CUT­TING EDGE

From ro­bot concierges to emoji room ser­vice, tech­nol­ogy is trans­form­ing the guest ex­pe­ri­ence. Jenny Southan delves into the world’s most high-tech ho­tels

Business Traveller (Middle East) - - Contents -

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

2. ALOFT

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).

5. YOTEL

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

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