In-room technology should be so good guests don't have to make an effort, with automatic check-in, mobile pairing and super-fast food ordering. Ben Walker looks at what's on offer
The technology used in guest rooms mostly deals with getting into the room, turning on the lights, adjusting the temperature settings and using the TV. With a typical hotel stay often being just one or two nights, the key to achieving high guest satisfaction is to ensure all these crucial functions are as simple to perform as possible.
"Expecting guests to follow instructions is a big no. Make sure all iPads and TV remote controls are fully charged. This should be a standard operating procedure, like emptying the bins," says Tristan Gadsby, chief executive of customer experience consultants Alliants.
RFID (radio frequency ID)-enabled locks have the capability to allow guests to access rooms with their mobile phones, but only around 10% of hotels offer this service. Even hotels that do offer mobile keys find that take-up from guests is low and that a plastic swipe card is often preferred.
Once in the room, a hotel's Internet of Things (IoT) network can trigger a variety of actions. An occupancy sensor, typically mounted in the ceiling, tells the building management system (BMS) when a person is present. Such systems are good at reducing energy consumption because rooms can be set to a ‘dormant' state when unoccupied.
Some hotels now allow guests to stream their own content from their devices onto the in-room TV plus watch the latest movies, series, and sport on demand. TVs can also be used as advertising billboards and booking portals. Some hotels offer guests the option of controlling their rooms via an app or iPad. "Although digital solutions deliver a host of operational and financial benefits, they are still a choice," says Gadsby. "Hotels need to have an alternative in place for those guests who are not tech-friendly or whose phone or iPad have simply run out. Even for a tech-savvy person, some of the room controls in hotels are not easy to operate and ways to simplify them would be welcomed by many guests."
Mollie's automatic TV casting
Mollie's, the motel and diner brand created by Soho House, has proven that a sophisticated digital-first service model is possible for lower-priced limited-service hotels. Created in collaboration with Alliants, the Mollie's app allows a range of services, including remote check-in, omni-channel messaging and the free booking of EV charging bays. But arguably, its standout feature is that guests' phones are automatically paired with the TV as a remote control and their personal streaming accounts are directly cast onto the in-room TV screen. According to Ben Clifford, co-founder and chief technology officer of Nevaya, Mollie's TV system supplier, this pairing can take place even before the guest reaches the room.
"If the guest has already checked in and had a room assigned, we can extract that information from their mobile to just pair it up with the room's TV," he says.
This commitment to removing any instance of the guest having to follow instructions or perform manual tasks is also reflected in the design of the TV controls on the app. "The app allows you to be context-aware. So, if the guest has turned on the TV, the app will show the channel buttons. If the TV is off, the app will simply show a big green ‘on' button, making it nice and simple," he says.
Clifford claims that manually casting a device to a TV can be a tricky task with only a 50/50 chance of success and something many hotel guests do not want to bother with. The reason for the high performance and stability of the automatic casting service at Mollie's is the truly joined up and cloud-native tech stack, which has been created as a key strategic asset to simplify the brand's expansion.
Because of the inherent difficulty surrounding casting, some TV system providers are offering the option of directly logging into streaming accounts via apps on the TV home page. This method has several disadvantages. Guests are unlikely to remember their log in details or have them to hand, and even if they do, no one enjoys having to type with a TV remote instead of a keyboard.
"It's a terrible guest experience – it's hideous. Really, how much do you hate your guests?" comments Clifford, who adds that putting passwords that are linked to payment details directly into a shared piece of hardware (the TV) constitutes a significant security risk.
As for music, Mollie's has curated its own playlists which are accessible via the app, TV, and website which guests can take with them on their outward journeys.
CitizenM's Mood Pad and AI-driven network
Since launching in 2008, hotel brand CitizenM has had a "wholly guest-centric" approach to technology, holding the belief that any innovation or update should enhance the guest experience and contribute to a frictionless stay, says chief information officer Mike Rawson.
During the pandemic, CitizenM, which has four hotels in London and one in Glasgow, upgraded its technology to create a contactless experience whereby guests use an app to open their rooms with their phones; bypass the check-in kiosk and passport scanning; control their room (usually via an in-room iPad); order food and beverages and opt in or out of housekeeping.
"These tech innovations ensure guests have a minimal-fuss experience and are able to decide for themselves the level of contact they wish to have with staff," says Rawson. "That said, our ambassadors are always ready to help or just chat with a smile on their faces."
CitizenM claims that fast, intuitive tech is the company's unique selling point. "Gone are the days of spending 10 minutes trying to find the light switch which controls that one lamp in the corner of the bathroom, or of having to be a rocket scientist to change the room temperature," says Rawson.
Everything in the room can be controlled via the room's iPad (known as a Mood Pad) or the app. Guests can also choose from a selection of pre-programmed settings which are clearly labelled, eg by romance or business. A Smart TV allows guests to access entertainment options and channels, including exercise routines provided by GymBox. They can also stream content from their own devices using the TV's built-in Chromecast feature.
All of the above is, of course, entirely reliant on a robust Wi-Fi infrastructure. CitizenM is migrating its 31 hotels and Amsterdam headquarters to a new network with AI capabilities, it was announced this March. Juniper Networks says its wireless, wired and security infrastructure has been deployed at the London Victoria station hotel and three other properties.
A glance at a cloud portal allows CitizenM staff to see the quality of each network and AI proactively detects and troubleshoots anomalies, the tech provider says, leading to a Wi-Fi network that is reliable and measurable. Automation reduces the time and effort required to set up and manage secure IT networks in new locations, Juniper added.
Pan Pacific London's intelligent room control unit
Within each of Pan Pacific London's 237 room and suites there are two occupancy sensors, one in the bedroom and one in the bathroom. The system, supplied by VDA Group, detects when a room has been opened from the outside, then automatically switches on the lights and opens the curtains to welcome the guest. For guests who arrive after sunset, the lights are dimmed and set at 50%.
The hotel, in Bishopsgate in the City of London, has solenoid water valves that ‘click on' when guests enter the room, enabling them to use the bathroom facilities. When a guest leaves, the room control unit detects when the door has been opened from the inside and reverses the entry sequence. So, if a guest has left a tap running, the tap will turn off automatically when the room is vacated.
The TV switches on once the room has changed from vacant to occupied status. This action is triggered separately by the property management system. The TV turns on once the guest checks in at reception and it displays a welcome screen with the guest's name when they enter their room for the first time, providing a personalised touch.
Anne Golden, general manager of Pan Pacific London, says: "We use the TV as our virtual guest directory. Usually, guest directories are printed so we are saving on print costs and reducing our paper usage by listing all information about our hotel on the TV. Guests can find restaurant and bar opening times, seasonal recommendations, where to find the pool, how to book a treatment on the Sensory wellbeing floor, and more."
The home page of the TV displays a link to the Airtime app, a hospitality-specific streaming service that has agreements in place to provide Hollywood films weeks before their general release. When a room is vacant, the set temperature is 22°C but this can go up or down by four degrees. This means the room can cool to 18°C before heating up, and warm up to 26°C before cooling and the fan will switch off. When the room is occupied, the unit is still at 22°C but with a narrower band of one degree either way. During the summer months, the set point is reduced to 21°C. To maximise simplicity, light, temperature, and curtain switches have pictorial displays.
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