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Hotels Embrace New Technologies to Improve Guest Experience

To improve the guest experience, hoteliers are investing in more new, smart technologies. By using everyday items like smartphones and giving guests more power over their stay, hotel operators are able to reduce their own overhead staff costs while also freeing up staff to focus on guest needs.
Izvor: a&s International

According to a study by Oracle Hospitality and Phocuswright, nearly two-thirds of American hotel guests said it was very/extremely important for hotels to continue investing in new technology to enhance the guest experience. In fact, there has been an upsurge in demand for smart hospitality software and services, according to a report by MarketsandMarkets. Hoteliers are looking for real-time optimized guest experience management, to lure revenue generation and lower operational costs, and increase the adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) and energy management systems.

MarketsandMarkets predicts that by 2021 the smart hospitality market will reach US$18.1 billion, up from $5.7 billion in 2016. While hotels are probably not going completely staff-less anytime soon, automating certain functions with new technologies is definitely being welcomed by both guests and hotel operators alike.

Investing in More Technology is Improving the Hotel Experience

Technology is not only making it easier and more efficient for hoteliers to manage properties, it is also improving the guest experience.

Hoteliers aim to provide guests with the best possible experience, and in today’s ultra-connected world the incorporation of more high-tech services, like mobile check-in, is one way to do that. Traditional check-in and check-out processes are built around an outdated administrative process, not the guest experience. In fact, a recent study from Cornell University revealed that guest satisfaction decreased by 50 percent with even a five-minute wait at the front desk. From the perspective of hospitality technology providers, understanding that hotels rely on their ability to meet and surpass the expectations of guests is crucial.

“Any investment or innovation in technology must come in the context of how that platform can improve the guest experience. Thus, guest-facing, self-service technology is less about ‘replacing staff with robots,’ and more about personalizing and enhancing the guest experience,” explained Nicole Dehler, VP of Product Management at StayNTouch, a Shiji Group Brand.

“To put it another way, we tend to think less in terms of ‘high-tech versus high-touch,’ but rather how high-tech platforms can enhance high-touch service.” “Modern, mobile property management systems (PMS) turn these processes on their head for the benefit of guests and staff alike,” Dehler explained. “A mobile-enabled PMS lets guests check-in from anywhere on their smartphone, or through a self-service smart kiosk in the lobby. If desired, both of these devices can automate each stage of the check-in process, from key production, to ID scanning, to payment processing.” She also added that such a system can deliver targeted, automated opportunities for room upgrades and additional amenities — complete with vibrant images and product descriptions. This allows the guest to further customize and enhance their stay. Additionally, for a modest fee, guests can also choose an early check-in or late check-out time, all from the convenience of their smartphone. Across the industry, hospitality technology providers are seeing an increase in demand for mobile solutions, such as mobile check-in, which is being driven by the desire for more mobile key functionality.

Robert Stevenson, CEO of Intelity noted, “By fully automating mobile check-in and providing guests access to mobile keys, hoteliers are able to significantly reduce front desk friction, improve guest satisfaction, reduce operational costs and streamline their guests’ experience.”

Don’t Expect Staff-Less Hotels Just Yet
Brian Shedd, VP of Global Sales and Marketing at OpenKey pointed out that modern guests like using their smartphones to control more elements of their stay experience at hotels and hotels like reducing the overhead cost of staff. However, this does not mean that hotels are getting ready to replace the human element entirely with automation. “Running a hotel is a very complex undertaking and technology can only manage a fixed number of things,” Shedd said. “I think the future will see an extended use of technology in hotels to automate repetitive tasks such as check-in, check-out, room service and requests for things like extra pillows, etc., which will free up a smaller hotel staff to handle more complex guest requests and improve the hospitality element of the stay.” The concept of “staff-less” hotels is also relatively new, so hotel operators are still testing a variety of options.

“With respect to a staff-less check-in process, the most popular seems to be the combination of mobile key and kiosk to eliminate the need for a front desk interaction,” Shedd said. In either case, using technology to eliminate, or significantly reduce, the staff headcount at the front desk allows the hotel to save on operational costs. Additionally, Shedd pointed out using a smartphone as a room key also improves guest security and eliminates plastic waste.

Hotels Go Mobile to Appeal to Modern Tech-Savvy Guests

Many guests are now looking for the mobile conveniences they are accustomed to in their daily lives, as well as more advanced mobile functions, to be at hotels.

Mobile check-in is being adopted by more and more hoteliers across the globe and hotel guests are loving it. A study by Oracle Hospitality and Phocuswright found that guests want more control over their stay, with the majority of guests interested in being able to use their smartphones to do things like request in-room items, reserve restaurants, get information about nearby activities, etc.

“Mobility should be at the top of every hotelier’s mind — whether they’re searching for a property management system (PMS), point-of-sales (POS) or payment system. Put simply, travelers want guest-facing mobile options,” said Nicole Dehler, VP of Product Management at StayNTouch, a Shiji Group Brand. Dehler explained how a mobile PMS can empower staff to better serve their guests and make their arrival feel more natural and welcoming, and less forced and transactional. “When your PMS is run on a tablet, your staff can break free from the granite front desk and meet guests wherever they are in the hotel,” she said. “Mobility lets staff view instant room status updates and communicate with staff members directly from their tablet, front desk agents can provide VIP service from anywhere in the hotel. And because mobile PMSs benefit from an intuitive and easy-to-use UI, they can foster more natural face-to-face conversations between guests and staff,” she added.

Robert Stevenson, CEO of Intelity noted that one of the main features required for staff-less hotel management is mobile functionality through mobile key and mobile check-in. “Both of these solutions streamline guests’ experience at a property and give them the ability to either expedite their check-in experience or bypass the front desk entirely, which alleviates staff workload and allows them to focus on better guest experience.” Even traditional security companies are creating mobile ways to deliver keys to guests. Steve Hu, Product Manager at Merit LILIN explained how his company is developing its cloud smart QR pass, which acts as a mobile key and is sent via email to guests from the hotel. Upon arrival, the guests can present the QR pass on their smartphone to a LILIN door station equipped with a camera that decodes the QR pass and authenticates it for entrance.

Business Travelers Want More Mobility
Whereas in the past mobile check-in options were adopted by more modern boutique hotels looking for new and innovative ways to enhance guests’ experience, now mobile check-in has been adopted by properties in all market segments, from luxury brands, to business hotels, to large-scale resorts and hotel casinos. “Luxury properties pride themselves on providing a high degree of hospitality/ human interaction, but most business travelers would rather not stand in a check-in line even if the front desk agent is pleasant and accommodating,” said Brian Shedd, VP of Global Sales and Marketing at OpenKey. He explained that airlines have trained business travelers to expect that smartphones can be used to circumvent queues, and as a result this segment now expects the same benefit at upscale and luxury hotels.

“Brands such as Hilton and Marriott have recognized this and are rolling out digital key at all properties worldwide regardless of what segment the hotel is in,” he added. Oracle’s study showed that the vast majority of business travelers believe virtual check-in and check-out, as well as keyless room entry are very/extremely important. It also found that 47 percent of business travelers believe being able to make a request/ message the concierge or room service via smartphone is very/extremely important, compared to 28 percent of leisure travelers. Additionally, 44 percent of business travelers believe smartphone apps that control room climate/lights is very/extremely important versus only 21 percent of leisure travelers.

How the Latest Technologies are Making Hotels More Efficient

The addition of smart kiosks, in-room tablets and even guest service robots are helping hotels run more efficiently by freeing up hotel staff to focus on other tasks.

A survey of more than 1,200 hoteliers conducted by Expedia found that among the top investment priorities of chain hotels is increasing the tech budget. Hoteliers hope increasing tech spending will improve productivity, repeat visits and the guest experience.

Nicole Dehler, VP of Product Management at StayNTouch, a Shiji Group Brand expects that the Internet of Things (IoT) will revolutionize hotel customer service, security and room operations. “On one level, it helps hotels automate processes and save resources,” she said. “More significantly, IoT can also usher in an era of unprecedented personal- ization, with almost every object in a hotel room adjusting to a guest’s needs, preferences and preferred devices. Once established, these preferences can form the basis of an even more robust and nuanced guest profile, which can then be used to develop hyper-targeted messaging and offers.”

She also pointed to the use of artificial intelligence (AI), saying, “The ultimate goal of emerging AI will be to allow hoteliers to act on intelligence for multifaceted guest profiles in real time. AI will be able to analyze everything from a guest’s web and purchase history, to location data and IoT device interactions, to more subtle interactions such as conver- sational patterns with chatbots. The result will be a merging of customer service and data-analytics to create guest experience which is truly seamless and hyper-personalized.”

Reducing Staff With Kiosks, Robots, Tablets
Almost all hotels are automating at least some of its operations in order to improve efficiency and reduce costs. Robert Stevenson, CEO of Intelity noted that some of the latest technologies in this space are centered around guest service robots, like those seen at the YOTEL brand of properties; AI-driven ticketing, which uses machine learning to route guest requests to the appropriate department for fulfillment; and continued guest tracking and automation for improved guest experience and service. In-room tablets are also gaining popularity to assist in automating the in-room experience for guests.

According to Dehler, this trend is especially prevalent in the boutique, casino and independent brand sectors. Hotels in competitive locations are implementing in-room tablets as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition and elevate the guest experience.

“Tablets are being used to streamline in-room dining, provide guests with an on-demand connection to staff, automate service requests, reservations and other guest requests, and give guests control over their in-room environment through IoT functionalities,” Stevenson explained. “Not only do tablets automate the in-room experience for the guest, with things like room controls or by putting entertainment and news at their fingertips, but they also relieve the staff hours that are required to process guest requests. Additionally, implementing in-room tablets reduces the maintenance and cost of printed in-room collateral (e.g., compendiums, in-room dining menus, etc.),” he added.

Hotels are also using smart kiosks to transform lobbies into a guest-centric communal space. “When you remove the front desk — and its accompanying check-in lines — you can build your lobby around coffee shops, wine bars and lounges, or around functional co-working spaces,” Dehler said.

Voice technology is also gaining traction in both guest-facing and staff-facing parts of the hotel; although, rates of adoption are not as high as other forms of automation and is very property specific. Voice technology, though, can be used to process guest requests and automati- cally route them to the correct department to be fulfilled. Voice assistants, such as Apple Siri and Amazon Alexa, as well as AI-enabled chatbots could vastly improve guest convenience by adding additional ways to order services and communicate with staff.

Challenges to Implementing New Hotel Technologies

New hotel technology doesn’t comes cheap or easy; however, the benefits for hoteliers could far outweigh the initial costs and concerns.

Implementing new hotel technology comes with its challenges. While hoteliers want to modernize and ensure guests are satisfied with their in-house experience, budget, security and interoperability with other systems are still obstacles to adoption.

Overcoming the Cost Concern
Funding for hotel technology is still often a challenge for hotel operators when wanting to implement new technology, regardless of the cost saving potential. A survey by Expedia of over 1,200 hoteliers found that chain hotels are almost twice as likely to prioritize technology investment over small independent hotels. Still, a report by Hospitality Technology found that only 54 percent of the hotels surveyed planned to increase their technology budget in 2019.

Robert Stevenson, CEO of Intelity said his company addresses the budget problem by providing a broad guest and operations platform, which helps keep costs low versus purchasing many discrete systems. Its platform also delivers on only what a particular property needs, be that improved mobility, in-room technologies or back of house improvements. “Many of these technologies drive immediate efficiency gains that pay for themselves,” he said.

Resistance to Change
Resistance to change is another hurdle that hotel management and ownership often face, according to Brian Shedd, VP of Global Sales and Marketing at OpenKey. “Many hotel general managers are slow to embrace new technology that requires re-thinking how things are done at the property. Many hotel staff are resistant to new technology that changes the way they do things, even when that includes eliminating things they really don’t like doing,” he said.

Many hotel operators face resistance from associations and unions that rely on hotel employees to pay membership dues, which happens when attempting to deploy technology that reduces staffing. “OpenKey works with hotel operators to help train staff on how mobile keyless entry can allow them to focus on aspects of their jobs that improve the guest experience while allowing technology to handle tasks that don’t require human interaction,” Shedd said.

Fighting Against Fraud and Security Concerns
Fraud is also a concern, especially when deploying self-check-in options. “Fraud can hurt a hotel’s bottom line through chargebacks, unnecessary housekeeping costs, missed bookings from actual customers, and of course the reputational damage to the hotel’s brand,” explained Nicole Dehler, VP of Product Management at StayNTouch, a Shiji Group Brand. Dehler noted that many hotel operators have a mistaken view that self-check-in increases the likelihood of fraud because an attendant isn’t physically present to verify the credit card and ID. However, modern self-check-in systems can use advanced facial recognition to scan IDs and check them against international databases for validity. “With the modern integrations of payment processors, automated check-ins are as seamless and secure as assisted ones.

Today, hoteliers can provide their guests with services that are secure and convenient, allowing guests to choose how they prefer to interact with the hotel,” she said. Guest safety and data security are also concerns for hotels adopting a more staff-less approach. According to Shedd, with the proliferation of data hacking today, hotel technology platforms should collect as little guest data as possible to deliver the required outcome. “Any guest data collected should either be deleted immediately after the stay is completed or stored in a data repository with enterprise-grade security to keep it secure.” Ensuring Systems Can Work Together Another major challenge is ensuring that the property’s tech stack is comprised of complementary systems that integrate with each other. The technology must be able to work seamlessly every time. “Glitchy hotel technology will result in guests going elsewhere out of frustration,” Shedd said. He used the Henn na Hotel in Japan as an example — the hotel famously “fired” half of its robot workforce for “sucking at their jobs.” Dehler also emphasized that hoteliers must insist on platforms with a truly open API. “Hotels require a myriad of technological systems to run success- fully, including PMS, CRS, channel manager, RMS, CRM, POS and payment integration systems (among others).

All of these platforms must interact seamlessly in order to maximize operational efficiencies, and provide a truly personalized guest experience,” she said. She added that integrated systems are better able to collect and share important guest data, leading to more robust and nuanced guest profiles, more targeted guest messaging, and ultimately a more personalized guest journey.

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