The 'Wow' Factor

By George Koroneos, Contributing Editor | December 10, 2008

In this era of iPods and affordable 50-inch plasma televisions, hotels are having a harder time tantalizing their customers with the same technologies that guests probably already have at home. To compensate for the lack of wow-factor, many hotels are doing the next best thing: personalizing the technology that hotels already have to fit their guests' wants and needs.

"We view personalization as a very important part of the whole guest experience," says Brian Flaherty, vice president of operations at MTM Luxury Lodging (www.mtmluxurylodging.com), owners of the Hotel 1000 in Seattle (www.hotel1000seattle.com). "Anything we can do to improve the guest experience, and to enhance the memory making and emotional connection that they attach to the visit, further distinguishes us from our competitors."

Customer relationship now
The easiest way to custom-tailor a guest's stay is to add a customer relationship management (CRM) tool to an existing property management system (if available). With this feature installed, hotel operators can track guest purchasing habits, preferences, and suggestions.

"The challenge with CRM is making sure that you are discreet and respectful to the guest," Flaherty says. "We always leave it to our guests to tell us what they want. Once the preferences are entered into the software, the macro functions are engaged every time the guest comes back."

Hilton (www.hilton.com) offers guests the option to sign up for its Requests Upon Arrival program, which allows guests to choose their own preferences online and have everything from extra down pillows to their favorite snacks waiting for them when they enter their room. It's kind of like hotel rooms a la carte.

Some hotels are taking this technology one step further by hardwiring their entire hotel to be controlled by the CRM system. For instance, at Hotel 1000, if a guest tells the hotel what his or her preferences are (say, the temperature set to 75 degrees, or they prefer a particular type of music) it will be set remotely when the guest walks into the room.

Hotel 1000 took their PAR Springer-Miller (www.springermiller.com) pro-perty management system one step further by giving guests control over the style of art that's displayed in the guestroom. Using massive monitors mounted in picture frames, the client can request digitized versions of world renowned artwork and photographs. The artwork is controlled wirelessly and preferences are stored in the CRM system.

The independently owned, 47-room Malibu Beach Inn (www.malibubeachinn.com) calls its CRM component "hidden personalization." What's that? According to managing director Alan Goldschneider, it is the Inn's secret weapon. Imagine you're in a hotel restaurant and you are drinking a bottle of Merlot. The next time you come back to the Inn, that bottle of Merlot is in the personal wine cellar that's in every room.

"It's taking the information we already have in our Springer-Miller system and using it to personalize the stay," Goldschneider says. "It doesn't cost you anything to do it and the rewards are amazing."

I'm a Mac
The Malibu Beach Inn sports a nifty gadget to help guests have a more pleasant stay. Two years ago, Goldschneider developed a seven-inch by seven-inch square touch screen application that sat in the desks of every room. On that screen, guests could view personalized content including local weather, hometown news, etc. "It was basically taking kiosk technology and making it individualized for each customer."

To streamline the technology, Goldschneider hired Runtriz (www.runtriz.com) to take the homemade software application and translate it onto a portable Apple iPod Touch (www.apple.com) that can then be loaned out to guests during their stay.

"We ask people when they arrive if they have an iTouch or an iPhone, and if they don't, we offer them a complimentary one for the duration of their stay," Goldschneider explains. "It allows them to control their stay at their demand. For example, if a guest lying poolside is ready for a drink or food, they simply pick up the iTouch and order it remotely."

The customization is also extensive: guests can book spa treatments, order room service, set wake up calls, request a car from valet, make a reservation at a local restaurant, and buy items from the gift boutique.

Besides the purchase of the iTouches and licenses for the software, the only component that needed to be installed was a wireless network. Rather than use repeaters to spread the existing signal, the Inn splurged and put two TrendNet (www.trendnet.com) access points on every floor for dead-zone-free coverage.

You can do that on television
iPhones might be hot, but televisions have also changed a lot over the years. Flat screen LCD and plasma units are becoming the norm and pay-per-view is taking a backseat to digital content.

"Many hotels are still trying to decide how to get a real revenue stream out of the television, perhaps by delivering advertising content from local restaurants or spas," says Pearl Brewer, professor of lodging and tourism at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "Properties still deliver movies, but that revenue is going down because people can bring their own content personalized to their tastes."

Chicago-area hotel operator F&F Realty (www.fandfrealty.com) decided that rather than trying to sell pay-per-view movies and Internet access as separate billable items, it would create an enticing packaged deal to give  guests all their entertainment for one flat fee.

"We offer a system where guests receive full Internet access, customized when the guest checks in with their name and pertinent information," says Eli Finestone, director of e-commerce at F&F Realty. "They can pull up their folio to view any purchases they've made, and the entire guest directory is listed on the screen."

All this is done through the television using a RoomLinX (www.roomlinx.com) system, which F&F placed in every guest room. The content management devices are wired to a server in the basement via CAT6 cable, and the system is controlled via a remote and a keyboard. Does this sound too similar to the dying WebTV system? Finestone says the differences are night and day. "WebTV just didn't work. The speeds were too slow and it was really just a portal that you searched through."

The system also includes a suite of business applications, allowing business users to load Microsoft Word or Excel documents for editing on the 32-inch monitors. Documents can then be printed directly to the business center.

Television content isn't just limited to entertainment. Flyte Systems (www.flytesystems.com), a provider of streaming airline information in the lobby area, has shrunk its application for use on almost any television, a huge boon for convention and group hotels.

The program lists all flights in and out of the local airport, and notifies guests of any delays or cancellations. As an added bonus, guests can print their boarding passes at the front desk.

"We offer the system on a free channel as part of our in-room system," explains Rudi Rainer, GM of Adams Mark Buffalo (www.adamsmark.com). "The cost was minimal, and it was as easy to install as ordering a new channel."

Obviously, a system like this might seem unnecessary considering most guests are tethered to their laptop or smart phone, but Rainer insists that  its ease-of-use is a plus. Guests don't always want to open their PC, log-in, search, and log-out, he says.

What time is it?
Alarm clocks might not seem like such a big deal in the grand scheme of hospitality, but experts recommend that properties consider installing one with a built-in auto-reset component. Every day, the alarm clock resets itself and shuts off to keep it from going off after the guest leaves.

"Ease-of-use must be the first focus; then you see what additional features you can add without affecting simplicity," Finestone says. "That's why the iPod was so great; everyone can figure out how to use it."

Something as basic as the inconsistency of the alarm clock across hotels, and the difficulty of setting it so that the alarm is correct, is a huge source of frustration for guests.

To make life easier, Hilton invested in a proprietary clock with streamlined controls. Rather than have to tune the radio individually, it has buttons on top that identify the type of music. If you go to a city and don't know what station plays what type of music, just press the "rock" button or the "classical" button and the radio tunes to the appropriate station.

Social networking
On the other end of the technology spectrum is personalization through social networking. "We want to create an environment in our lobbies that is energetic and very conducive to do things socially and functionally," says Matt Gaghen, global brand manager of Starwood Hotels (www.starwoodhotels.com).

To get there, the company teamed with Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) to create a video postcard that uses basic technology, such as Webcams and wireless communications. Guests sit down at a workstation and record a 30-second video postcard to send to family members. "It uses the basic Microsoft Webcam and a straightforward application and it gives a face to a name, rather than just sending an email," Gaghen says. "It was a chance for guests to reconnect with people they might be missing."

Installation was simple; Sheraton created a custom homepage portal at a computer workstation that runs on the in-house Internet system. Voila instant digital-video booth.

Hotel 1000 installed Microsoft Surface technology, a flat touchscreen monitor mounted in a table (which debuted in select Sheraton hotels), to display maps and points of interest in Seattle. It works much like the giant touch screen maps seen on news stations during the election, but much less confusing to operate. While Surface might be a bit future-forward to some, it is a great way for guests to feel more at home and personalize their trip to their needs.

"To me, it's not about being on the bleeding edge of technology, it's about being advanced and being sure that tech is user friendly," Gaghen says. "I don't want to beat the technophiles to the punch. I want to see what people want and make it so simple that they don't need to be trained when they enter their guest room. We are leading part of the adoption curve, but we don't want to be ahead of the cycle."

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