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How Technology Will Change the Guest Experience

By David Ashen, partner & founder, dash design

This article was published originally on Hotel Executive October 8, 2017

For better or worse, technology has influenced the way we work, socialize and travel in significant ways and, certainly, will continue to do so well into the future. The guest experience is no exception to that influence and one I see as undergoing radical challenges in the next five years.

From mobile check-ins to app integrations, like Seamless.com food delivery, guests are beginning to attend to their needs in new ways. After all, if patrons check-in through an app, does that mean the venue’s on-site staffing will be affected, that is, reduced, forcing guests to find their rooms on their own? If guests order meals through an app, will the brand’s restaurant need to be reconfigured—or become no longer necessary? And what will that mean for hungry guests? What about the scale of a venue’s public spaces and lobbies? Will they be reduced? Or eliminated? Will it no longer be possible for guests to meet and mingle in a venue’s public spaces? Is it possible for venues to plan for flexibility to accommodate new technologies? And how will those inventions further affect the guest experience

Innovations happen by the minute. One day the iPod is the hottest device, and within a seeming moment, it’s become a relic. Apps pop up by the thousands, social media platforms regularly morph in new ways and hardware becomes outdated, for the most part, within a mere two years.

What does all this mean for the hotel brands, owners and guests? How can one predict what’s coming up in the next few years and the ways those interests will affect the industry or shape lifestyles? I’m no psychic, but there are indications of how the coming role of technology will affect the hotel environment and guest experience in the near future.

In general, hotels are divided into active spaces, meaning those that are front-facing to the guest, and passive locations, that is, those at back of house and behind the scenes where technologies that help optimize things such as building systems and hotel operations typically are housed. These areas and their associated equipment tend to form the ‘brain’ of a building, delivering the intangible aspects of the guest experience.

For instance, Marriott properties’ mobile check-in program allows guests to walk up to the location’s desk and get their key without any wait. Now hitting the market is the next step in mobile check-in, in the form of scannable codes that are sent to guests’ phones to provide access to their rooms without a key card. The hardware already is being installed as the standard in many properties and, no doubt, will be the standard across the board within the next five years.

Consider, as well, the current use of kiosk check-ins, which now are being used by Yotel and Citizen M properties. My experience using a kiosk check-in at Citizen M included the ability to choose my room from the options available. It’s an amazing and simple idea that has a lot of perceived guest-benefit. I assume all of this will be integrated into the industry’s mobile apps, including that guests will be able to choose their rooms in the same way that they choose their airline seats.

Here’s something else. In Hong Kong, The Upper House brand features yet another type of check-in experience. There, a combination of newer technology and service-orientated attendants begins on the curb where a host greets the guest with an iPad and escorts the person to his room, thereby conducting the guest check-in en route. The transaction is finished in the guest’s room, providing a high level of service and enhancing the luxury experience. Furthermore, there are no printed materials involved in the process or during the guest’s stay. Every room has a tablet that contains all the information the guest needs, from local travel to room service orders. Likewise, at The Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, a project my firm recently completed, this paperless technology also was used, where guests access needed information—as well as radio and alarm clock functions—via a tablet in their room. The practice is not only environmentally sensitive, but also in-line with the way many of us interact in the world today.

The Commonwealth Hotel Executive Suite. Photo: Ken Dayton

The Commonwealth Hotel Executive Suite. Photo: Ken Dayton

Room service and on-site restaurants also are vulnerable to technology influences. Seamless.com and other apps like it that allow for easy food delivery and pickup, will eliminate the need for room service, especially in urban areas where a broad variety of high-quality food choices outshine typical offerings available by room service. Technology even is in place for guests to purchase goods through automated vending machines or other self-service cases that allow the use of a smart phone or room card to charge items to a room.

Then again, many hotels already have opted out of full service restaurants and, instead, created food markets on their property. Look at Doubletree’s Made Market or the Hilton’s Herb n Kitchen concepts, both of which currently are staffed marketplaces. That may be an effective option for guests staying at those properties, but the path to automated markets, no doubt, will happen, regardless.

Another area where technology is affecting the guest experience is with in-room entertainment. With television available on demand, guests can simply sign into their streaming services for customized programming during their stay. Marriott has taken notice of that trend and responded by integrating services like NetFlix and Amazon Video across its brands, providing a personalized guest experience that’s in keeping with how people now watch television. To quell questions about how this type of in-house offering addresses password privacy on the system used, the Marriott system wipes out passwords upon guest checkout and logs the last viewer out. It’s all about personalizing the experience and, in this case, allowing guests to watch television through their services without having to be relegated to viewing the program on a 13-inch laptop screen. My prediction is that the era of having 100 channels available on a hotel television will disappear and that guests will simply connect to their at-home service through the Internet (which already is possible).

The Commonwealth Hotel Executive Suite. Photo: Ken Dayton

The Commonwealth Hotel Executive Suite. Photo: Ken Dayton

Also on the cutting board are ‘Do not disturb’ signs, along with the unexpected maid entering the room while a guest is showering. Coming up are infrared and heat sensing scanners that will tell hotel staff when a guest is in the room, thereby avoiding potentially uncomfortable encounters.

Certainly, the customization of the room experience will continue to expand. Already technologies are being implemented to set a desired room temperature before a guest arrives. Here, computer-based networks provide automated controls of lighting, air conditioning, heating and other environmental conditions to lower energy use while allowing for a more personal experience.

Soon we will be able to pre-determine the color of our rooms, the ambient scent, the light level, and our preferred sounds. All this—and more—will be preset before guests even enter their hotel rooms. Art might be digital, for example, allowing guests to determine if they are in the mood for landscape paintings by artists of the Hudson River School, or abstract modernist pieces. Imagine changing the collection by the hour. Technology might be able to even switch the color of the fabric on the room’s sofa or lounge chair at the click of a button or touch of a screen.

Beyond that, consider a future where guest rooms read their inhabitants’ environmental desires. Through multiple sensors, a room would become a biorhythmic measure of its guest’s state-of-being, sensing the person’s heart rate, pulse, body temperature, and other factors to enhance his room by adjusting its environment for a perfectly comfortable space that provides an unparalleled sense of peacefulness. Ah, the future.

Robots are here, as well, and being utilized in the new Aloft Cupertino, where they bring towels to poolside guests along with snacks and toiletries to guest rooms, courtesy of smart phone requests. Although this probably won’t become the norm soon, it is informative of where the industry is headed with artificial intelligence and robotics. And, while luxury will continue to lead with the human touch, watch for the rise in robotics in limited service environments where rates are highly competitive.

Social media also will continue the change the industry. Information on a property is instant, leaving it possible for a satisfied guest to post about his great stay, as well as a disgruntled guest, or potentially, a competitor, with an upsetting post that could cause heavy financial damage to a property. While the potential to skew views exists and won’t change, newer technologies might help to create a platform to better deal with the issue.

So, how does a property owner choose among the available technologies in which to invest? That’s a difficult question where understanding the intrinsic added value to the guest is key. Most of us don’t know what is up the road but it’s smart to avoid gimmicks, which get old fast. Better, is focusing on innovations that will enhance the experience of the guest, then do your best to be a futurist and predict the lifecycle of the technology. Easy or not, be bold—but be intelligent—about your decisions.