High-tech travel comes to hotels
by HEATHER NEWMAN
Walk into your room — which is already set to your favorite temperature — and the lights come on.
Order room service by remote control or by touch screen on the computerized phone by your bed. When you’re done eating and place that room service tray outside your door, it calls silently to housekeeping until it’s picked up.
Hotels have been slow to adopt technology, compared with the people who stay in them. But they’re making up for lost time, experimenting with dozens of new high-tech ways to attract and keep customers, cut costs and stand out among the competition.
“Travelers today are really sophisticated in terms of technology,” said Abigail Lorden, editor of Hospitality Technology magazine. “They are the next generation of travelers. That’s the direction hotels need to go.”
So Hilton hotels use databases to track customer preferences down to the last detail; the Mandarin Oriental New York allows you to watch podcasts on your hotel room TV; and the new MotorCity Casino hotel in Detroit sets the temperature in your room to the exact degree you want before you walk in the door.
The trick is balancing the sometimes cold feel of high tech in an industry that is, by necessity, high-touch — that is, based on the care and service of people’s personal needs, said Rob Rush, chief executive of LRA Worldwide in Philadelphia, a consulting and research company focusing on the customer experience at hotels, gambling and leisure businesses.
“Technology does not have a front seat at the table. Not from a guest perspective,” he said. “They’re selling a good night’s rest. Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. I use it all the time. But it doesn’t put a smile on your face.”
So some hotels that had computerized things such as wake-up calls are going back to the old, labor-intensive way of doing things, he said — having a real live person make the call — after research determined that customers don’t like being awakened by machines.
That hasn’t stopped the industry from experimenting. From the great to the iffy, here’s some of what you’ll see when you walk in the door, especially in higher-end hotels:
•Self-service kiosks for checking in and out. Hotels including the Club Quarters in New York continue to play with these, even though customer reaction has been mixed, Rush said. Business travelers making a beeline for their room or a departing cab are grateful to skip the front-desk lines.
•Fancy TV. Because all hotels need to have digital TVs installed soon to keep up with federal regulations that will require digital television signals, most are choosing to upgrade to fancy flat-screen high-definition models.
That’s enabling hotels to do things they’ve never been able to do before, said Douglas Rice, executive vice president and chief executive of the Hotel Technology Next Generation Group, in Schaumberg, Ill.
For instance, hotels such as the new MGM Grand in Detroit can deliver television signals over traditional computer networks that link the hundreds of TVs in the building (instead of traditional coaxial cables).
That opens the door to providing Internet content — flight schedules, weather at your next destination — on your TV, but it also makes it possible for hotel owners to provide more personalized content, Rice said.
Soon, you might be able to get your favorite hometown channels and news while you’re on the road, he said, as the hotel brings them in from national providers in the same way that you get local channels from your national cable or satellite company.