CHECK Hotel execs and suppliers dish on the latest hotel technology and what it means for their properties and products.
The exponential nature of technological advancement is fundamentally changing the way hoteliers, their guests and their suppliers do business. Just think about how this story might have looked only a few short years ago? How many managers then, would have been looking into RFID readers, smartphone-synched door locks or installing the kinds of sophisticated energy-management systems that allow them to drastically reduce energy costs, while still maintaining guest comfort? And, that’s before we even tackle the nebulous world of Twitter, Facebook, meta searches and other online phenomena.
It’s all part and parcel of the realities of modern hostelry, and hoteliers caught off guard can quickly find themselves swimming in new jargon and dealing with a customer who has come to expect an entirely different suite of technological capabilities and amenities. With some business travellers already bypassing a front desk check-in routine in favour of a complete smartphone experience, there are no traditional hotel conventions untouched by the sea change.
To help sift through this turmoil, or at least get a handle on where it stands today and where it might shift tomorrow, Hotelier reached out to hotel executives and technology suppliers to find out how they interpret the landscape. Participating in the roundtable discussion were Vineet Gupta, senior vice-president, Technology, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, Gustaaf Schrils, vice-president, Global Technology, the Americas, IHG; Jeff Wells, president, Epiqview; Andrew Chlebus, national sales manager, Commercial Sales Group, LG Electronics Canada Inc.; Paul Foster, director of Sales, LodgeNet Interactive (Canada) Corp. and George Winker, vice-president, Sales, North America for VingCard Elsafe.
OPERATORS WHAT IS THE LATEST TECHNOLOGY YOU’RE IMPLEMENTING ACROSS YOUR PROPERTIES?
VINEET GUPTA: From a guest perspective, the next two to three years will be about enhanced personalization and delivering a consistent customer experience. We’ll achieve this by leveraging the Internet and wireless technologies in-room and making the television the entertainment hub for all online and technology needs. As Fairmont enters new international markets, language will also play a key role, so we’ll look to expand our multi-lingual capabilities for all of our online portals.
Apart from the guest, we’ll also be directing much of our technology focus to supporting human resources, ensuring we have a new generation of tools on hand to hire the most talented individuals available. A new integrated, online recruitment platform is planned and will play a critical role in talent acquisition.
HOW HAS THE ONLINE TRAVEL WORLD, COUPLED WITH SOCIAL MEDIA, CHANGED THE WAY YOU COMMUNICATE?
GUPTA: Social and online review sites have provided us with new channels to listen to our customers and anticipate their ever-evolving needs. Whether it’s our Facebook and Twitter pages or our “Everyone’s An Original” community site, we see these as real-time platforms where we can genuinely connect and have an open and honest dialogue with our key stakeholders in a timely and efficient manner.
GUSTAAF SCHRILS: Clearly social media is of great importance to us all. Instant information and data challenges us to be even more transparent and improve experiences instantly rather than weeks later. We also need to be able to react to customers’ needs any time during the “trip cycle” and maintain a positive experience, through making changes to existing reservations or new reservations instantaneously.
WHAT IS DRIVING CHANGE? IS IT A CORPORATE MANDATE OR CUSTOMER EXPECTATION?
GUPTA: In my opinion, it’s a mix of the two, although I do believe customer xpectations have evolved quite rapidly over the last two to three years. Today’s traveller is one of the leading catalysts when it comes to technological innovation. Consider that a decade ago, hotel rooms were more sophisticated in terms of technology than what a guest would have in their home. Now, it’s flipped, and guests are incredibly knowledgeable about this area; [they] have all sorts of devices that are ingrained and directly influence their lives on a day-to-day basis.
SCHRILS: Guest demands are constantly changing the industry. We must always anticipate and prepare to meet and/or exceed those expectations. Also, both business and leisure travellers have their own sets of requirements. We are the crossroads of the office and home and must be ready to accommodate and support such lifestyle activities.
We are customer driven. Our process of “mandating” is via carefully created standards that are agreed to through a collaborative process with our owners and operators as partners, which then become our brand hallmarks.
WHAT’S NEXT WHEN IT COMES TO GUESTROOM TECHNOLOGY,CUSTOMER MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE AND MOBILE BOOKINGS?
GUPTA: From mobile and customized content to database capabilities and improving the speed of online transactions, we have a number of key technology topics on our radar. First and foremost is the in-room guest experience; our core focus from a technology standpoint will be providing guests with a seamless and integrated guestroom environment that is technology enabled and supports their business and personal needs.
THE RECESSION PUT MOST HOTELIERS INTO A BUDGET FREEZE. HAVE CANADIAN HOTELIERS RESUMED PURCHASING?
JEFF WELLS: We’re seeing a stronger resurgence in the U.S. than in Canada, but business is on the upswing. Are hotel companies spending money on technological upgrades again? Yes. There is a move to meet customer demand for self-directed content, particularly through TVs.
PAUL FOSTER: Hotels are focusing on what can bring hem a return on their investment, not only generating new revenue but also saving on operational costs. Hotels are willing to invest if they can clearly identify a way to reduce costs or drive revenue.
GEORGE WINKER: Yes, the recession forced hotels to take hard look at how they spend their money and where they see the need to invest in future-looking, scalable technologies that can save on operational costs in the short- and long-term. Hotels may not always be ready to spend the extra capital today to fully implement the long-term vision of remote-room management, but they are looking for solutions that provide the foundation to get there as economic conditions improve. This strategy includes energy-management systems, which help control costs and have the added benefit of providing enhanced guest comfort, contributing to a property’s green initiatives.
ANDREW CHLEBUS: The economy put understandable pressure on hotels to consider and limit their capital spends very cautiously over the past year. Having said this, we saw a hotel demand increase last year, despite economic pressures. The market made these investments, as they are seen, as necessities. As a senior hotel executive was quoted in the U.S. Hotels magazine [as saying] recently, “Consumers won’t let the economy be an excuse for outdated rooms or shoddy service. Maybe last year [in 2009] guests would ignore a boxy old television; in 2011, the lack of a flat-panel, HD television could be a deal breaker. [They’re] US$700 a room; you can’t not have it.” Additionally, key brands recognize the need for this technology and their Property Improvement Program [PIP] requirements demand it. While eased in some cases, to recognize the economic challenges, almost without exception, flatpanels are expected in place across the board over the coming months.
WHAT CAN YOUR TYPE OF TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENT DO FOR THE HOSPITALITY BUSINESS? HOW CAN IT PROVIDE A RETURN ON INVESTMENT?
FOSTER: Hotels are focused on reducing costs, driving revenue and providing a great customer experience. They can reduce costs by eliminating printing and materials in the room, and automating guest requests and inroom dining orders. Additionally, they can drive revenue by providing access and marketing opportunities for the hotel and third parties to promote their services. Our systems provide more than just entertainment options, they also help hotels promote their amenities and offer services guests want, when and where they want them. As a bonus, they also offer a broad array of entertainment options to help offset the systems costs.
WINKER: Our intelligent energy-management solution provides many tangible rewards for the property, including controlling energy costs, increasing guest comfort and advancing green and environmental initiatives. Because of the significant savings in energy expenditures, the ROI on an Energy Management Systems [EMS] is obvious.
Implementing energy management also provides the hotel with the platform to perform remote lock management for functions such as card cancellation, room changes, maintenance reporting and staff management without ever having to send someone to the room. On the locking side, our contactless Radio Frequency Identification [RFID] solutions help eliminate guest complaints about magstripe failure, improving the guest experience. RFID also provides a longer product life expectancy and lower maintenance costs, because it has less moving parts to wear out, and the sealed readers mean less corrosion and weather-related issues.
CHLEBUS: There are two key areas of impact: guest satisfaction and returning guests. Ensuring the guest has a positive experience or is wowed by the room becomes far more affected by the television product and its ease of use than ever before. As noted, it’s not an option. Additionally, the ability of hotels to more simply and easily provide targeted content and options to their guests with the ability to make choices and interact, supports guest satisfaction as well as revenue.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS DRIVING THE TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGES OF TODAY?
CHLEBUS: The consumer is embracing various forms of technology at a rapid, and to some, frightening pace. The integration of Internet-driven functions directly to the television is the new norm in consumer televisions, for instance. The acceleration of demand and implementation of new functionality tends to relate to choice, costs, speed and ease. The proliferation of personal electronics and the volume of information and functions they are used for continues to accelerate. One does not have to be an electronics futurist to see that the idea of having separate devices for music, video and c communication is becoming undesirable. The only thing [missing] when travelling is the device to push this content, so it can be enjoyed effectively.
WINKER: Two things are driving the technological advances hat hotels are making today: one is the focus on environmental issues and reducing costs and their carbon footprint through energy efficiency. Other technological changes are designed to differentiate the hotel and ensure guests return, providing innovative products that work.
FOSTER: The proliferation of content. Hotel guests are used to getting what they want, when they want it. Guests can pick up their phone or laptop and get any type of content or service they want. They expect that same level of access when they check into a hotel.
WHERE IS TECHNOLOGY HEADED? WHAT MIGHT A HOTELIER DO IN TWO YEARS THAT HE OR SHE CANNOT DO TODAY?
WELLS: Offer services across a variety of devices to provide content when and where customers want it and drive revenue from those sources, including increased heads in beds.
FOSTER: As soon as tomorrow or next week, a hotel guest will have the ability to utilize their smartphone as the television remote control, book a tee time on the television or record their favourite program in their hotel room. The options are endless for the guest of the future, but the challenge is to make those endless options simple and intuitive to understand, because a hotel generally serves a very broad array of demographics with different needs and levels of user experiences with technology.
WINKER: With the advent of Near Field Communication enabled mobile phones, the industry is trending toward bypassing the front desk, allowing guests to check-in online and go directly to their rooms upon arrival, using their phone as a room key, if they so choose. Although this is possible today, it will likely become more common in the future, as technologies converge in the mobile landscape.
CHLEBUS: As in residential markets there is a growing feeling that the customer wants an “on-demand” programming style where they can choose what they want to watch whenever they want it. They question their willingness to pay for the content when it is available by another media or in their homes free of charge. As with other CRM tools, we could see the use of two-way technology not just as a semi-passive marketing tool for hotel F&B and services, but the in-room experience could completely shift to have our televisions interact directly with the guest to offer a personalized experience based on previously acquired dataset.