Technology And The Hospitality Industry

From chatbots to high-tech digital identity systems, hospitality vets share their thoughts on the future of travel

Soon, hotels may know you more than you know yourself. From digital hotel keys to robot-staffed front desk and concierge services, new technology is—believe it or not—making the hotel experience more personal than ever. For guests, that means having a range of platforms with which to connect seamlessly with brands. For hotels, emerging technologies like, say, voice-activated AI deliver on the promise of customizable guest experiences.

"Voice activation is growing at such a rapid clip year over year,"  Brian King, chief global digital officer for Marriott International, says. "So how does voice become fully integrated into the lodging experience?" As more people use virtual voice assistants, it makes sense guests want the same smart technology they use at home in their hotel rooms, King notes (read the rest of his interview).

At the W Hotel in Austin, Marriott is testing a new Amazon program called Alexa for Hospitality, which offers hoteliers the opportunity to equip their guest rooms with specialized Echo products that work like digital concierges. The custom hardware has the power to answer everything from details on room reservations to the best barbecue in town.

Though technology is often perceived as impersonal and cold, in the case of travel and hospitality, it allows for a personal touch, albeit delivered through a screen.

In Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, guests staying at Hacienda Encantada are prompted to download the hotel's app, which offers a way to book spa and restaurant reservations on the property. Individuals might be pinged with details about a special cooking class or other offers, while groups can get alerts about meeting locations and times.

"We send push notifications for theme nights and send reminders if there are special events," Gabriel Ibarra, the hotel's sales and marketing manager, explains. "I see it as an additional channel of communication with our guests." Ibarra acknowledges that the service is still in its infancy, but he's still betting that apps will be part of hospitality in the future.

No app? No problem. Some hotel brands are finding ways to engage with consumers, even if they don't have the official app.

Guests checking into Hilton's downtown Quebec property, for example, will get a friendly text on their phones soon after leaving the reception desk. "Is there anything we can do for you right away?" a sample note might read. The next morning, guests are likely to get a second text, asking how the stay is going and offering assistance.

Dana Shefsky, senior director of digital innovation at Hilton, notes that the hotel is simply evolving with the communication preferences of their guests. "With instant messaging technology," she says, "we see that our guests prefer to interact with us in their own way and on their own terms."

Instant chat is available in nearly one thousand Hilton properties around the world, mostly in the U.S. and Europe. More than 23 million messages have been exchanged between guests and Hilton staff, Shefsky says. And that number is expected to go up.

In late March, Hilton was one of the brands tapped to debut Apple's new Business Chat feature. Business Chat allows iPhone users to message brands directly, speak to real people and book services from iPhones and Macs.

Hilton's SMS texts are available even if guests aren't signed up for the Hilton Honors app. But it's within the brand's signature app where users uncover tech-savvy perks. A Hilton Honors app user can check in, choose a room and download a digital key, bypassing the front desk entirely. More than 3,400 Hiltons in 19 countries (or 65 percent of its total properties) use digital keys. Since Hilton debuted the digital key option in 2015, more than 22 million doors have been unlocked; in the first quarter of 2018 alone, digital keys opened 6.7 million doors.

Versions of digital keys are in use at big chains, as well as one-off boutique hotels. Starwood's SPG app, for example, allows digital key entry at most of its Aloft, W and Element properties.

OpenKey, a digital hospitality app and a growing player in the space, prompts users to share timing of arrivals, alerts hotel staff and delivers digital keys. OpenKey is available at hotels such as Chicago's Silversmith, Brooklyn's McCarren Hotel, Austin's Lakeway Resort and the Astro in Santa Rosa, California. Users can also search the app by city to find and book OpenKey-enabled spaces. In addition to convenience, OpenKey makes the case that the plastic key cards currently in use are not environmentally friendly, and have a built-in, revolving cost as hotels replace lost and damaged cards every few years. 

Meanwhile, The Henn-na Hotel, located inside a massive theme park in Nagasaki, Japan, takes the personalized digital key to the extreme with a mostly robot staff. Upon check-in (with a robot that might be a female, a dinosaur or a tiny android), users are sent to rooms equipped with facial-recognition software. For the length of a guest's stay, facial scans open room doors. 

At the Blow Up Hall 5050 Hotel in Poland, the traditional reception desk, and even room numbers, are eschewed. Instead, guests are handed iPhones, which guide them to their rooms. The loaner phones, which are also equipped with cultural and city information, as well as bespoke hotel apps, double as digital concierges. Blow Up Hall's practice of lending guests iPhones for the entirety of their stay is echoed across a range of other luxury properties.

In 2013, a Hong Kong-based start-up, Tink Labs, began equipping local hotels with programmed "handy" smartphones. Guests at these hotels get one phone per room. Why do international travelers need phones? Because not everyone has an international data plan, and even if they do, they may find that data speeds are capped when overseas.

The Grand Hyatt, a high-end property in Hong Kong, has offered guests phones since 2016. "Luxury is personal," Eva Kwok, the hotel's marketing communications manager, says of why phones are the new luxe perk. "Luxury is not always huge chandeliers and gold panels. It's more personal, more subtle."

Tink Labs' "handy" phone works as a duplicate Wi-Fi signal, and it can also be used for signing into social media accounts. It comes with built-in hotel recommendations and access to reservations. The handy phone program, which began in Asia, is now available in 80 countries and in 650,000 hotel rooms.

Starhotels Collezione, whose properties include The Pelham in London and Rosa Grand in Milan, carries handy phones in all of its hotels.

"Everything that makes our guests' life easier is luxury," Marion Capelli, Starhotels' UK marketing director, says. "People used to have to pay the hotel to use the phone in the bedroom and pay per minute [to make international calls]. We thought that was ridiculous." International calls are free via the handy phones, which "is also a luxury," Capelli adds.

If smartphones are literally opening doors and breaking down barriers today, what changes are afoot in the next five to 10 years?

A look at what's to come is hinted at in Marriott's 2017 annual report. Published earlier this year, it outlines the ambitious Known Traveller Digital Identity project that "will employ biometrics and other data to create a verifiable, unique, secure digital identity for 'known' travelers." The project would provide the framework for a "hassle-free travel experience around the world." 

The Known Traveller Digital Identity concept aims to link traveler data and biometrics across governments and private enterprises in one secure app. Think of it as Global Entry meets airline, hotel and car apps, all bundled in one master application. The idea is that people already have digital identities, but they are spread across multiple agencies. By corralling all personal information in one secure place, travel will become more frictionless.

If one thing is for certain, technology is making travel more convenient. But with new technology naturally comes a new crop of privacy concerns. As we move into the world of biometrics, it's worth asking, what personal information are we willing to exchange for an effortless travel experience?

Even still, technology waits for no one. The Known Traveller Digital Identity project was presented at the World Economic Forum this past January. Next year, the concept begins a pilot phase with a small set of low-risk stakeholders.

And by 2020, it may be ready for the masses. But it's anyone's guess what the travel industry will look like by then.