1. Putting the front desk in the hotel guest’s pocket

Putting the front desk in the hotel guest’s pocket

For everything from requesting extra towels to opening doors, hotels offer apps and technology to keep customers happy and coming back

Published: May 7, 2017 2:31 AM
While apps are not new in the hotel industry, the use of them and other tech tools has grown exponentially in the last five years

Harriet Edleson

When Lenette and Charlie Frye arrived recently at the Four Seasons in Orlando, Florida, for a two-night stay, they spotted an iPad loaded with the hotel’s app that they could use to order food, call for their car or read about activities in the hotel.

“You do it all yourself,” says 30-year-old Frye, who manages a student living community in Gainesville, Florida. She and Charlie, a 35-year-old consultant for the University of Florida and former professional football player, travel frequently and liked the convenience of not having to pick up the phone.

While apps are not new in the hotel industry, the use of them and other tech tools has grown exponentially in the last five years, as hoteliers seek new ways to meet the needs of guests, gain repeat customers, differentiate their brands and, ultimately, increase revenue.

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And since the hotel tools are available at all hours, hotel experts say they may go a long way towards keeping guests happy and avoiding negative reviews on social media and websites like TripAdvisor.

Hotels are spending as much as 6% of total revenue on technology, as per Hospitality Technology’s 2017 Lodging Technology Study. Titled ‘Frictionless Hotels: Enabling the Omni-Experience’, the study said 57% of hotels planned to spend more on technology this year than they did in 2016, while 42% planned to spend about the same and just 2% said they would decrease their IT spending.

Hotel occupancy rates in the US are at 65.5%, the highest since 1984, says Bjorn Hanson, a professor of hospitality and tourism at the Tisch Center of New York University. Though they had typically been slow to adopt new technologies, hotels are seeing a place for tech tools to make sure that guests’ needs are met.

“They’re trying to improve the guest experience by doing things on the guests’ terms instead of the hotel’s,” says Gregg Hopkins, chief sales and marketing officer for Intelity Corporation, which creates technology products for hotels, including companies like the Four Seasons, Loews, Conrad and Pacific Hospitality Group. “It drives loyalty and drives repeat business and drives revenue.”

“Hotels need to stay engaged with the guest from the time they make the reservation until they check out and check in again,” Hopkins says. “They need to differentiate what they do for the guest.”

In the last five years alone, communication with Marriott International from mobile devices has quadrupled, says George Corbin, senior vice-president for digital at the hotel chain. In addition, 75% of all Marriott guests used a smartphone, tablet or laptop during their most recent stay. “This space is moving so fast,” he says. “We sort of take a bite at a time” in refining technology developments.

And that is indicative of what is happening in the hotel industry. Marriott was among the early technology adopters, having introduced an app in early 2012 that offered the ability to book a hotel room. Since then, the company has added features that allow guests to use the app to check in and check out; receive an alert when a room is ready; make requests of the hotel staff; and, in at least 500 locations, to unlock a room.

Technology also helps to resolve problems. A quarter of Marriott’s guests have an issue, problem or question during their stay, Corbin says. But guests whose problems were solved the first time they contacted the hotel “report higher satisfaction than people who had no problem at all,” he says.

“This is where ‘mobile requests’ come in,” he adds. “That thing in your pocket”—the smartphone.

For 64-year-old Tina Amber, who travels with her husband to visit family and explore the world, apps are a way of life.

“I like the ability to do things with the click of a button,” Amber, a retired retail executive who lives in Pleasanton, California, says. When she and her husband drive from the San Francisco area to San Diego to visit two of their grandchildren, they stop halfway down the coast at the Bacara Resort and Spa, part of the Meritage Collection, where she relies on the iPad in the room to make all her plans.

Technology, she says, has become her constant companion: “If a hotel doesn’t have it, I’m somewhat put off.”

Shayne Paddock, chief innovation officer for guest management solutions at TravelClick, an e-commerce service provider for hotels, says different guests want different things.

“For hospitality, you don’t want to lose the human element,” Paddock says. The aim is “to blend technology with the human side if you want to be successful in this space. Not using cool technology for the sake of cool technology.”

While any hotel can use TravelClick’s new Guest Messenger, which allows guests and hotel staff to communicate by text message, he says the company’s “sweet spot” was independent hotels and hotel groups with 50 to 100 properties.

Other companies are marketing products to hoteliers, finding niche ways to improve guests’ experiences.

Tech tools “make it easier for guests to let hotels know what they need and what they want,” says Bernard Ellis, chief executive of Gem Touch Guest Experience Management Solutions, based in Roswell, Georgia. The key to any new technology, Ellis says, is that it functions well and consistently.

Making things easier for guests is the goal, says Carol Beggs, director of technology at Chatham Bars Inn, a resort over a century old on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. “You can book online, not just rooms but everything else,” she adds.

By June, Beggs says, she expects guests to be able to book “ancillary activities”, like a cabana or a sailboat, on the hotel’s website or app using “smartphones, laptop, phone, whatever method you want to use.”

Of course, Beggs says, “If the guest wants to speak to a particular person on the staff, nobody wants to take that away.”

At the Washington Marriott Georgetown in Washington, which has just undergone a $28-million renovation that included an update of its technology, guests can use mobile requests to obtain tickets to a show at the Kennedy Center, make dinner reservations or have maps ready for them when they return to the hotel.

The digital conveniences are among the ways hotels are “trying to differentiate from each other and from Airbnb, and wean off of online travel agencies,” says Lorraine Sileo, senior vice-president for research at Phocuswright, a travel industry research firm. They want to “grab you in the search process and booking process and in the destination—they want to have that relationship with you.”

NYT

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