never replace a genuine, welcoming smile.
“That absolutely does matter,” Pohl said. “In the past, we expected we’d communicate with the customer on arrival. The difference today is customers are dictating communication.
“I think expectations are changing across the industry. What we have to do is pick and choose the points of contact because the personal element is critical to the hospitality business. It’s the only way we can establish real loyalty with a customer.”