EyeforTravel’s Digital Strategy Summit

May 2019, London

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Hotel tech can inject soul into customer service, says Swiss hospitality school

Two associate professors from Les Roches argue the case for travel tech in a digitally evolving world

In the hospitality industry, digital transformation is now well underway, and is changing the way that travellers interact with brands before, during and after their journey. But there is still more to come if Gartner’s prediction that 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a human by 2020 is to be believed.

While not everybody may agree, our view is that far from pulling hospitality away from its soul as a people-centric industry, the adoption of new technologies can, if done correctly, help to deliver greater personalisation and better service. Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity and other new technologies, are all there to help businesses offer a more engaging brand experience while meeting and even anticipating guest needs.

Far from pulling hospitality away from its soul as a people-centric industry, the adoption of new technologies can help to deliver greater personalisation and better service

As a quick recap, from chatbots and robots to machine learning, AI is already present across the hospitality industry. Take Hilton’s Connie, which launched in 2016 and is powered by IBM Watson technology. Able to answer guest questions, handle check-ins and deliver discreet room service, this is one example of a ‘helpful’ robot that can lessen the burden on human staff, enabling them to spend more time giving guests that require personal interaction greater attention.

More recently, customer service robots have also been appearing in retail stores and airports; SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper, a humanoid robot developed with IBM Watson, has been introduced at Munich Airport and Václav Havel Airport Prague. Not only does this robot inform, it also entertains passengers by dancing and offering to take selfies – an example of how the technology is evolving to meet the needs of today’s traveller.

On Airbnb, travellers receive customised search results based on their browsing and booking history thanks to powerful machine learning algorithms. And chatbots, already in use by leading travel brands such as KLM, Kayak and Booking.com, provide customers with useful information, personalised recommendations and rapid response times. But AI also offers businesses an opportunity to further reflect their personality and develop brand loyalty: At The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, guests are invited to text Rose, the hotel’s “resident mischief-maker” and chatbot, for VIP access to clubs and other insider tips as well as room service requests. In addition to serving as a virtual concierge, Rose answers guests with humour; tell the bot ‘I love you,’ and Rose replies with a diamond ring emoji and the message, “Back that up with some hardware and we’ll talk.” According to Mamie Peers, Vice President Digital Marketing, guests who interact with Rose spend 30% more in the hotel than those who do not, and they are 33% happier when they leave.

For more insight, see Sassy, cosmopolitan Rose - the bot with brand power, EyeforTravel, May 24, 2017

Never forget a face

While technology is not a replacement for human interaction, lifelike features can make technology more appealing to users. Intuitive attributes such as facial recognition and voice activation can offer users faster service and a better customer experience. 

At Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland, face scanners enable guests to verify their identity at check-in, pick up a digital room key and gain access to the dining room at breakfast. The hotel has partnered with Chinese messaging and mobile payment app WeChat to offer travellers a seamlessly connected experience. It is, however, worth noting that only 40% of guests recommend the hotel, according to the ‘real guest’ reviews published on the site!

Ebookers, a travel site owned by Expedia, is another that is experimenting with real-time facial recognition software. It has introduced SenseSational, an online tool that tracks users' faces as they look at certain images and sounds on screen. The tool then reveals the user’s identity as one of four ‘tribes’ — The Adventurer, Culture Collector, Sun Seeker and Bon Vivant — and suggests destinations and activities that match the tribe's travel preferences.

Beyond the screen, facial recognition could have other practical uses soon, such as enabling swift check-in at meetings and events, and quick access to public transportation systems.

Many hotels worldwide have added in-room smart speakers and voice assistants that let guests simply say what they need, but this technology is also still in its early stages. As CEO Hans Meyer, who was interviewed for an EyeforTravel white paper – Cracking the Customer Experience – put it: “The last thing we want is a customer saying: ‘I slept with a home automation device. It was a very cool thing for five minutes then I started to hate it because it doesn’t work the way it should work.”

Still, there are opportunities for voice technology to enhance the guest experience, and even improve back-of-house efficiency. Two Roads Hospitality as an example has partnered with Amazon and Volara to develop a customised Alexa for Hospitality platform that facilitates daily tasks for staff, such as identifying maintenance problems or signaling that a room is ready for check-in.

Tailored to fit

The Internet of Things (IoT) provides opportunities to personalise a guest’s environment. This is likely to be most useful for business travellers who are more likely to stay at the same hotel time and again. By knowing a guest’s past preferences, air temperature, lighting, music and so on can be set to just the right levels using an in-room tablet, smart speaker or their own smartphone. Luxury hotels like The Plaza New YorkAria in Las Vegas, The Torch Doha in Qatar and GHM Hotels have all introduced high-tech smart rooms. Meanwhile, Hilton has developed its own proprietary IoT platform, and Marriott has partnered with Legrand and Samsung’s ARTIK cloud-based IoT platform. Both hotel chains are aiming to roll out IoT connectivity across their properties.

Our view is that integration of IoT within hospitality could prove especially attractive among mobile-savvy millennial and Gen Z travellers, and could help to set them apart from tough competitors like Airbnb and HomeAway. Why? Because a seamlessly customised experience is challenging for private residences or boutique hotels to offer, even if they have some smart technology on the premises.

Loyalty and blockchain

In 2018, blockchain dominated headlines with its promise of offering transparency, security and control, and the potential to change business models across industries. In hospitality, it can revitalise loyalty programmes by ensuring that points are kept securely and can be exchanged across multiple platforms; Japanese e-commerce platform Rakuten has announced plans to transition its loyalty points into Rakuten Coins, its own digital currency. 

By eliminating the need for a middleman, this technology enables hotels to offer prices that are 20% lower without affecting profits.

Blockchain transactions also eliminate the need for third-party mediators, which could be a game changer in the world of OTAs. LockTrip, is one blockchain-based hotels and vacation rentals marketplace, that enables hotels to manage bookings and guests to make reservations without a commission being taken from either side. Travellers can browse hotel listings with prices given in LOC, a cryptocurrency whose exchange rate is shown in real time. To book, users pay the equivalent amount in euros, pounds or dollars, which is converted to LOC. The amount in LOC is released to the hotel once the guest checks out, and the hotel can then convert the cryptocurrency into their preferred currency. By eliminating the need for a middleman, this technology enables hotels to offer prices that are 20% lower without affecting profits.

Whether designed to save guests time or money, offer discretion or convenience, new technologies will continue to transform the hospitality industry and the guest experience. At the same time, by facilitating day-to-day duties, technology creates new opportunities for staff to build the customer relationships that are at the very heart of the hospitality industry.

This guest post was penned by Riccardo Campione and Dr Alain Imboden, Associate Professors at Les Roches, the Global Hospitality Management School based in Switzerland.

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