Putting ho­tels’ front desk in guest’s pocket

San Francisco Chronicle - - BUSINESS REPORT - By Har­riet Edle­son

When Lenette and Char­lie Frye ar­rived re­cently at the Four Sea­sons in Or­lando for a two-night stay, they spot­ted an iPad loaded with the ho­tel’s app that they could use to or­der food, call for their car or read about ac­tiv­i­ties in the ho­tel.

“You do it all your­self,” said Lenette Frye, 30, who man­ages a stu­dent-liv­ing com­mu­nity in Gainesville, Fla. She and Char­lie Frye, 35, a con­sul­tant for the Uni­ver­sity of Florida and for­mer pro­fes­sional foot­ball player, travel fre­quently and liked the con­ve­nience of not hav­ing to pick up the phone.

While apps are not new in the ho­tel in­dus­try, the use of them and other tech tools has grown ex­po­nen­tially in the last five years as hote­liers seek new ways to meet the needs of guests, gain re­peat cus­tomers, dif­fer­en­ti­ate their

brands and, ul­ti­mately, in­crease rev­enue.

And since the tools are avail­able at all hours, ho­tel ex­perts say they may go a long way to­ward keep­ing guests happy and avoid­ing neg­a­tive re­views on so­cial me­dia and web­sites like TripAd­vi­sor.

Ho­tels are spend­ing as much as 6 per­cent of to­tal rev­enue on tech­nol­ogy, ac­cord­ing to Hos­pi­tal­ity Tech­nol­ogy’s 2017 Lodg­ing Tech­nol­ogy Study. Ti­tled “Fric­tion­less Ho­tels: En­abling the Om­niEx­pe­ri­ence,” the study said that 57 per­cent of ho­tels planned to spend more on tech­nol­ogy this year than they did in 2016, while 42 per­cent planned to spend about the same and just 2 per­cent said they would de­crease their IT spend­ing.

Ho­tel oc­cu­pancy rates in the U.S. are at 65.5 per­cent, the high­est since 1984, said Bjorn Hanson, a pro­fes­sor of hos­pi­tal­ity and tourism at the Tisch Cen­ter of New York Uni­ver­sity. Though they had typ­i­cally been slow to adopt new tech­nolo­gies, ho­tels are see­ing a place for tech tools to make sure that guests’ needs are met.

“They’re try­ing to im­prove the guest ex­pe­ri­ence by do­ing things on the guests’ terms in­stead of the ho­tel’s,” said Gregg Hop­kins, chief sales and mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer for In­telity Corp., which cre­ates tech­nol­ogy prod­ucts for ho­tels, in­clud­ing com­pa­nies like the Four Sea­sons, Loews, Con­rad and Pa­cific Hos­pi­tal­ity Group. “It drives loy­alty and drives re­peat busi­ness and drives rev­enue.”

“Ho­tels need to stay en­gaged with the guest from the time they make the reser­va­tion un­til they check out and check in again,” Hop­kins said. “They need to dif­fer­en­ti­ate what they do for the guest.”

In the past five years alone, com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Mar­riott In­ter­na­tional from mo­bile de­vices has quadru­pled, said Ge­orge Corbin, se­nior vice pres­i­dent for dig­i­tal at the ho­tel chain. In ad­di­tion, 75 per­cent of all Mar­riott guests used a smart­phone, tablet or lap­top dur­ing their most re­cent stay. “This space is mov­ing so fast,” he said. “We sort of take a bite at a time” in re­fin­ing tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ments.

And that is in­dica­tive of what is hap­pen­ing in the ho­tel in­dus­try. Mar­riott was among the early tech­nol­ogy adopters, hav­ing in­tro­duced an app in early 2012 that of­fered the abil­ity to book a ho­tel room. Since then, the com­pany has added fea­tures that al­low guests to use the app to check in and check out; re­ceive an alert when a room is ready; make re­quests of the ho­tel staff; and, in at least 500 lo­ca­tions, un­lock a room.

Tech­nol­ogy also helps to re­solve prob­lems. A quar­ter of Mar­riott’s guests have an is­sue, prob­lem or ques­tion dur­ing their stay, Corbin said. But guests whose prob­lems were solved the first time they con­tacted the ho­tel “re­port higher sat­is­fac­tion than peo­ple who had no prob­lem at all,” he said.

For Tina Am­ber, 64, who trav­els with her hus­band to visit fam­ily and ex­plore the world, apps are a way of life.

“I like the abil­ity to do things with the click of a but­ton,” said Am­ber, a re­tired re­tail ex­ec­u­tive who lives in Pleasan­ton. When she and her hus­band drive from the Bay Area to San Diego to visit two of their grand­chil­dren, they stop at the Bacara Re­sort and Spa in Santa Bar­bara County, where she re­lies on the iPad in the room to make all her plans.

Tech­nol­ogy, she said, has be­come her con­stant com­pan­ion. “If a ho­tel doesn’t have it, I’m some­what put off.”

Shayne Pad­dock, chief in­no­va­tion of­fi­cer for guest man­age­ment so­lu­tions at Trav­elClick, an e-com­merce ser­vice provider for ho­tels, said dif­fer­ent guests wanted dif­fer­ent things.

“For hos­pi­tal­ity, you don’t want to lose the hu­man ele­ment,” Pad­dock said. The aim is “to blend tech­nol­ogy with the hu­man side if you want to be suc­cess­ful in this space. Not us­ing cool tech­nol­ogy for the sake of cool tech­nol­ogy.”

Mak­ing things eas­ier for guests is the goal, said Carol Beggs, di­rec­tor of tech­nol­ogy at Chatham Bars Inn, a re­sort more than a cen­tury old on Cape Cod in Mas­sachusetts. “You can book on­line, not just rooms but ev­ery­thing else,” she added.

By May or June, Beggs said, she ex­pects guests to be able to book “an­cil­lary ac­tiv­i­ties,” like a ca­bana or a sail­boat, on the ho­tel’s web­site or app us­ing “smart­phones, lap­top, phone, what­ever method you want to use.”

At the Wash­ing­ton Mar­riott Ge­orge­town in Wash­ing­ton, which has just un­der­gone a $28 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion that in­cluded an up­date of its tech­nol­ogy, guests can use mo­bile re­quests to ob­tain tick­ets to a show at the Kennedy Cen­ter, make din­ner reser­va­tions or have maps ready for them when they re­turn to the ho­tel.

The dig­i­tal con­ve­niences are among the ways ho­tels are “try­ing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate from each other and from Airbnb, and wean off of on­line travel agen­cies,” said Lor­raine Sileo, se­nior vice pres­i­dent for re­search at Pho­cuswright, a travel in­dus­try re­search firm. They want to “grab you in the search process and book­ing process and in the des­ti­na­tion. They want to have that re­la­tion­ship with you.” It’s not pos­si­ble. We need to be smart about poli­cies so they last. I’ve spent a lot of time work­ing, not just with en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists but with in­dus­try to look at how do we work to­gether as op­posed to fight­ing.

Q: There is ap­par­ently quite a de­bate go­ing on within the White House about whether or not to stick with the Paris cli­mate ac­cord. If you were to make an ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of it to this ad­min­is­tra­tion, what would you say?

A: Look, I think the Paris agree­ment is a flex­i­ble agree­ment. And so the new ad­min­is­tra­tion could take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to it. I also think it’s the eco­nomic case — that there is a real eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity to do what we want to do in Canada and what the U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to do, which is to cre­ate good jobs for the most num­ber of peo­ple, to fos­ter in­no­va­tion. We are see­ing amaz­ing new Amer­i­can com­pa­nies — like Tesla — that are cre­at­ing wealth and jobs.

Also, I think that it’s just bet­ter to be at the ta­ble.

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