Up-to-date technology can be beneficial in streamlining back-of-house communication, but sources said it creates challenges too, especially in training staff, vetting vendors and ensuring face-to-face communication isn’t lost all together.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—As technology evolves, so do systems for communication in a hotel’s back of house, but that doesn’t always mean it’s getting easier, sources said.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ensure all employees are well-versed in the “plethora of different applications being utilized on property,” Kent Tweeten, asset manager at Alliance Hospitality Management, said in an email interview.
While these new systems can be beneficial to the property, lines of communication can fall apart if teams are juggling multiple platforms, he said.
Often, rather than combining applications when there’s a new method—for checking guests in early, for instance—brands would “rather introduce a whole new application,” he said.
“This causes confusion and frustration for both the guests and the staff,” he added.
Staff may be required to frequently monitor multiple applications related to mobile check-ins, requests for special amenities and keyless entries, he said. On the guest side, frustrations can arise if communication breaks down due to lack of face-to-face interaction.
Gavin Philipp, VP of operations at Charlestowne Hotels, said via email that back-of-house communication “runs parallel to the evolution of guest expectations.”
To avoid potential setbacks, implementing new tech in the back of house requires thorough training and retraining of staff, sources said.
Technology for staff
Marty Martin, corporate director of business systems and analysis at HP Hotels, said in an email interview that mobile technology has come a long way, and cloud-based software has replaced many of the old paper systems.
He added that by putting locked and secured mobile devices in the hands of every room attendant, maintenance technician and supervisor, teams can communicate in real time, instantly respond to guest requests, monitor labor on a time and motion basis and promote team member recognition “in a way that has never been possible in the past.”
HP Hotels has taken calculated measures to ensure technology doesn’t lag and systems can be run offline if needed, he said.
Philipp said technology has helped make hotels a “sophisticated and desirable work environment, which in turn attracts quality staff that wants to stick around.”
At Charlestowne, he said staff technology focuses on two areas: reducing inefficiencies (for example, through dynamic scheduling) to allow staff more time to interact with guests, and fostering a positive environment to improve staff culture and camaraderie.
“Whether it’s having dedicated staff Wi-Fi or internal messaging apps to share tips, ask for help or congratulate good efforts, we want to provide our staff with means of communicating and collaborating with one another in a way they are already familiar with,” he said.
Philipp said smart watches are a good replacement for the operator-style headsets or ear pieces currently used at several hotels. Front-desk managers, housekeeping supervisors and valet staff could use the smart watches to relay information about late check-ins or ping valet about departing guests, he said.
Though the method can change, what doesn’t change about communication is that people need to understand and be understood by each other, Philipp added.
“Hotel and management teams alike need communication tools that are simple to use but faithful to their message,” he said. “And no matter what new app or device becomes available, hotels cannot lose sight of the power of direct communication between individuals—not just machines.”
Digital tools for scheduling are helping hotels maximize that staff face-to-face time with guests, sources said.
Although these tools have been the norm over the past few years, they are now a necessity, Chelsea Nightengale, GM of The Restoration Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, said in an email interview.
She said The Restoration Hotel uses internet-based scheduling systems to notify staff of schedules but also as a way to communicate with them about operational changes, events and more.
“A majority of these systems have corresponding apps available so our managers are able to be notified of and approve shift swaps or changes without ever having to go into an office,” she added.
Her team also uses an app-based maintenance system, wherein requests can be made with just a few clicks, issues can be quickly addressed and work can be monitored easily and efficiently.
Another consideration when implementing any new systems is bandwidth, said Ghee Alexander, SVP of operations at Prism Hotels and Resorts. Hoteliers must make sure there is enough bandwidth at each property to support both guests’ devices as well as back-of-house staffs’ tech needs, he said.
How to keep up with the latest tech
Nightengale said to keep up with tech trends, hoteliers shouldn’t be afraid to “to test the waters.”
“See what works for your establishment,” she said. “The (back of house) is not a cookie-cutter world and neither are these systems.”
She said in most cases a “demo version” of a new system can be implemented for few months so that owners can decide if it meets the property’s needs before signing any contracts.
Alexander said the process of vetting vendors is time consuming, and most hoteliers don’t have a lot of free time to examine all of the latest and greatest tech.
He said he’s still keen “on the old way of doing it,” which is asking for references and calling people who are already using the systems to ask how effective it is.
And at the end of the day, it’s the owners’ money, and it’s important to make sure it’s being spent wisely, Alexander said.
Nightengale said in evaluating new tech, it can be hard to “budget and quantify time saved and human error.”
For example, she said, “a misplaced note that didn’t get to the right department is a lot easier to track when it’s digital,” and “communicating digitally cuts down on time spent in transit.”
Time saved that allows staff to be hands-on with guests also saves money, and increases opportunities to generate revenue, she said.
While technology can’t replace face-to-face communication, it can enhance strategies already in place, Tweeten said.
Use of cellphones
Policies for staff cellphone usage vary by company, but sources agreed balance is key.
Nightengale said employees at her hotel are not permitted to use cellphones in public areas, but team members are supplied with things like iPads during their shifts.
Tweeten said the biggest reason he allows staff to use cellphones at Alliance Hospitality Management’s properties is for family emergencies.
“This is particularly important with our larger properties. In the unfortunate circumstance that one of our employees’ children or spouse needs to get in contact in the event of an emergency, it would be difficult to quickly connect them with each other if the only way is to call the front desk,” he said.
He said another reason cellphones are permitted is because it can help overcome language barriers between guests and staff.
“It is extremely beneficial for an employee to utilize language translation apps on their phone,” he said.
Safety remains a priority in 2019
Nightengale said safety is her No. 1 concern. The faster staff can communicate about things like a false fire alarm, the better, she said.
“A simple ‘respond all’ text to get this done allows us to communicate more effectively to guests as well,” she said.
Up-to-date security features in back-of-house operations also help to protect guests from potential data breaches, Tweeten said.
“It is of the utmost importance to protect guests from malicious attacks, and the only way of preventing this is by ensuring that all forms of communication between the guests and staff are secure with the newest technologies,” he said.
Philipp said Charlestowne’s priority in 2019 is ensuring the security of guest information and communication, with the help of a dedicated legal team that is fluent in digital liability.
Equally important, he added, is developing a method of transparency with the “acquisition and use of consumer data.” Guests should be aware of what information is being taken, why it’s needed and how it will be used, he added.