Experts speaking at the recent HITEC in Houston shared insights in what’s happening with guest-facing technology.
HOUSTON—Technology is growing into an even larger and more important part of the guest experience, and some top tech-focused executives from the hotel industry spoke during the recent Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition and Conference on what their priorities are for guest-facing technology.
Speaking during the “Guest-facing technology” session, David Heckaman, VP of technology development for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, said companies like his are continuously working to find the right balance of technology and human interaction to optimize the guest experience. He said that will require significant changes to better utilize the available data to personalize experiences.
“We want to use a central customer database to move things around in a smarter way than in the past,” he said. “We’re in the middle of that transformation ourselves, as we’re changing core platforms.”
Here are some key takeaways from that session.
1. Digital key has faced an uphill climb
Moderator Ted Horner, owner of E. Horner & Associates, noted that mobile guestroom keys have been promised for widespread adoption in the hotel industry for roughly five years now and their proliferation has happened slower than some expected or hoped.
But Andrew Arthurs, SVP and chief information officer for Two Roads Hospitality, said that was less a gauge of guest desire for mobile keys but an indication that the technology was not as well-developed as hoteliers would have liked early on.
“The technology didn’t work,” he said, noting some vendors define the “edge-use” cases that fundamentally wouldn’t work as simple day-to-day things that came up often.
Issues would “come up with opening multiple doors with one phone or opening a single lock from multiple phones,” he said.
Heckaman said mobile key technology makes more sense for companies with higher instances of repeat customers, and he still believes it will ultimately become ubiquitous.
“It’s becoming something that’s expected over time,” he said.
2. Streaming important, but interfaces remain an issue
Panelists agreed that guests want to be able to access the same entertainment—often from streaming platforms—that they enjoy at home while traveling. But while that’s the expectation, even some hotels that are offering that functionality aren’t doing it in a simple and streamlined way.
Heckaman said often hotels that offer streaming “bury it in the menu structure,” making the option less user-friendly
“It has to be at a high level so people see it, then try it,” he said.
He said in-room casting from devices is not an ideal solution, either, because it doesn’t mirror the at-home experience.
3. Voice technology becoming more prevalent
Arthurs noted Two Roads was one of the first hotel companies to adopt Amazon’s Echo devices as in-room technology. He said he’s a big believer in the long-term prospects of voice technology—and he expects adoption to ramp up faster than mobile keys—but that doesn’t mean the process has gone without headaches.
“I wouldn’t recommend the early adopter experience,” he said. “But it’s going pretty well now.”
Arthurs said the company’s pilot of the devices have been successful, but it included adapting the devices typical search results so it “ended up being more tailored to hotel content” and included more “concierge-type requests.”
He said ultimately that will take some of the grunt work out of the day-to-day for front-desk employees—like answering questions about what hours the pool is open—allowing them to focus on more meaningful tasks.
4. Privacy issues ever more important
A lot of the innovations in the tech industry these days center on better leveraging guest data to offer up a more personalized experience. But that entails walking a very fine line, panelists noted, in an era of high focus on how consumer data is treated.
“Privacy is at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” Arthurs said.
He said at this point it helps to lean more on third parties to avoid problematic situations. He said in the case of the Echo devices, Amazon is the one that houses that data, not Two Roads.
5. Possibilities in signage
Thomas Fanger, VP of multimedia for MGM Resorts International, said he’s high on the possibilities for digital signage, particularly at large properties like those in his company’s portfolio. He said those signs are an opportunity for a greater degree of personalization, via Bluetooth connections to devices or even more advanced options like facial recognition.
“We’re experimenting with facial recognition to show the right content to the right crowd,” he said.
Fanger said this is a matter of leveraging data and machine learning to “get away from just scheduling playlists” on the signs.
“We can get out of the business of scheduling and let the system manage itself based on the time of day and the crowd there,” he said.