A handful of industry executives convened last week to discuss a number of key technology developments and how they could potentially impact the lodging industry going forward.
The panel discussion entitled “The Role of Technology In Improving The Guest Experience & Its Role In Design And Construction” took place at the Second Annual New Hotel Construction & Development East. Among the areas of focus were the evolution of guest check-in, artificial intelligence and the potential to reduce staffing levels and the impact as it relates to union hotels.
Two of the brand executives—Jason Hsiang, SVP, development, Yotel, and Alan Roberts, global head, Embassy Suites by Hilton—weighed in on their respective companies’ overall approach to technology.
“Within the hospitality space, the human touch is very important and the experience itself. Everything we have and do is enabling the experience itself…It’s about allowing guests to come in and providing spaces that they can work, play and live and interact with folks,” said Hsiang.
“We tend to look at innovations not from a brand-centric perspective but from a holistic perspective across the enterprise. How do we deliver surprise and delights to our guests in a way that we do it consistently across that large of an enterprise? It’s tricky when you think about how to do that,” said Roberts, who noted that the company’s Hilton Honors app has been a key tool in its efforts.
The panel included, from left, Hsiang, Roberts, Stark, and Zhang.(Article by: Hotel Interactive)
Joe Zhang, CEO, Bittel Americas, added that the industry still has some work to do in terms of technology. “There’s a huge disconnect between what hotels are offering and what guests or travelers are getting used to. There has to be a solution. There has to be a way to bridge that gap and we see that one of the key unique features of travelers is they’re a transient user of your system. It’s very much different than what they deal with at home,” he noted.
Michael Stark, National System Consultant, Navis, commented, “We are taking the entire guest journey from the moment they check-in and check-out, tying that all in and collecting all this data, but one critical piece that we focus on so much is extending that beyond the guest’s actual arrival at the property. How do we get the capability and technology training to begin that?” he noted.
Any discussion in terms of technology within hospitality has to address guest check-in, particularly as it relates to the front desk.
According to Hsiang, “we certainly were one of the pioneers in the space in eliminating what is now the traditional hotel front desk and we implemented a kiosk system 10 years ago. We were very successful and in fact 90 percent of our guests go through that kiosk system today. That has obviously evolved into the mobile check-in system,” he said, adding that the typical front desk function has effectively become a flex position.
Roberts noted, “it has definitely changed but in the eyes of Hilton it’s still an integral part. It’s just as important to the hotel as the bar is or any other customer service touch point would be. We are in the hospitality business let’s not make any bones about it…You have to have that place to engage with people and we believe that guests still need that place. It has changed, it will evolve and it will continue to evolve because technology will continue to make certain aspects of travel points easier,” he stated.
Stark noted, “From our standpoint of the equation it depends very much on the type of property we’re discussing here. The front desk may be less necessary in certain properties as it is in others…We find, like any of this, it needs to be specifically tailored to what the unique and authentic experience the guest is looking for,” he noted.
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence continues to have a deeper impact on hospitality.
Hsiang noted the company has been experimenting with voice activation over the last 12 to 18 months but noted the technology is not quite there yet.
“At this point in time we’ve put a pause button on voice activation within our guestrooms. That’s not to say we won’t implement that when the technology gets further refined. We certainly see that as the next phase but we’d like to see the technology be further defined and improved on before we implement it within our hotels and ask our owners to spend more money,” he explained.
“I don’t think we differ too far from that. It’s a technology we’re watching closely and we know it’s out there. It’s growing in popularity in the homes as people get more and more accustomed to taking care of their day to day. It’s going to be something we will have to implement in the future, we just don’t know when yet,” he said.
The discussion moved to the potential impact of technology on staffing levels, particularly as it relates to markets with lots of union hotels, such as New York City.
“We take a proactive discussion with the union and help them understand the way that we staff our hotels; the way we operate our hotels; displacement of the traditional front desk; the bellman service; the way that we clean our rooms. So with that initial discussion we were able to have a favorable union [relationship]. They are slowly understanding the way that we model and staff our business,” he said.
Roberts, meanwhile, cautioned against relying too much on technology. “I think it’s important to realize with technology it’s not all about eliminating traditional labor. It is about making it easier for the guests to do the convenience of ABC things. It’s still the hospitality business and there’s still a need for people to serve people. By taking some of the simpler transactions away and putting them into an automated app you free up other opportunities for those same employees to provide better service to the guests that need more attention,” he noted.