Defining the Smart Guest Experience

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October 29, 2018
Guest Experience
Diane Estner - dianeestner@danni-enterprises.com
MarkMcBeth- mmcbeth@skydogpartners.com

The ‘smart’ hotel has arrived, with properties routinely implementing robust Wi-Fi, keyless entry, digital signage with wayfinding and event schedules, ‘connected’ lobbies and meeting spaces, and smart apps for everything from remote check-in to controlling guestroom thermostats. But does all this technology truly create a smart guest experience? And what, exactly, constitutes a smart guest experience?

According to Ted Horner, managing director of technology consulting company E Horner & Associates, “The ultimate smart guest experience is the ability to provide the right data to the right guest at the right location at the right time. In other words, it anticipates and meets guests’ wants and needs.”
 
Similarly, Klaus Kohlmayr, chief evangelist at IDeaS Revenue Solutions, said that the smart guest experience happens “when guests feel like they’re getting a better and more engaging experience than they expected.” This might take place via technology or through simple human service elements; although, ideally, he said, it should be a combination of both. Regardless, the bottom line is this: “The hotel has anticipated and met guests’ needs without them having to ask.”
 
No matter how one defines the ‘smart guest experience’, one thing is certain: technology plays an integral role in it. Analytics, artificial intelligence, data warehousing, customer relationship management, loyalty programs, marketing automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) are rapidly redefining the way hotels do business. Properties that want to remain relevant must embrace these and other technologies that enable next-generation guest experiences. “We’re heading toward a world where every guest-facing asset in the hotel will be connected to a network,” said Ken Torres, marketing manager for Hospitality Network & Convention Services at Cox Business. “The key to the optimal smart guest experience will be leveraging those connected assets to more effectively personalize, maximize and monetize the guest experience.”
 
Robert Magliozzi, executive vice president of global business solutions at Cendyn, agrees, noting that a smart guest experience is only possible when an appropriate data management/integration strategy is combined with tools that allow personalization. “Hotels must be able to connect information if they want to make more intelligent business decisions and create more meaningful relationships with guests,” he said.
 
Smart room technology: Is there a limit?
Many industry experts believe a smart guest experience requires a smart guestroom; and, indeed, almost every vendor has developed a connected/smart room offering. At this year’s HITEC, the ‘smart guestroom’ was everywhere, with voice- and device-activated solutions filling the exhibit hall floor. Voice activation is quickly migrating from the home into the guestroom. At Hilton Worldwide, the smart room is taking shape in a project that allows guests to stay connected and consume their own content while maintaining privacy and maximizing investment.
 
With the buzz surrounding smart room technology, it follows that many hoteliers are eager to jump on the bandwagon. Yet, implementing the latest and greatest solutions doesn’t always make sense. In a room renovation, for example, older technology may still work well, so replacing it may not significantly improve service or guest satisfaction. Even in new build situations, it can be prudent to limit automation. (After all, how many types of technology do guests really need to request more towels?) Of course, much depends on guest expectations, which vary based on a number of factors, including the type of hotel (luxury, select service or extended stay, for example), the type of travel (business or leisure), and guest demographics (some travelers simply aren’t tech-savvy or don’t want to use technology for lights, curtains and TV).
 
Moreover, too much technology may detract from traditional guest service. Consider the luxury segment, where guests pay to be pampered and don’t necessarily want an overtly high-tech experience. At Montage Hotels & Resorts, for example, the emphasis is on guest service first and technology second. “We focus on the infrastructure that provides excellent Wi-Fi and cell coverage and enables guests to consume their own content,” said Gustaf Burman, senior vice president of IT. Given the diverse demographics of Montage guests, the brand provides many options for content, which requires a wide variety of domestic and international TV channels. Other smart technology must have an operational fit. “Employee-facing technology must work flawlessly and enable staff to provide the high level of service our guests have come to expect,” he said.

What Happens When the Customer Experience Isn’t ‘Smart’? 
I recently stayed at a property that’s part of a larger brand. I’m a loyalty customer with a profile and preferences. For this visit, I was part of a larger group of family members spending a weekend together to celebrate a milestone birthday. Traveling with extended family that spans three generations has unique requirements. In an effort to ensure that our needs would be met, I had several phone conversations with managers, catering staff and others, all of which indicated that my expectations were understood.
 
On the evening prior to arrival, I received a notice in the loyalty app that my reservations were ready for check-in. I was reluctant to check in ahead of time because I wanted to ensure that the three rooms for my family were on the same floor and within close proximity. I didn’t trust the loyalty app to guarantee that. However, I did want to communicate with the hotel regarding our early check-in request and our need for a crib in one of the rooms. This was a key touchpoint in my journey and an opportunity for the hotel to engage me in a productive pre-arrival conversation.
 
The loyalty app allowed for text communication directly with the hotel, or so I thought. I used the feature to detail our arrival time as well as my desire for early check-in and a crib request for one of the rooms. Twelve hours later while boarding our flight, I still hadn’t received acknowledgement to my text or confirmation that the request would be fulfilled.
 
Upon arrival, I was informed that our rooms were not ready, but that the desk would text me as soon as they were. I only had to provide my cell phone number. This number is already part of my loyalty profile, so why ask for it? Also, the hotel still hadn’t acknowledged my text from the previous night through the loyalty app. A couple of hours passed, during which time I had lunch with other family members who were waiting for their rooms. Many of us work in the hospitality industry, so we understood the 4 p.m. check-in time and realized that a wait is not uncommon.
 
Ultimately, most of the rooms weren’t ready until just before 4 p.m., and the crib wasn’t delivered until another request was made at the front desk. Furthermore, a text was never received from the desk regarding the readiness of any of the rooms, nor was a reply received through the loyalty app to my pre-arrival request.
All of this would have would have been more bearable had I been able to log into the hotel Wi-Fi with my devices –  mobile, iPad and laptop. However, there was no ‘free’ lobby connectivity, and all other options required either loyalty log-in, guest room or payment. Topping it off, the cellular signal was too weak for data. And, unbelievably, I forgot my loyalty password, which can’t be displayed on the app and can’t be retrieved via laptop without internet connectivity.
 
In the end, of course, none of this was unique to my experience. I’ve been in the business long enough to know that some hotels are a bit behind the curve; and, perhaps before my next visit, the Wi-Fi will be upgraded and staff will understand the guest engagement tools that are available to them and to me through loyalty. The lesson learned is that a smart customer experience requires all factors to be in place and working properly. The infrastructure to support ‘smart’ must be robust and stable. Seamless connectivity is an absolute necessity. And staff knowledge and willingness to engage must be a top priority.

Efficiency and guest engagement 
For many hoteliers, the smart guestroom achieves two goals. First, it boosts efficiency. For example, occupancy sensors can monitor when guests are in or out of the room and adjust systems accordingly, resulting in reduced energy consumption and significant monetary savings. And smart room technology can enhance productivity through the automation of guest requests and the reporting of guestroom issues. 
 
The second goal, which is inextricably linked to the first, is guest engagement. Therefore, the technology must be attractive and intuitive. In other words, it must compel guests to use it. If they are unwilling or unable to do so, the hotel will never realize the efficiencies and productivity improvements that come with automation.
 
Of course, many travelers prefer to use their own personal devices to control guestroom functions; and, as a result, most major brands have implemented strategies that enable these devices through their loyalty apps. While guests often travel with multiple devices, the smart phone is arguably the central piece of technology in the smart guest experience, serving as both a handheld computer and a phone. Therefore, smart guestrooms still must have capable cellular signals. Seamless connectivity into and out of the room is a requirement.
 
In fact, integration and mobile connectivity throughout the entire property is essential to the smart guest experience. Gone are the days when guests log in at various points in the hotel. High-speed Internet Access (HSIA) gateways can determine location and seamlessly connect based on guest profiles.
 
Connectivity opens doors
When Starwood Hotels & Resorts (now aquired by Marriott International) ran its Passpoint™ beta in 2015, loyalty members with a HotSpot 2.0 Passpoint certificate on their devices were automatically authenticated upon entering a Passpoint-enabled hotel. Once connected, they could wander about the property without losing a connection or requiring an additional log-in or authentication. This technology has been deployed in other brands and independents and is now expected by connected consumers.
 
Ubiquitous and seamless connectivity opens many doors for creating and executing smart guest experiences. Hotels that combine location awareness with rich guest profiles, for example, can push notifications about everything from spa services to room upgrades. Integration with digital signage allows guests to view event schedules and hotel maps on mobile devices and in-room TVs. Text messaging, which has matured significantly over the last few years, is often the preferred form of interactive communications for guests. The connected traveler not only is accustomed to text alerts but also relies on them for updated information.
 
Digital signage is another touchpoint, offering a platform that has been underserved in hospitality outside of the Las Vegas Strip and mega resorts. Digital signage solutions and content management systems (CMS) have advanced far beyond the PowerPoint clones of the past. As before, these solutions are fully integrated with property and brand sales and catering systems for event schedules, and wayfinding is commonplace. However, multizone high-definition screens with 4K video capabilities are becoming the norm, enabling properties, brands and management companies to fully leverage robust content management system capabilities.
 
Systems now support full motion 4K video, HTML5 content, RSS feeds and static HD graphics, images and text, in a single display or over multi-display arrays. Content can be scheduled by time or group, and the potential is there to drill down to the individual level with the appropriate integration and data. The screens and CMS are networked internally and to the cloud for broader integration with central and premise-based systems. Aside from proprietary and third-party media players, most digital signage products also support System on Chip (SOC) solutions from Samsung (Tizen), LG (webOS), Four Winds Interactive and others. With curated guest profile data, customized content can be delivered to in-room TVs as well as to guests’ mobile devices.
 
ONELAN, a Uniguest company and a global leader in digital visual communication, has taken guest interaction to an entirely new level with digital signage powered by Quividi’s ‘Audience Measurement Platform’ (AMP), which uses face and body detection techniques to recognize traffic in front of and passing by a display. AMP not only tracks the number of viewers but also captures attention span, face direction and number of glances as well as age bracket, gender and mood. It can even detect facial hair and glasses. Using the collected data, AMP’s expert algorithms generate an augmented reality interactive experience, a ‘digital concierge’ that offers opportunities for highly targeted promotions and advertising that enhance guest service and provide additional revenue streams.

The booming business of social media and mobile commerce
Social media platforms allow hotels to virtually connect with an almost unlimited number of travelers at a very low cost. Add to that the fact that we’re moving into a very mobile world; it’s all part of digital transformation.
 
According to David Adelson, CEO of Intelity, a provider of in-room and mobile solutions, hotels that want to beat the competition must develop a comprehensive mobile strategy. “Guest mobility shouldn’t be defined as just an app that needs to be downloaded,” he said. “Your mobile strategy should include everything from mobile web and text to social media and in-app chat. A smart experience enables all of these channels from a single platform and allows travelers to choose how they want to communicate.”
 
Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are the dominant social media platforms, with Instagram being the preferred choice for Millennials. Social media ‘influencers are also gaining credibility as valuable marketing contributors with a proven ROI. However, hoteliers should beware of social media influencer ‘wannabes’ who seek free accommodations yet have little or nothing to deliver. It has also been noted that some Millennial influencers are posting misleading content to protect their own brands. Solutions designed to help hoteliers sift and qualify the sometimes overwhelming number of ‘influencer’ requests are available.
 
Moving from service to experience 
Big brand loyalty programs are razor-focused on member preferences and use data stores and digital marketing platforms to push offers based on those preferences. Properties of all types and sizes are mining data to determine how to meet guest needs most effectively, breaking down segments based on a variety of markers, including age, gender, economic status, nationality, hotel spend value, and the like. Digital marketing programs are scientifically constructed to factor in every aspect of guests’ expectations.
 
This has led to a shift in how hospitality companies measure success, with the performance index metric morphing from ‘guest service’ to ‘guest experience’. Outstanding service, while still important, is no longer the sole determinant of an outstanding guest stay. Increasingly, technology with big data plays a role in the transformational ‘smart guest experience’.
Over the last several years, the pursuit of the ultimate customer experience has largely been driven by technology. It is, after all, a dominant factor in our daily lives. Smart watches are fitness monitors that keep our wellness on track. We routinely ‘talk’ to our devices to change the television channel. At home, we’re connected to dozens of Wi-Fi hotspots, from the gym to the doctor’s office. And when we travel, we’re connected to the airport terminal, the Uber ride and the hotel. We now have an expectation of round-the-clock connectivity.
 
Will we ever reach that Holy Grail called the ‘Smart Customer Experience’? Although we’re well down the road, several factors must be refined, beginning with infrastructure and an understanding that without robust technology ‘plumbing’, none of the cool stuff works. It continues with an understanding of guest expectations and how those expectations can and will change over time. The guest experience technologies touted today must focus on creating integrated experiences, so guests can move seamlessly between solutions without the need for constant device interaction and tweaking. The experience must also be secure, so guests are comfortable sharing and consuming data. Brands and properties must provide end-to-end connected experiences that leverage touchpoints along the way to enhance the guest stay without being intrusive. It can be done, but not without a complete understanding of guest wants and needs.

Exceeding expectations
Leveraging technology in a smart connected hotel takes expertise and training, and the learning curve can be long. Employees must be well versed in the interactive aspects of loyalty apps and other guest communication platforms. And ongoing instruction is essential. Without it, staff turnover can lead to a loss of subject matter expertise and leave the hotel’s technology less than optimized.
 
A robust digital signage solution requires a knowledgeable team of content management experts, whether on property, brand-based or third party. In addition, hotel owners and operators must be focused on subject matter expert handover in a high-turnover environment; otherwise their investment won’t fulfill its promise.
 
Despite its challenges, smart hotel technology allows properties to excel like never before — reducing operational costs, reaching new levels of profitability and engaging guests in a highly personalized manner. Hotels that leverage this technology appropriately not only will thrive but also will exceed expectations in an increasingly competitive environment.



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