From robot concierges to emoji room service, technology is transforming the guest experience. Jenny Southan delves into the world’s most high-tech hotels
Technology is transforming the guest experience, Jenny Southan writes
Not so long ago, I stayed in a hotel that had automatic fragrance dispensers in the rooms – on entering, I was greeted by a cloud of perfume so strong it nearly knocked me out. The window didn’t open so I had no choice but to crank up the air con, unplug the offending pump and leave it in the corridor. That night, the bedside tablet refused to turn off, its screen keeping me awake with its ghostly glow.
Unfortunately, many hotels get tech wrong. I am reasonably competent at turning on TVs, but there have been many times when I have had to request maintenance to come and help me connect it to my laptop via a media hub, or sync it to the DVD player. I’ve struggled to find out what number to dial to reach reception, how to log on to the wifi or to turn out all the lights. These seemingly simple tasks can become incredibly frustrating and fire up a terrible rage against everything electronic.
By this summer, all 4,748 rooms and suites at the Wynn Las Vegas will have an Amazon Echo speaker, allowing you not only to play music but to control the air con, lights, curtains and TV with voice commands interpreted by Alexa, Amazon’s built-in personal assistant. It sounds great, but I fear I would be the person who ended up screaming at it to close the curtains because it didn’t understand my accent.
Hilton and SPG apps can be used to check in and open your room door, while the Four Seasons Toronto has in-room iPads allowing you to order a burger and fries at midnight without having to speak to anyone. Lucy is the Virgin hotel in Chicago app – tap the screen to request extra pillows, laundry pick-ups, meals or turndown service. At the Zetta in San Francisco, a new wellness programme utilises brain-sensing Muse headbands for guided meditation.
Here is our pick of ten hotels and brands that are leading the way when it comes to technology. They are not scientifically ranked and we don’t guarantee that you won’t lose your cool when trying to engage with them, but the digitisation of real-world environments isn’t going away so you may as well embrace it. According to the Institute for Global Futures, by 2060 we will all have access to DNA mobile payments, 3D printers and beds that will pre-programme our dreams…
1. HILTON MCLEAN TYSONS CORNER, VIRGINIA
Hilton’s innovation lab has earned a place in the limelight for its cute-looking robot concierge, Connie. Powered by artificial intelligence from IBM Watson, she can provide restaurant tips in multiple languages and answer questions about hotel amenities. But the McLean has much more going on than that.
Rooms on the eighth and ninth floors have TVs you can log into and watch Netflix, YouTube and HuluPlus. Instead of having to call the front desk for toothpaste, you can send a text with Kipsu. Outside the Pantry is “RealSense by Intel”, an eight-screen installation that responds to human gestures. By the Tech Lounge you’ll find Amazon Lockers for deliveries.
Ava by Irobot is the hotel’s mobile telepresence droid, which will act as your eyes and ears if you can’t attend an on-site conference. According to Hilton: “When a person dials into the robot remotely, his or her face becomes the face of the robot and the person can manipulate its movements to interact with guests in real time.” It can even mingle at cocktail parties.
Outside the hotel are five electric car-charging points, which are free for guests. At selected hotels, including the McLean, the Honors app acts as a digital key allowing you to choose your room in advance via a floor plan, check in remotely and unlock your room within five feet of it.
Jonathan Wilson, Hilton’s vice-president of product innovation and brand services, says: “[At the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner] we are conducting around 30 tests in partnership with more than 20 of the world’s most inventive companies, including Google and Amazon. These tests allow us to capture feedback from guests and hotel management in real time, and are helping us to make travel more connected, personalised and fun. In the coming year, we are focused on harnessing the power of speech recognition and cognitive learning to deliver even better guest experiences.” hilton.com
Described as Starwood’s (now Marriott International’s) “tech forward incubator brand”, Aloft has introduced robotic butlers in its Cupertino and Silicon Valley hotels. The “Botlrs” work around the clock to deliver guests towels, newspapers, toiletries and bottles of water. They can use lifts without help, and when they arrive outside your room they will call your phone. They only accept tweets as tips and can pose for selfies.
At Aloft Santa Clara and Boston Seaport, meanwhile, the world’s first voice-activated hotel rooms have been unveiled. By speaking into an iPad, tapping into the brain of Apple’s Siri, travellers can turn lights on and off with a simple “Good morning” or “Good night”, play music and fine-tune the air conditioning. At most Aloft hotels (as well as W and Element), Starwood Preferred Guest members can use the SPG Keyless app to open their bedroom doors with their phone.
Emoji room service arrived last year at select hotels – text the water droplet, pill and banana emojis to receive two bottles of Vitamin Water, some Advil and two bananas (US$10). Brian McGuinness, senior vice-president of Starwood’s specialty select brands, says: “We look to consumer behaviour and think about how to integrate these trends into the Aloft experience. The rise of emoji was a logical next step.” aloft.com
3. M BETA AT CHARLOTTE MARRIOTT CITY CENTRE
Described as a “travel innovation lab in live beta”, this 1980s hotel was transformed by Marriott last autumn, and now exists as an interactive showroom for testing innovations that could then be rolled out across other properties.
In the gym, guests can take part in hundreds of virtual fitness classes presented on large wall-mounted screens, while in the lobby is a booth that measures your mood. Stay Well rooms have purified air systems and digitised lighting to help ease jet lag. Guests can give feedback by pushing Beta Buttons dotted around the property, with real-time approval rankings displayed publicly on digital boards.
At select hotels, not only can you check in and open your door with Marriott’s app but use Mobile Requests to order a toothbrush, champagne or flowers. marriott.com
4. 1 HOTELS
1 Hotels is an innovative new brand that combines stateof-the art technology with sustainability (rooms have bins for unwanted clothes, hemp-blend mattresses and refillable bottles of shower gel), as well as nature-inspired biophilic interiors (living walls, air plants, terrariums and raw timber furniture). Nespresso machines use recyclable pods and compostable cups, while handheld Nexus devices replace the need for guest books, newspapers (Press Reader is installed), room service menus and phones. The Vers 2Q Bluetooth stereos are made of wood from sustainably managed forests – for every tree cut down, they plant 100 more. Even the reusable electronic key fobs are made of wood.
“Technology is key to implementing sustainability, an integral component of the 1 Hotels mission,” says Barry Sternlicht, founder of 1 Hotels and chief executive of Starwood
Capital Group.“1 Hotels is part of a greater platform for change in moving hospitality forward and ultimately, making the world a better place. Having the latest in technological and digital innovation goes hand-in-hand in making this possible; from the highest-grade triple water purification systems found in all our hotel rooms to motion-sensor activated lighting and five-minute shower timers.”
Not only is there free electric car charging, but access to a Tesla for free journeys within a 15-block radius. Gyms have self-powered Peloton Cycles and there are bikes (and recyclable helmets) to borrow instead of taking a taxi. These are available across all three hotels – one in Miami and two in New York. Upcoming openings will be in Sanya, China (2018), Cabo and Sunnyvale in California (2019).
Capsule chain Yotel certainly has hotels that look sci-fi, with tiny rooms illuminated in purple and streamlined white surfaces that resemble a lunar module. But its tech is pretty space-age, too. In its flagship New York property, a huge robotic arm lifts suitcases into storage units, while guests use glowing airport-style kiosks to check in.
Signature features include space-saving adjustable SmartBeds that fold 90 degrees to create a couch, Smart TVs and USB/UK/EU/US plug sockets. The 80-room nextgeneration YotelAir hotel at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport has a co-working space with tables fitted with USB charging points and the ability to print wirelessly for free.
The first city-centre Yotel to open in Europe will be the Yotel in Clerkenwell in 2018. The brand will arrive in Singapore, San Francisco and Boston this year, and Miami, Brooklyn and Dubai in 2018. yotel.com
6. ECCLESTON SQUARE, LONDON
This boutique hotel in a 19th-century building in Belgravia is one of the most technologically advanced in the capital. Every one of its rooms has a 46-inch HD 3D Neo Plasma Panasonic TV, a free 3D DVD library and an iPad 2 that functions as a virtual concierge. Hastens beds from Sweden can be adjusted electronically or set to massage mode.
Dividing the bedroom from the bathroom is a wall of Smart Glass – at the touch of a button, it can transform from transparent to opaque. An anti-mist mirror has an integrated LED TV so you can watch the news while brushing your teeth.
Olivia Byrne, one of the hotel’s owners, says: “When travelling, guests want a continuation of the technology, comfort and convenience they enjoy at home. So while some outlandish gimmicks are grabbing headlines, it’s those tech services and amenities that offer an experience upgrade, but still a continuation and integration of their own personal devices, like AirPlay Mirroring, plus complementary communication technology, that really adds value to a guestroom.”
Particularly useful for overseas guests, Handy smartphones with free calls and data can be borrowed. When visiting the hotel’s website, a pop-up instant messaging window allows you to put questions to a real-life guest services consultant. ecclestonsquarehotel.com
7. PENINSULA CHICAGO
This luxurious outpost of the Hong Kong-based brand has implemented a number of innovations developed by the company’s dedicated R&D team. This means all tech found in Peninsula properties is custom-made and rigorously tested.
Along with its Beijing property, the Peninsula Chicago has the most up-to-date gadgetry, including bespoke digital tablets (bedside, desk and wall-mounted) for controlling all in-room functions (lighting, temperature, privacy, valet call and curtains), as well as displaying city guides and restaurant menus, in multiple languages.
Workdesks have internet radio, weather panels and iPod docks, while bathrooms feature LED touchscreen panels for TV and radio. There are also “ambient spa” settings for a “light and sound experience”. Flatscreen Blu-ray LED TVs have free HD
movies, memory card readers and virtual surround-sound. The hotel’s Rolls-Royce and Mini fleets are equipped with free wifi. chicago.peninsula.com
8. THE MIRA HONG KONG
In 2013, whistleblowing CIA contractor Edward Snowden holed up at the Mira before going on the run. Not only is the hotel one of Hong Kong’s glitziest and most exclusive, but one of the most technologically advanced as well. All guests are loaned pocket wifi hotspots to use when out and about so they can use their own phones without racking up data costs.
Kenneth Sorensen, head of hotels and serviced apartments for the Mira Group, says: “Nowadays, every traveller carries at least one private device that has all their contacts and preferred apps. Guests staying in our hotels no longer need to go through the learning curve of getting familiar with a thirdparty smartphone provided by the hotel, which was the case until now.”
The Mira’s 492 rooms all have Bose sound docks, 40-inch LCD TVs, laptop safes with built-in chargers, and a tablet with Press Reader and a call-the-concierge function. themirahotel.com
9. NH COLLECTION MADRID EUROBUILDING
The NH Collection Eurobuilding underwent a three-month renovation in 2014, turning the 412-room property into another test-bed for hospitality. Upon entering, guests will gaze up at Europe’s largest (300 sqm) vaulted, multimedia LED screen. Four Living Lab rooms are fitted with wireless charging points and tablets that let you video-call receptionists. For meetings, there is the Microsoft Lync Online 3D holographic telepresence system.
10. MAMA SHELTER LOS ANGELES
Part of Accorhotels, funky French brand Mama Shelter has installed Apple iMac computers in all of its 600-plus hotel rooms. There are six hotels in the group – the one in LA is a good example of how high-tech they are. The sleek 27-inch desktop Macs are installed with information about hotel amenities and free movies. You can also access TV, radio and Airplay. Reception will lend you a keyboard to type with. Take pictures with the webcam and (with your permission) they will be displayed on screens in the public areas. mamashelter.com