By Court Williams & Paul Savage
THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY is changing, and is rapidly becoming super high-tech. While we can argue that this benefits guests—and it certainly benefits vendors—how much is it taking away from the guest’s personal experience? Theoretically, it should improve the customer experience, particularly through the use of data collected by using the various technologies. Let’s look at how guests actually feel, especially the Baby Boomers who look set to remain the most prolific travelers for the next two to three years, and see if the numbers support the theory that technology has improved the hospitality experience.
Since the early days of hospitality, the industry has operated on the principle of customer service before everything else. The warm welcome afforded by the Maitre ‘D on arrival at a restaurant, the personal service provided by a friendly concierge, and a rapid check-in from the Reservation Desk have all helped make guests’ experiences unique and fulfilling.
With the advent of technology, however, many activities previously performed by live humans have been replaced by automated methods, mainly in the attempt to streamline functionality and improve service. But is it really an improvement, or has the industry gone too far? Do these changes enhance the guest’s experience, or have we forfeited the true meaning of the word “hospitality” in the process?
How Times They Have a-Changed
The changes wrought by technology are far-reaching, and affect every aspect of our 21st century lifestyles. Hospitality is one industry where this is dramatically true, in so many more ways that the man in the street realizes. From start to finish, the experience is now facilitated by technological factors, many of which go relatively unnoticed. Here are some of the ways times have changed through the incursion of technology.
With the rising popularity of online reviews, hospitality guests now have the ability to research any venue to see what others have posted.
Both review websites and social media platforms have become active gateways to global opinion, and travelers use these extensively to help them decide where to book. Research from Search Engine Land shows the reviews for companies in the hospitality industry are considered 48 percent more important and valuable than in other industries, which indicates the target audience takes online reviews exceptionally seriously.
Once a traveler has made their choice of destination, they can now search for the best hotel deals at the click of the mouse. Technology is shaping how lodgings and restaurants are found and booked, and aggregator sites such as Hotwire, Expedia, Bookings.com and Reservations.com are just a few of the digital platforms available for making online reservations.
These have taken off extensively, with research showing one half of millennials, 26 percent of Gen Xers and 12 percent of Baby Boomers consider themselves “travel hackers,” which means they believe they know all the best ways to use technology for good deals. Chatbots on booking websites enable the user to ask questions without even getting up from the sofa.
On arrival at their destination, guests no longer need to wait in line for the key to their room. They can now check in and out using electronic kiosks, online and mobile check-ins. Automated payments and the use of smartphones for keyless entry, making requests, online purchases, or even placing room service orders makes self-service an attractive option. For anyone who thinks this is overkill, just try manually checking into a Las Vegas hotel on a Saturday at noon! The benefits of automation will soon become crystal clear.
One of the more remarkable technological disruptions hotel guests have had to deal with in recent years includes the introduction of smart appliances. Just as homes have been revolutionized through the implementation of smart technology, high-end accommodations are expected to have all the bells and whistles available. In 500 “connected” Hilton hotel rooms, for example, guests can now control all the functions of the room from a single device. Connectivity operates primarily through the chain’s mobile app, and manages the room’s lighting, temperature and TV. Guests can stream SHOWTIME shows for free through the app, without needing to input credentials or create a subscription. Anyone who prefers not to download the app can operate the same controls using a simplified, in-room remote device.
Apps are big in every way at present. A well-designed app can combine every aspect of the guest experience, from notifications about special deals to managing their loyalty programme account. When a guest uses an app to book a room using a group conference rate, for example, the system can automatically send the conference itinerary and a map of the meeting spaces to his or her device.
In theory, hotel rooms equipped with Alexa, Siri or the like could enable guests to make voice-activated requests for room service, place an order, call housekeeping to ask for more towels, or request their car brought out of Valet Parking. And, of course, there’s the use of robotics and artificial intelligence to do things like handling the vacuuming of the room, preparing meals, and restocking the courtesy bar. Chowbotics is one company that has led the way in pioneering a whole new industry, through the creation of “Sally the Robot.” These robots can be located in a hotel lobby or guest-accessible kitchen area, and prepare meals such as salads, bowls and ethnic cuisine. While doing so, they also count calories, deliver precise portions, and serve up great food—all at a press of a button.
Many new smart-technology companies like Handy are taking Asia by storm in the hotel segment, by offering a complimentary device that provides 24/7 connectivity to hotel guest services and other travel information from any location.
We have also seen the emergence of cost-saving technologies that not only focus on guest loyalty but also reduce fixed costs and overheads. Newspapers, for example, have always been a “thorn in the side” of hotels and hotel companies, in terms of wastage and the challenge of importing these papers, especially for international guests. One unique company that has utilized technology well in this field is UK-based Gold Key Media, which offers a unique way of delivering newspapers and magazines. The company does this by offering a choice of options, including downloading direct from the hotel site itself. It also provides a customized, white-labelled platform for every venue, which offers value-added features such as restaurant booking and concierge requests.