The hotel industry is in the middle of its greatest restructuring in decades. Hotels are adapting long-held operating models to compensate for staff lost to the great resignation. In December 2021, there were some 1.7 million hospitality and leisure jobs open, nearly twice the level of early 2020. Where new staff simply cannot be hired, many hotels are leveraging technology to enable the remaining staff to do more with less.
This week’s installment and the next one will explore recent technology developments that can help to do this. Popular culture often talks about this as the Internet of Things, but that’s a poor description, because much of it does not ride on the Internet. A better name might be The Connected Hotel. Indeed, the real estate business has long talked about Connected Buildings, and the principle is the same. Other good names might be The Intelligent Hotel or the Smart Hotel.In researching this topic, I spoke with companies across a range of products and services that are found in Connected Hotels. Several are involved in guest room environmental controls (Auverte, Enseo, Honeywell, Interel, and VDA); others address other aspects, including PwC (data aggregation, analytics, monitoring, staff alerting, and other services), Transcendent (asset management and preventive maintenance), Nomadix (network gateways and voice activation), VivoAquatics (recreational water monitoring and maintenance), and TraknProtect (asset tracking and staff alerting). Many of these companies operate in multiple areas and space does not permit me to describe each of them in full. But the executives I spoke with at these companies provided a wealth of information about both the applications and the challenges, and I thank them for sharing their time and wisdom.
Many hotels don’t realize that they already have the infrastructure needed to operate a Connected Hotel. If you have an energy management or staff alert system, you may already have made all or much of the investment needed for other Connected Hotel applications that can share the same infrastructure. It’s analogous to a Wi-Fi network: building it from scratch is costly, but putting one more application onto it is much less expensive.
What Makes a Connected Hotel?
The basics of a Connected Hotel are conceptually simple. First there will be sensors, which collect data from guest rooms, public spaces, back-of-house, conference rooms, recreational facilities, building systems, and grounds. These may be physical sensors such as ones that detect temperature or water flow, camera sensors to capture video, or beacons that can detect a nearby staff panic button. They may be embedded, such as a light switch sensor that can tell if it is on or off, or one in a door lock that can detect the presence of a nearby key. They can even be virtual sensors, such as the housekeeping status of a room in the Property Management System or weather data obtained from an external source.
Second is a network, which can move data from the sensors to someplace where it can be monitored, analyzed, combined with data from other sensors and external sources, and converted into actions. This may be the hotel’s main Wi-Fi network, but it is more commonly a mixed environment that uses specialized radios and protocols that may be better optimized for particular devices and applications.
Third is controls, where instructions can be sent to devices (such as to turn off a light) or to people or other systems (such as to open a ticket for engineering to perform maintenance on a machine).
Fourth and fifth are a data repository and dashboard, where the data collected can be presented to a human, who may be an owner or manager, an onsite engineer, or at a contracted monitoring center. The human uses the data to identify problems and trends and, where needed, to arrange for needed on-site investigations or repairs. Access to historical data through the dashboard provides the ability to compare metrics on different issues across rooms, multiple hotels, and even non-hotel facilities (anywhere you have access to the data). Software analytics can also be used to detect patterns that warrant attention.
Why Operate a Connected Hotel?
The theoretical benefits of a Connected Hotel are well documented, although they are not always easy to achieve. Connected hotels can reduce energy consumption by 20% or more, can reduce water waste, can detect and even prevent potentially catastrophic events like flooded bathrooms, can give staff information that allows them to perform various tasks in much less time, can increase security and prevent theft, can improve guest sleep quality, and much more. The good news is that the cost of sensors (hardware, installation, and connectivity) has fallen dramatically in just the past few years, even as the capabilities and variety of sensors has grown.
Today, every hotel can benefit from these technologies through reduced energy and water costs, higher guest satisfaction scores, and the ability to operate with fewer staff. But the technology is complex, and not all hotels are ready to select and manage it. My goal is to help you understand both the opportunities this technology offers, and the challenges you will face in deploying it, so that you can make smart decisions as to whether and when to move forward.
This is a big topic, too much to tackle in a single blog article. So this week, I will focus on the WHAT and WHY of the Connected Hotel, and review some of the many opportunities it offers. In my next column on March 4, I will return to address the HOW, or what to consider when evaluating solutions, products, and vendors. Today I will present the WHAT and WHY in the form of an organized list of applications. Some will be useful to almost any hotel, others only to a few, but every hotel should find numerous opportunities. This does not mean you should jump in feet first; you may not be quite ready to swim in these tricky waters yet. But if you are not starting to think about these solutions now, it will just delay your ability realize future benefits.
Consider Your Current Infrastructure
An important principle is that each Connected Hotel application needs to run on an infrastructure, meaning a network and (usually) a base set of sensors. Once a hotel has an infrastructure for one application, however, it can often be leveraged to support many other applications at minimal to modest cost. Most hotels already have at least some aspects of infrastructure that can support Connected Hotel applications. A Wi-Fi network alone may meet many needs. Many hotels have additional infrastructures in place to support Guest Room Management Systems (GRMS) or Energy Management Systems (EMS). Many also have deployed staff panic buttons, which may require complementary infrastructures in public spaces as well as guest rooms. While I will cover this in more depth in the second installment, the important principle is while you will probably install a particular Connected Building infrastructure to address one specific problem, it will often open the door to solving many other problems at minimal incremental cost. Depending on what you already have in place, some of these applications can be implemented with hard costs that may be less than a candy bar from the vending machine. Others may cost a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, but this will still likely be a fraction of what they would have cost a few years ago.
Connected Hotel Applications that Should Be on Your Radar
There are hundreds if not thousands of potential applications that could be useful in a connected hotel. These are some of the ones that hotels are implementing or (in a few cases) contemplating. New ones are surfacing every day.
Before I list them, it is important to understand how a detected issue or anomaly (anything that might require attention or action) is handled in a Connected Hotel, as this underlies the value of virtually every solution. I will address this in more detail in the next installment in two weeks, but for now, here is a quick summary.
Typically, a sensor or device reports its status and other information to a gateway or central control point through the network (e.g. a thermostat might report “the temperature in Room 306 is 68 degrees, my set-point is 69 degrees, I am calling for heat”). Software somewhere (on a local gateway or in the cloud) analyzes the information and decides if it is normal or not (68 degrees is within the normal tolerance of 69, and it’s calling for heat, so every appears normal). If something is not normal, then the software may be able to communicate with the same or other connected devices to diagnose and/or fix the problem, such as by power-cycling a device or checking a sensor in the air duct for hot or cold air flow. If the problem cannot be repaired automatically, then the system alerts a human, either at the hotel or at an offsite network control center. Notifications may be via a dashboard, text message, email, phone call, or any other means.
For non-urgent issues, the system may send an electronic notification to the hotel’s maintenance or work-order management system to open a new ticket. More serious issues can be prioritized based on how time-sensitive they are and the level or risk (to life safety, physical plant, or guest satisfaction). More sophisticated systems can route and escalate issues to different people or departments and with different timeframes based on the specific issue at hand.
So let’s turn to what a Connected Hotel can do that might be useful to you.
Environmental Monitoring and Control. This is often the first major investment hotels that leverages Connected Hotel technologies, because it has a large potential payback which alone can justify the investment in the infrastructure. Energy is second only to labor as largest controllable cost for most hotels. Most of it is used to heat and cool guest rooms, which in a typical hotel are physically occupied by guests only about one-third of the time. Setting back the thermostat just a few degrees in unoccupied rooms can save 10% to 30% on energy bills. Most of the providers of GRMSs and EMSs offer solutions that include some sort of occupancy detector (commonly part of the thermostat) and connections to the Property Management System (PMS) so that they can set back the thermostat, typically by just a few degrees if the room is checked in but the guest is away, and more if the room is checked out.
More sophisticated approaches add the door lock to the equation. Motion-activated occupancy detectors can erroneously conclude that a guest has left the room when they are motionless for too long or out of the sensor’s line-of-sight. A very sound sleeper may wake up sweating because the air conditioning was turned off in error, and this is not good for guest satisfaction scores. Accuracy is improved if, once motion is detected, the room is assumed be occupied until the door is opened. Sensors can also be added to windows and patio doors to turn off the heat or air conditioning when they are open (and this concept can help in some public spaces as well). Some luxury hotels are evaluating technologies that can detect when a guest re-enters the building after being out, and turn on the heat or air in their room so that it is back at the desired temperature by the time the guest reaches it.
Data from these devices can be used to alert front desk or maintenance staff to issues, such as when a thermostat is calling for heat but not getting any. Increasingly, thermostats are incorporating humidity, air quality, and noise sensors, which can be monitored to detect potential issues. In many cases the monitoring software can initiate changes in control settings for the central heating and cooling system, for example if one wing is getting too much or too little airflow. As well, more and more guest room devices, such as fan-coil units inside the ventilation ducts, are able to monitor their own health and send alerts if they detect anomalies such as excess vibration (an early sign of potential failure). These approaches can minimize the likelihood of a bad guest experience (inadequate heating or cooling) and can also catch mechanical issues early, when repairs may be less costly and can be scheduled without inconveniencing a guest.
Automated drapery controls can provide energy saving opportunities in a Connected Hotel; these can be significant in some climates. Sensors can measure sunlight intensity and use it to manage drapes in unoccupied guest rooms and public spaces on affected sides of the building, taking advantage of greenhouse-effect heating in cold weather, and preventing it in hot weather.
Sleep quality is essential to high guest satisfaction scores. Some systems monitor multiple factors that can affect the sleep quality in each guest room, such as temperature, noise, lighting, and air quality. They can also record guest activity that may correlate with sleeplessness, such as adjusting the temperature when the lights are out, turning the lights on and off multiple times at night, or excessive tossing and turning. One product I saw constructs a sleep quality index and identifies, through a dashboard, specific rooms that might require equipment servicing.
Water Usage: In many locations, water is increasingly scarce and costly. Sensors can be used to detect excess water usage, including faucets or showers left on in guest rooms, evaporation from pools, or leaks in landscaping irrigation systems. They can raise alerts or (with electronic valves) even shut off the water. Inexpensive sensors can also detect standing water where it does not belong and provide alerts about potential flooding situations (or turn off the water) before there is major damage. An overflowing shower or toilet in one guest room can easily put several rooms out of service for weeks or months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair. Insurance companies are starting to reduce premiums for buildings that have systems that can detect and prevent such events
While some leaks can be measured directly (as when water is flowing to a room that is not occupied), others can be found through data analytics. Products such as from VivoAquatics can compare water used to top off pools with norms based on pool size and climate, and identify ones that are using more replacement water than normal. These may well have previously undetected leaks.
A great deal of water is often used for landscape maintenance, and much of it may be wasted. Sensors or external weather data that identify actual or forecasted rain can be used to skip unneeded watering cycles, and when appropriate, can adjust watering schedules to reduce evaporation. Flow monitors can detect excess usage that may point to underground water leaks. Sensors can detect misdirected sprinklers that are spraying walls or driveways rather than vegetation.
Guest Convenience and Comfort: Connected Hotel technologies are behind many of the recent enhancements to guest interfaces offered through mobile apps, televisions, bedside tablets, and voice assistants. It is increasingly possible for guests to manage temperature, lighting, television, music, draperies, and service lights (do not disturb, make up room) electronically, or even to store preferences in a profile so that the room can be customized before arrival. These capabilities rely primarily on the control capabilities of devices like thermostats, TVs, and light switches, which need to take commands from the network. They can also be used to reduce energy usage while guests are out of the room, but then to restore everything back to its prior state instantly when they return.
Another Connected Hotel application that can be very convenient for guests, particularly in complex resorts, is wristbands that can communicate with hotel devices. These can be used for payment (with spending controls for children if needed) or to claim meal entitlements. They can also (with some limitations) enable parents to know where their children are, to control access to specific areas such as adults-only pools, or to alert staff or parents of someone who does not belong in a particular area.
Queue Detection and Alerting: For hotels that have the potential for long lines, camera sensors with artificial intelligence can be used to estimate the length of the line and alert a manager of the need to reassign some staff.
Health and Hygiene: Several applications of the Connected Hotel have been implemented by hotels to measure and control health risks. Low occupancy during the pandemic often resulted in water remaining in guest-room pipes long enough to stagnate, with a risk of legionella. As a result, many hotels are sending staff into unoccupied guest rooms every few days just to run the water, a task that can be automated if control valves are in place. Such valves can be expensive to retrofit but can be very cost-effective in new builds especially when considering the flood-control capabilities mentioned earlier (and the lower insurance premiums that may be available as a result).
Many hotels have specific cleaning protocols for public spaces but no easy way to measure compliance. Hotels that already have a panic button solution can often use the same infrastructure to do this. If the protocol requires a staff member and a cleaning cart, for example, simply putting an inexpensive electronic tag on the cart can leverage the panic button infrastructure to record that a staff member and a cart were in a particular elevator lobby at a particular time, and that they were there long enough to complete the prescribed cleaning task. It’s not a guarantee that the staff member actually did the cleaning, of course, but at least the hotel can be alerted if a scheduled round was never performed. The cost of the tag can vary depending on the technology, but it’s typically not more than one or a few dollars.
Hotels spend a lot of money on pest prevention and removal. And while we have not yet seen a connected bedbug that can announce its presence in a guest room, there are in fact pest control systems that can trap pests and/or notify the network when they do so, indicating a room that may need pest management services.
Hotels with pools, hot tubs, and other recreational water features can deploy technologies that will both monitor and maintain proper chlorine and pH levels. They can also detect and report low supply levels of various chemicals, and even place automatic orders to pool maintenance contractors. Such systems can reduce liability risks and provide simple proof of compliance when health department inspectors come around.
Housekeeping: Housekeepers may spend 15 minutes or more of their shift identifying rooms that are unoccupied and ready to be cleaned, and moving their carts to service them. Sometimes they may have to knock on almost every door in a long hallway to find a room they can clean. In a Connected Hotel, the housekeeping system can know, with a high degree of accuracy, which rooms are currently unoccupied and therefore likely ready to be cleaned (and if there are Make-Up Room or Do-Not-Disturb indicators, can flag or prioritize these as well). Getting this information may cost nothing, but whether it has value will depend on whether the housekeeping system can use it to provide real-time scheduling (assigning a room to a housekeeper only when they finish the current one).
Some newer buildings with electronic water valves are now being programmed to set the hot water temperature and water flow according to whether it the guest or housekeeper is present (information it can get from many door locks).
Consumables Restocking: Consumables used in hotels need to be replenished regularly, and hotels often devote significant staff time to simply identifying what needs restocking. These include public restrooms (soaps, towels, and toilet paper); gyms and pools (towels, wipes, drinking water); business centers (printer paper, toner); and guest rooms (minibars and even guest room liquid soap dispensers). Sensors can be used on any of these to report low supplies, so that staff need only visit the places that actually need servicing, and can know exactly what supplies they will need. This has been a common application for smart minibars for years, but the cost of sensors has gotten so low that many other applications are now feasible, especially for hotels that have one or more Connected Hotel infrastructures already in place. I have yet to see sensors used to signal an empty tray of scrambled eggs at the breakfast buffet, but it will not surprise me the first time I do.
Regular Maintenance. Most hotels have a daily (or more frequent) check on the performance of critical equipment, which may be scattered in locations from the basement to the roof and exterior. In most cases the procedure is to simply record the reading of each gauge or meter on a walkaround by an engineer. Smart gauges and meters can eliminate the need for the walkaround, which in a large facility can occupy most of an engineer’s shift. Even in older buildings, newer technologies can be deployed that use inexpensive cameras and software to “read” meters without the need for a human; the readings are sent back to a central monitoring system across the network.
Connected devices means that engineers can spend more time fixing things and less time figuring out what needs to be fixed. Additionally, hotels often replace certain critical items more frequently than needed, just to avoid the consequences of a breakdown when something fails early. In many cases, connected meters can be used to extend the life of such items by continually measuring how close they are to needing replacement.
Asset Tracking. Hotel staff often spend a lot of time trying to locate equipment, from luggage carts to rollaway cots, room service trays and trolleys, maintenance equipment like ladders, and audiovisual devices, cables, and connectors. If you have a Connected Hotel infrastructure that covers the locations where the equipment might be stored, it is very cost-effective to put an electronic “tag” on each item. The tag (which typically costs just a few dollars and lasts for years) can be detected by the infrastructure and used to determine its location. Depending on the infrastructure and need, the location can be general (e.g., 4th floor, east wing) or precise to within a few feet.
Food and Beverage: One hotel lost $75,000 worth of ice cream when a freezer malfunctioned and it all melted. They wanted to prevent a recurrence. They already had a Connected Hotel infrastructure deployed for energy management in their guest rooms, and their provider was able to extend it by adding a gateway in the kitchen (the same one they had put in most guest rooms) and a thermal sensor costing $10-$20 in the freezer, to detect and report temperature anomalies. Other kitchen applications I have seen (and potentially supportable by the same type of gateway) include inventory stock control, analysis of food waste, and water usage. One restaurant that installed water meters in the kitchen discovered that one chef used many times as much water as the others. Alerted by the system, they started watching him and realized that he was constantly running water for long periods of time to thaw frozen foods, a very expensive practice in many water-short communities.
Location Awareness: Connected Buildings can track people carrying certain devices and know their location, anywhere there are sensors. To be sure, some of these uses will be limited by privacy concerns of guests or union contracts with staff, but others will not. Staff safety buttons are a familiar application to most hotels and were often the reason why a locationing infrastructure was first deployed. Guest-tracking applications will typically require the guest to opt in, but they can improve the guest experience for those that do. A guest at the pool, on the beach, or on the golf course can request delivery of food and beverages, towels, or rental equipment and have it brought to their precise location, without the staff having to wander around looking for them. Large resorts can offer wayfinding apps to guests. Departmental managers at big properties can locate the nearest staff member to address a particular need, reducing the time staff spend simply walking back and forth.
Location awareness can also be used to generate revenues and improve guest service. The same application and devices that support panic buttons can often be repurposed to enable guests to request food and beverage service in lobbies, poolside, and other public spaces. The devices are portable, so they can be moved into busy areas by staff or guests, and yet can still be found. Special offers can be pushed to opted-in guests based on their location. The technology even exists to identify an opted-in guest who approaches the front desk or other staff, enabling more personalized, greet-by-name service (or a creepier experience, if not handled carefully!).
Security and Safety. We know the importance of being able to respond to situations where staff are threatened, but this is just one of many safety and security applications that can be supported by the Connected Hotel. Smart camera systems can detect suspicious persons or activities, and can monitor entries and exits. Visitors can be given a chipped visitor card that allows them to be tracked or that reports if they wander into unapproved areas. Unusual patterns of keycard usage can be easily detected and tied in with security cameras to help detect and catch would-be thieves.
While not yet deployed in hotels to my knowledge, life safety systems can be connected to public address systems to provide situation- and location-specific evacuation instructions to staff and guests, for example directing them to use a particular emergency stairway that is less impacted by a fire or other threat. And a Connected Building can quite easily report the locations of people who may need to be evacuated. While the technology may not be able to say for certain that one room is occupied and another is empty, it can give high probabilities based on occupancy detectors and locationing beacons. First responders can use this information to prioritize rescue efforts.
Risk Management and Loss Prevention: In addition to flood detection and temperature monitoring for perishables (mentioned earlier), high-value and easily pilfered items such as televisions and audiovisual equipment can be tagged and alerts raised if they pass through an exit door. In a Connected Hotel, these can be paired with security cameras or alarms to ensure that the activity is highlighted in real time in the security office or even broadcast to the phone of roving security staff.
The intelligence that can now be incorporated into a hotel, often at very modest incremental cost, can enable leaner operations, less energy and water usage, better safety and security, higher guest satisfaction scores, and even increased revenue. Very few hotels will look through this list of applications here (which is hardly exhaustive!) and not see a few that would benefit them. But there are difficult questions about how to design, implement, and manage Connected Hotel applications. In Part 2 of this column on March 4, I will address some of the key issues and considerations for hotels interested in exploring them.