To talk about the future of in-room hotel technology and the changing guest experience, Skift podcast host Samantha Shankman and Skift co-founder and Head of Content Jason Clampet spoke with both ALICE’s CEO and co-founder Justin Effron and Chris Holdren, Starwood Preferred Guest and Digital SVP.
Read on for 9 ways in-room tech is changing the hotel guest experience or find the full transcript of the podcast here.
1. Hotel services are being uberized to match guest expectations
Five years ago it was unthinkable you could order a cab with the push of a button. Now that’s the expectation. As young adults who have grown up in the on-demand economy start to travel more they will expect hotel services work in just the same way.
“I think that over the next 5 -10 years, it’s hard to imagine a world where you walk into a hotel and you can’t interact with it on your phone,” says ALICE’s Effron.
2. You need to make app downloads as friction free as possible
It can be hard to incentivize guests to download an app for each boutique property they visit.
Starwood leverages their loyalty program to encourage guests to download their app, which then unlocks personalized conveniences for users across their entire portfolio of properties. At ALICE, our platform approach allows for white-label customizations for individual hotels but removes the need for guests to download multiple apps. A little gamification doesn’t hurt either: Starwood offers secret off-menu room service items for those who order via the app.
“There is a friction involved in downloading an app. I don’t want 30 different individual hotel apps on my phone and I don’t think anyone really wants that, but by having that loyal relationship it gives you the platform to encourage members to download the app and that becomes their one- stop-shop for everything they need,” explains Starwood’s Holdren.
3. Older generations will use the technology if you are solving a true pain point
When we first started building our technology we assumed the demographic most inclined to use the application would be younger generations. We’ve seen, however, adoption can depend largely on the use case. At one partner property (The Setai, Miami Beach) we allow guests to order directly to their pool and beach chairs. Here we see adoption across all age-groups because of the convenience - it’s much easier to order a drink from your phone than to catch a server’s attention on a busy day.
“One of the big pain points in a resort experience today is that you are up by the pool, you want to have another drink, you want to keep the good times going, you have to get up and go find someone to place the order or flag down someone who is running by…. if someone can with beacon technology know exactly where you are sitting and hands you that drink, that creates a magic moment and it takes out a lot of frustration,” agrees Starwood’s Holdren.
4. The best technology makes your hotel stay feel just like home
Connectivity via a guest app means instant access to local information as well as the replication of on-demand services guests are accustomed to at home. But removing the language barrier is perhaps the biggest win in terms of guest comfort. We recently released our languages feature, which facilitates guest-to-staff and staff-to-staff language translation in real-time.
As ALICE’s Effron explains: “[Languages] is a product we spent about a year developing, and we are starting to see some really powerful results. No matter where you are in the world, you always feel at home and that really enhances your stay and that’s something I think guests really look for.”
5. Technology advances quickly. Outsourcing to technology startups keeps hotels nimble
Every new device generation, every new platform enhancement provides opportunity for better guest experiences. Yet the pressures of technological advances have encouraged many hotel groups, large and small, to take advantage of tech-focused companies who specialize in the various device and platform upgrades and can help hotels adapt more quickly.
Says ALICE’s Effron, “That’s kind of how we look at ourselves with our partner hotels. We say, ‘You don’t have to worry about keeping up with the changing times, we will do that for you.’”
6. Only when you combine the staff-side with the guest-facing solution do you see true value
For hotels employing guest-facing technology to provide conveniences for guests it can be hard to show ROI, at least in the short-term. It’s when these guest-facing solutions feed into an integrated back-end solution that the efficiencies from streamlining multiple systems into one connected platform show clear ROI.
“Because we are allowing the hotels to track everything through one system, regardless of how many guests are using it, they are seeing the ROI. That’s what we saw a lack of in the industry – a lot of people were spending several thousand dollars to build an application and it was really hard to prove they were getting 10% more sales from F&B. So we think it’s not enough just to have one side of [a technological solution]. You really need both,” says ALICE’s Effron.
7. In-room technology is more about plugs, ports and charging stations. The fancy stuff can wait.
The rise of the smart-home, with its connected light bulbs, thermostats, and smoke alarms, has inspired hotels to experiment with their own smart in-room technology. Yet, guest expectations of in-room technology are far more modest than hoteliers might imagine. As Starwood’s Holdren explains, what guests want most are the ports, plugs, and charging stations that power their own suite of personal devices. Upgrading rooms to meet this rise in demand in a cross-compatible way might actually be a bigger challenge for hotels though than designing a friendly robot butler:
“What’s required to let people connect their devices is actually some pretty complex technology, especially as you look globally, where … standards do differ around the world. And as you look at Android, iOS other platforms, it’s not always easy to find that cross-compatible solution to really make that easy for our guest,” says Holdren.
8. It’s not enough to provide WiFi for your guests; your associates need good wireless connectivity as well
Hotels can be difficult places to install WiFi networks. It’s hard enough to equip the guest spaces of properties built in the 1400s or as massive concrete structures with expansive outdoor areas, without having to worry about the labyrinth of back-of-house spaces that have become de facto dead zones with regards to WiFi. Starwood’s Holdren admits upgrading the connectivity of these areas has become a focus for the hotel chain, as giving associates mobile technology does little to enhance the guest experience if connectivity back-of-house is an issue.
As hotel properties make the necessary WiFi enhancements, it helps to have a solution robust enough to withstand intermittent interruptions in connectivity.
Explains ALICE’s Effron: “[While working on an upgrade] you do things to try to optimize the solutions, so on the guest-side if somebody enters a request and they are not online, that request will go through the minute that they get online, and same thing on the employee-side - that request will go through the minute that they get online and in dead zones it’s never too long of a delay. …Things aren’t perfect, but that will continue to improve over time.”
9. Empowering your associates with technology might be your biggest lever for success
From day one we’ve been focused on the hotel associate experience. We realized early if the hotel staff doesn’t use the solution it will be back on mind, and if it’s back of mind associates will never encourage guest adoption. We’ve built ALICE on the staff-side so that it’s incredibly intuitive to use, and associates can be trained on the platform in under 5 minutes. We also recently launched ALICE Academy, an online training portal to support any questions associates might have. Starwood’s Holdren agrees investment in staff-side technologies is just as important as investment in guest-facing applications, because of the legacy of complex back-of-house systems that make hospitality operations such a challenge.
Interviewer Jason Clampet recalls a recent travel experience that shows how an imbalance between guest-side and associate-side technology investments actually works to undermine the goal of improved customer service: “That reminds me of a terrible few hours spent in a Phoenix airport last year. The flight was late and the poor gate agent for US Airways was telling everybody ‘You have better information on your apps than I have from my terminal.’ That’s the challenge of making sure there is a level playing field between hotel staff and the guests that are using the latest consumer-facing technology that you guys have.”
Justin Effron, ALICE CEO and co-founder
Chris Holdren, Starwood Preferred Guest and Digital SVP