How self-service technology is enhancing the guest experience

At hotels around the world, the friendly face of a concierge who remembers your name could soon be replaced by technology that aims to do just the same.

December 07, 2016

When it comes to a great hotel stay, that personalized touch is often the defining feature. At the Aloft hotels in Boston and Santa Clara, guests can perfect their room’s temperature not by ringing down to housekeeping, but by telling the in-room iPad to “cool the room”.

When it launches next summer, the Hilton Group’s Tru brand will similarly target tech-savvy, millennial travellers, who can check-in by app, collect a virtual key on their smartphones and let themselves into their rooms by waving their phones at Bluetooth-enabled locks.

“Customers are increasingly demanding this kind of technology. We are living in a self-service world where you can buy groceries and check-in for flights without interacting with a single person,” says Richard Pemberton, Hospitality Consultant at Avenue9, part of JLL Group.

Starting at check-in

Whether a hotel is a high-end boutique or a budget-friendly micro-hotel, self-service technology is increasingly impacting the hotel experience from check in to check out.

“Reservations and check-in are probably the best implemented self-service features at the moment,” Pemberton says.

Denmark’s budget WakeUpCopenhagen, for example, lets guests check in and out minus humans, while London’s Edwardian Hotels uses mobile and online check-in where guests can select in-room amenities or specific floors.

Keyless entry is also on the rise – visitors to certain Hilton, Starwood and Marriott Hotels can collect digital room keys and check-in via apps, removing the hassle of (not losing) a room key.

The rise in in-room technology

Where once part of the appeal of staying in a hotel was its vast catalogue of movies on-demand, the arrival of super-fast Wifi, Netflix and iTunes has changed all that. “Many travellers own more up–to-date tech than you can actually get in hotel bedrooms,” says Pemberton.

As a result, many hotels – from higher-end properties like the Irvine in California and lower-cost Dutch-based CitizenM – are eschewing media channels for in-room tech that lets guests stream their own movies and music to widescreen TVs and Bluetooth speaker systems.

“Hotels have always aimed to be a home away from home,” says Dale Nix, Hospitality Consultant at Avenue9. “Now, that means evolving to include the tablets and smart tech that are part of everyday life.”

That includes building apps to enable guests to order what they want when they want it as part of the self-service trend. Conrad Concierge, for example, lets guests book spa treatments and airport transfers at 20 boutique properties, while the younger-facing W Hotels Worldwide has a dedicated app for ordering room service, checking out the local weather and streaming W-style music – even when guests are at home.

The highs and lows of hotel tech

It’s not just guests who are benefitting from evolving tech; maintenance staff are too.

Seattle’s Hotel 1000 has rooms with sensors that detect body heat so housekeeping knows not to enter when the room is occupied. Other hotels are experimenting with robots who do everything from deliver luggage to check guests in and answer questions.

“As the technology has matured, we’re seeing better cost efficiency and a smoother overall experience for both hotels and guests,” Pemberton says.

For hotel operators, features such as self-check-in and room service apps can also save costs by reducing the need for staff. “Anecdotal evidence indicates that investing in technology ups in-room sales revenue by 20 percent,” Nix adds.

Yet as these features become more widespread, research suggests that self-service has a way to go before it is fully embraced by guests.

“In a hotel with both check-in counter and self-check-in kiosk, guests will often look at the kiosk and go to the counter,” Nix says. “Many hotels may be throwing money into a pit because they haven’t asked – nor understood – what their guests want.”

Guests need to have a choice, he says: “Do they want to check-in themselves, or be helped by a person?”

Physical plan Bs are necessary in case of internet failures or lost phones, while security remains a challenge. “You can imagine the bad press for hotel brands if someone was able to hack the Bluetooth room locks,” Pemberton says.

The hotel of the future

“Down the line, my ideal hotel bedroom would recognize who I am when I enter the building,” Nix says, “and set my preferences for lighting and TV stations and draw the blinds, so when I get there it’s my home from home.”

That could soon be possible, as hotel groups such as Starwood are experimenting with Bluetooth sensors that would connect to guests’ phones as they approach, displaying their names and room preferences to reception.

While budget hotels of the future are likely to look to keyless entry and self-check-in to cut costs, higher-end hotels will focus using technology to recreate all the comforts of home – your music, movies and TV, the way you like the lights, the ability to order food from your iPad. In other words, the feeling of personalization which once upon a time was fulfilled by the perfectly mannered concierge.

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