Present & future: Innovations in hotel technology

NATIONAL REPORT—Today, more than ever, the hospitality industry is using technology to not only shape the guest experience, but also to optimize operations. From an app that enables guests to choose their room and check-in without being face-to-face with a front-desk clerk, to property and revenue management software that enables the property to maintain order and profitability, technology is everywhere in this industry.

Hotel Business connected with brands, and owners and operators to find out what new technology they have implemented, as well as what the future of technology in the industry might look like.

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts recently launched a new app—available for iOS and Android devices—that emphasizes a contactless experience and also makes it easier for everyday and road-trip travelers to find the nearest Wyndham hotel, among other features. Scott Strickland, EVP/CIO, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, called it a “hard-working app.”

“So, one of the [main features] is ‘find a hotel near me.’ So you’re driving down the road, and you want to find that hotel. You can do so within the app, and it can provide you two, three, four different Wyndham hotels,” Strickland said. “It is great for our franchisees as well because you’ll receive the choice of Wyndham hotels, not other things outside of the brand. We also have lightning book, the quickest way to book out there. You don’t need a credit card to book. You can just input a mobile number or an email address and press the button to book, which is a lot simpler.”

Another feature is mobile check-in/checkout, which is available for all of Wyndham’s brands. “The beautiful part of this is it’s available all the way to Super 8 and Days Inn,” said Strickland, who added that digital room key and reward program gamification is also rolling out on the app.

“We’re also enabling text requests, and what a great time to enable text requests. If you want  extra towels, you don’t have to pick up the phone or go down to the desk. You can send in your text request to the front desk and the front desk, assuming they’ve enabled the texts on their side, can have them delivered up to you.”

Besides the app, Wyndham has also recently implemented other technology that makes things easier for both guests and staff alike. “When we take a look at everything that’s been going on with the [COVID-19] crisis, we’ve been really focused on, ‘How do we drive value for our franchisees? How do we drive more business into their hotels?’ If we can do that, and also improve the guest experience at the same time, it’s a win-win,” said Strickland. “One of the first things that we did is we took a look at how they can win business. We implemented an entirely new platform—built on cloud technology—that allows the franchisee to respond to RFPs faster and for our global sales organization to give them guidance. It allows them to know when one of those bids has popped up and access it—on their mobile device or a computer—and respond remotely. That’s great because, quite often, first people in on those responses are the ones that win.”

Wyndham Direct is a direct-billing service. Strickland noted, “When you take a look at some of the folks who were still traveling [during the crisis], some of these smaller companies don’t have corporate credit cards. So, we set up a direct-bill program where a guest could walk in, give the front desk a six- or seven-digit code, and everything’s going to be directly billed back to the company. The same code can be used on our website or app. So that’s a huge win for some of these folks where a hotel night stay could be a hundred bucks, and floating that hundred dollars on their personal card could be a big deal.”

The last thing that the company launched is a customer data platform, the executive noted, adding, “What this really does is it says, “Look, we know John Doe has stayed at this hotel in Orlando, FL, and he’s also a loyalty member.” We can join that information together, and when we open a new hotel in Orlando, we can tell John we’ve opened one and say, ‘Hey, you stayed here in this region before. In fact, we know you stayed in this zip code or in this area. We just opened a new hotel. If you’re interested, if you’re coming by, here’s a promotion for you. If you’re not interested, just keep us in mind for the future.’”

Sightline Hospitality, a San Francisco-based management company, has also implemented text messaging through Alice’s text communication software, among other technologies to offer its guests a contactless experience.

“We employ Assa Abloy mobile access solutions, which enables guests to enter their rooms using Bluetooth on their phone for contactless check-in and keyless entry. Hotels can also utilize the Assa Abloy system for customized promotional messaging, enhanced visibility and real-time communication,” said Stephanie Versin, SVP of marketing. “The application MenuPoint further limits contact with the ability to order from the hotel’s F&B outlets or schedule a pick-up. Guests receive real-time updates about the order status and direct communication from the restaurant to ensure a seamless, socially distant drop-off or pick-up.”

Another provider of contactless technology, Virdee, has a major investor well-known to the industry—Raj Trivedi, the former La Quinta president. The SaaS (Software as a Service) firm recently completed a $2-million seed round.

“Virdee simplifies everything about the check-in experience for both guests and hotel staff. Through Virdee, guests are able to use their smartphones to open everything from parking garages, elevators and guestrooms, and Virdee also provides a virtual help-desk travelers can access during their stay,” said Trivedi. “Virdee also provides access to payment tools and ID verification, which can be used in combination with a virtual concierge station in hotel lobbies to manage every aspect of their stay. Our technology even allows hotels to dispense guestroom keys at the property level through digital concierges.”

He continued, “All of these features reduce the amount of time hoteliers spend on automatable tasks, giving them more time to build direct relationships with guests. The greatest benefit for hoteliers who choose Virdee as a partner, however, is our ability to integrate directly with existing hotel technology. This way, hotels can operate any way they choose, while we add on to their capabilities.”

IHG focused on the guestroom for one of its latest innovations, IHG Studio, a digital in-room guest entertainment solution. Rolling out globally over the next few years, the platform has gone live in more than 100 hotels in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Greater China and Australia, with many more hotels set to go live in 2020 and 2021, according to George Turner, chief commercial & technology officer, IHG.

“We’re focused on delivering the best guest experience we can for every stay. While the human aspect of hospitality is fundamental, technology is also key—and already a huge factor in all our lives. So, harnessing it to bring a great hotel experience to life helps us deliver what our guests are looking for,” he said. “For example, guests want to stream content from their mobile devices and watch the content they enjoy at home. IHG Studio lets guests connect and stream content securely from their devices to the guestroom TV, make service requests, order room service and purchase on-property amenities.”

He added, “IHG Studio also includes Pay with Points, which enables IHG Rewards members to redeem points for a variety of things including F&B, spa treatments or room upgrades. The system is powered by IHG Connect, our seamless in-hotel WiFi system. IHG Studio drives owner value by saving on operational costs over the long-term, leveraging systems already in place in the hotel. It also delivers a robust in-room entertainment experience for guests.”

Much of the other technology IHG has worked recently has involved back-of-house applications, noted Turner. “IHG formed a strategic relationship with Amadeus in 2014 to develop a new global reservation system as part of a broader hotel technology platform called IHG Concerto. Enabled by plug-and-play architecture, it gives IHG the ability to integrate a robust suite of products and capabilities in a way that’s intuitive and easy to use,” he said. “As such, it is becoming the one-stop portal that all our hotels around the world use to effectively manage not just reservations, but the operation of the hotel. Now live at our 5,900 hotels, we also integrated our proprietary revenue management and price optimization tools for groups and meetings business in IHG Concerto. We are piloting new functionality, such as attribute pricing, which will roll out in 2021.

“From a commercial perspective, we want to continue to drive higher-quality total revenue through our direct and indirect channels, B2B sales and enhanced revenue management,” he added. “We launched, a new digital experience for group planners, and next, we launched IHG Business Edge to streamline the travel buying process for small and mid-sized enterprises. Most recently, we added IHG Customer Insights Portal. It gives customers valuable data about their company’s spend by brand; stay patterns by region; and traveler loyalty and guest experience scores at IHG hotels. Our B2B customers can make quick, smart decisions and increase the success of their travel program.”

Chicago-based owner/operator Helix Hospitality, whose portfolio is made up of branded upper-midscale properties, has implemented brand-specific property management systems (PMS) and revenue management systems (RMS), according to President/COO JR Patel. The firm is also looking at smart technology for the air conditioning systems at its hotels.

“Our properties are beginning to experiment more with sensor-based smart technology, specifically focused on the guest experience, equipment longevity and conservation,” said Patel. “For instance, remote sensors installed in rooftop HVAC equipment can alert property maintenance personnel to abnormal vibrations, low airflow, temperature fluctuations or overall equipment status. This allows a tech to quickly diagnose or plan preventative measures to extend the life of key equipment. In this example, low airflow could be fixed by simply replacing a filter. If not properly and timely addressed, it could have large-scale guest impacts, put undue stress on equipment and end up costing more in the long run. Similarly, guestroom PTACs can be monitored and cataloged for age, location, sizing and overall health, the immediate benefits being a better guest experience, equipment longevity and an immediate utility savings.”

A look to the future

The executives all weighed in on what they think would be innovative moving forward. Trivedi pointed to software focusing on reducing costs. “This means becoming faster, more precise and more targeted with how the industry interacts with guests,” he said. “Mistakes are expensive, and the industry cannot take on any additional costs right now. Hotels also have to go where guests are leading them, and travelers today exist mainly on their smartphones. The hotels that will be most successful during this period are those who understand how to interact with guests and also when to stay out of their way.”

IHG’s Turner noted that the pandemic accelerated some of the innovations his company was working on. “As part of our continued focus on safety, contactless solutions will be the overarching theme for some time. Guests want to feel safe and confident during their stay, and they also want a more efficient experience,” he said. “For example, we are launching a new digital check-in experience which will leverage technology and create new processes for the front desk that limit contact at check-in/checkout. These are all part of our commitment to address guest concerns around safety, hygiene and cleanliness as they return to travel as well as being an enduring solution for guests to create a more efficient check-in experience. This will be available to all our guests no matter the channel they’ve used to book.”

He added, “Outside of advances related to the unique environment we are facing right now, we remain as focused as ever on cloud architecture, enhancing our information security capabilities and providing self-service and future-ready platforms which will allow us to deliver the next generation of products and services. Privacy, security and connectivity are important for both our employees and guests who will rely heavily on digital capabilities.”

At Wyndham, Strickland noted, “Something we are excited about is continued guest personalization. How do we personalize an offer for a guest? Because a personalized offering generally is going to be more appealing to you and in turn, drive you to that hotel. We also think anytime you can allow self-service to the guest, then that can free up the franchisee to focus on something else. So, we believe that’s going to be a big trend, especially for the future.”

He continued, “I personally think that 5G is going to be huge because, right now, we can’t even imagine what we’re going to be capable of doing when you have a network-level speed everywhere. [It will allow] anything from augmented reality to virtual reality and viewing your room ahead of time.”

Patel expects contactless technologies that provide an enhanced guest experience to be an ongoing trend. “A great example is food service at limited- or select-service properties during COVID-19,” he said. “It’s nonexistent because the vast majority are buffet-style operations. Imagine the ability to order your breakfast the night before in your brand app and have it ready to pick up in a pre-packed container. The guest now gets to call the shots, and their meal is ready for pickup with no contact. The property side now knows exactly how much to make for each item or order, thereby reducing waste and delivering a fresh, consistent product. It’s one step more advanced than the old full-service breakfast-order hang cards that went on the door the night before, but the impacts could be tremendous.” HB