The last thing weary travelers want to do is to wait in line for their hotel room key.
That’s what hotel chains believe, and thanks to technology, they have already begun to offer entry via smartphone.
In the hotel room of the future technology will simplify things. There will be one less plastic card to lose and technology will anticipate your needs, switching on lights or dispatching a robot to deliver extra towels or pillows.
Keyless entry is available at the Aloft Hotel in Vaughan, where people can check in using the Starwood app, get a notification when their room is ready, and be sent their room number, without talking to anyone.
“It’s very easy to lose your key, but you never lose your phone,” said Matt Rattray, general manager of the hotel, next to the Vaughan Mills shopping mall. “Guests like to bypass the front desk.”
On a recent visit, Rattray found three guests had used the keyless entry program by early afternoon, though they must have stayed previously at that hotel at least once to bypass the front desk entirely.
And don’t think about using it as a way to sneak around for secret trysts, because only one guest can use their smartphone at a time. That smartphone can also unlock central spaces such as the pool, fitness centre and guest laundry.
Rattray says the Aloft hotel focuses on technology, ensuring a 100 megabits per second speed for its Wi-Fi, which is available throughout the hotel — along with plenty of outlets where users can charge devices at tables in the lobby.
That reflects a growing desire for the third place – not your home, not your office, but another space to work. Call it the Starbucks effect, where people want to be with others, even if they don’t know them, tapping away in the hotel lobby.
The hotel also offers a Plug and Play feature in individual rooms, where guests can hook up their devices whether it’s a tablet or laptop to the TV to play their preferred content.
Technology is also used behind the scenes – where a sensor on the door can tell someone is in the room. If a guest adjusts room temperature, it will stay the same until someone leaves, then the thermostat reverts to a pre-set level.
Paige Francis, vice-president global brand management for Aloft, Element and Four Points Sheraton, says hotels are testing how to adapt service with technology.
“The next kind of innovation is how to personalize the experience,” Francis said, everything from lighting, wakeup calls, and maybe getting your coffee started in the morning based on the wakeup time.
“The technology is there. We need to work through how it works in the hotel environment,” she said. “The future is just around the corner.”
The Starwood chain has the Botlr — a robot that can deliver items to guests. But it can’t knock, so it’s programmed to call a room on arrival so the guest can retrieve their item.
Similarly, the Hilton chain introduced Connie, a Watson-enabled robot concierge at its McLean, Va., hotel this spring. Named after Hilton Worldwide’s founder Conrad, the robot, developed by IBM, can tell guests what to visit, where to dine, and how to find anything at the property.
The idea behind the robot is to get rid of customer pain points such as waiting in line to ask an employee a question, to help the hotel operate more efficiently and to surprise customers.
“When I think back to Connie, in a lot of ways, it checks all of those boxes for us,” said Jim Holthouser, executive vice-president for global brands at Hilton.
“If you can offload the 10 most frequently asked questions to a front desk person, you’re freeing that person up to check people in faster, anticipate guest needs and react to requests faster,” he said.
Connie, about 60 centimetres tall, can move its arms and legs. When a guest asks for directions, for instance, it can move itself to literally point in the right direction. Its eyes light up in different colors to express understanding, confusion, and other emotions.
Technology is also helping guests make choices long before they arrive.
All Hilton brand hotels have digitized maps of their facilities so guests can choose their rooms in advance, whether it’s close to the elevator or on a higher floor. Or they can choose to be next to door to friends and family who also staying at the same location — or not — Holthouser added.
Through an app, guests can request champagne or pop that is waiting for them in their rooms. With a partnership with Uber, guests can use app to hail a ride, as well as find real-time listings of popular restaurants or entertainment attractions based on Uber drop-offs.
Eventually, the company expects the smartphone app will be able to act as a remote control for all TV makes, and will change the settings on the room’s thermostat.
Beyond using technology, hotels are looking at other ways to meet needs.
“Guests are no longer tethered in that room with that blue cord that you have to use to get high-speed internet. That really changes the behaviour,” said Matthew Carroll, Marriott’s vice-president of global brand management, adding on average their customers travel with three different devices. “But they want to be untethered in the room.”
The Marriott chain took a social media beating earlier this year when travelers complained about a decision to remove traditional desks as they updated some rooms.
“There are some areas where we might have pushed things too far, I think the desk is one of those,” said Carroll.
“Where we didn’t provide enough of that functionality – to work in the room,” he said, “We have made changes to the hotels that are going to roll out the new room moving forward as well as looking back at the hotels we have renovated – and looking to put more functional workspaces back in.”
It won’t be the big old wooden desk that takes up one side of a room, but could be a smaller workstation, or even a table near sitting area, to give travellers multiple places where they can work with a laptop or tablet.
That means some rooms might also have a chaise lounge, with a small work surface.
“We understand and recognize, our guests do work in the room – and we need to provide that functional workspace, with great seating and lighting, all those key elements,” Carroll said, but these days, people might be checking emails while watching TV.
Holthouser says the Hilton hotel chain hasn’t eliminated desks because people need a place to work.
At the new Tru chain, a segment below the Hampton Inn, with smaller rooms, it introduced a combination desk and chair. “Our solution is not meant to eliminate desks. I think they will evolve,” he said.
But one of the biggest challenges for hotels, especially in urban downtown locations with high real estate prices, is to make smaller rooms more functional.
Extra space is left to create for social spots in public as more guests want to gather in small groups, or even hang out by themselves, but surrounded by strangers.
As long as there’s a Wi-Fi connection, now that people can be freed from that blue cord.
More Exciting New Hotel Tech
Hotels are using robots to do some repetitive tasks, such as fetching extra towels or pillows. The Hilton chain has Connie, while at Starwood, there’s the Botlr, which executives say frees up staff to help guest with other more important tasks.
Mirror, mirror, where’s my news?
Some hotels are testing ways to deliver information such as weather and news headlines, including on a mirror in the guest’s room. The latest news could be constantly updated and possibly streamlined depending on interest. But it can be turned off.
Light my way
Even though a hotel room is familiar, in many ways it can be unfamiliar. When guests are staying in an unfamiliar setting, it can be easy to trip on the way to the bathroom at night or stub a toe on a dresser. Sensors under the carpet could trigger lights to come on if someone is up.
Plug and play
With travellers arriving with multiple devices, often loaded with favourite shows or movies, hotels are making sure they can be played on the room’s TV. Marriott has partnered with Netflix so users can hook up their accounts.
Business travellers will tell you that every hotel room looks the same, and a club sandwich is always on the room-service menu. Hotels are trying to differentiate the rooms, adding little features to reflect their cities. Food and beverage menus tend to showcase the best in local, as well.
Marriott says its check-in and check-out service on its app is popular, and it lets guests use chat feature to ask specific questions. “You don’t have to interrupt your day to connect to the hotel or walk out to call the hotel. They are working on it, while you are busy,” said Marriott’s Matthew Carroll.
Hotels.com will ask guests to send real-time reviews upon check-in — click on a smiley face or frowny face to a few simple questions including the room and location, and problems can be promptly fixed. “Hotels want the guests to be happy. They don’t want the guests to give bad reviews,” said Josh Belkin of Hotels.com.
Artist in residence
New York’s W Hotel in Union Square is showing off the work of artists, kicking off its “artist in residence” program, with Toronto’s Maxwell Burnstein, drawing on the influence of the location with handmade and graphic vinyl artwork. Those who book a suite received a limited-edition print. Guests also have a chance to take part in a collage workshop with Burnstein.