Hotels have always been interesting places to test and use the latest technology. Some work, some don’t, some hotels decide to incorporate technology almost for the sake of it (the iPad on the Front Desk is one example), others take a more nuanced approach. There are three areas of technology that we could see much more of in the hotel industry in the years to come. Virtual Reality has finally begun to hit the mainstream, after years of promise, Artificial Intelligence is still in its infancy, but we can begin to see its applications for the hotel industry. Lastly, while not a ‘technology’ in itself, cyber security will become more of a priority for hotels, as they start to realize that the detailed information they have on their guests is vulnerable to attack.
The many realities of virtual reality
The latest technology to start making waves in the media and around the world is Virtual Reality (VR). VR essentially recreates sensory experiences, such as sight, sound and even smell and taste – virtually. It is finally becoming more advanced, and thanks to mobile technology is becoming accessible on a mass scale. Users are able to experience VR using nothing but a Google cardboard viewer and a Samsung smartphone. Major news organizations such as The Guardian and New York Times have rolled out VR stories and invited their readers to experience the news first hand.
VR will continue to develop, simply because there is a huge amount of money to be made. The last study conducted by Manchester United football club (competed in 2013) put the number of worldwide fans at 659 million adults. With a stadium seating capacity of 75,769, there will be a significant number of fans who will never step foot at a live match, despite a deep emotional desire to see their team perform. If Manchester United could develop a VR experience which allowed their fans around the world to watch every match live via pitch-side seat, not only this but have the option of walking onto the pitch with the players, or hovering above, then their weekly match attendance would shoot from 75,769, to potentially 659 million.
While a hotel brand may not have as many fans as Manchester United, there are still massive opportunities to integrate VR into the overall customer experience, as well as applications for staff training.
As more and more customers are becoming concerned about where their food comes from, VR can transport the guest back to the farm, allowing them to see the source of their steak or fish filet. Hotels can provide VR tours of their hotels, allowing potential guests to experience their rooms as they were there, seeing the view from the window and the room setup. Perhaps they could even choose how they want their room laid out before they book, by moving the furniture around in their VR mode.
Staff training potentially holds the most promise for VR. Training facilities already exist, developed by Lockheed Martin, that allow US soldiers to train under highly realistic battlefield scenarios, testing their leadership and decision making skills in stressful and kinetic environments. Not only does this provide relevant and realistic training, but comes as a fraction of the cost of more traditional training programs.
The same can be applied to employee training in the hotel industry. Hotels are busy and at times stressful places to work. No two days are the same and one minute you can be dealing with an angry customer demanding a different room, the next minute you can be dealing with a burst pipe, or singing happy birthday to a special guest. VR lends itself perfectly to recreating these types of scenarios, and training employees and leaders on how to deal with them.
The most promising aspect is the multiplayer capability of VR. Today, gamers can play games with thousands of other participants, they can communicate via voice-over-protocol and work as a team to defeat their virtual opponents. The same principle can be applied to hospitality training, with restaurant managers working with their teams to overcome a particular problem, Front Office Managers working with multiple departments to deal with two, three or four different problems.
Not only will this training result in better, more intelligent and confident employees, but it will also come at a fraction of the cost of traditional training. VR is available via mobile, all you need is a smartphone and the appropriate VR casing (such as Google cardboard viewer), and you are able to train an entire workforce.
Artificial Intelligence – better unseen
Think of Artificial Intelligence and hotels and, inevitably, robot butlers come to mind. In July 2015, the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki opened its doors, but on arrival, guests were welcomed by robots, instead of the usual Front Office ‘human’ staff. The robots are able to make eye contact and have face-recognition technology embedded within them allowing them to recognize repeat guests, as well as detect their temperatures.
In August 2015 Aloft South Beach, USA, debuted a robot butler that delivered room service, called Botlr. The robot is able to deliver basic room service amenities such as bottled water, food and towels. Located at the Front Desk, the robot is able to deliver goods to the guest in his or her room, or by the pool, in an average of three minutes, as compared to 30 minutes it would take a human. At $20,000, this piece of equipment could potentially pay itself back many times over in the course of its lifetime.
While robot butlers and Front Office staff certainly capture the public’s imagination, they are unlikely to evolve into anything more than a gimmick, and actually replace staff, at least not on a mass scale. Research has shown that we still prefer human interaction, and robots have a long way to go before they are able to hold a proper conversation – as anyone who has listened to a bank’s automated answering machine will attest.
The real value of AI will emerge behind the scenes, in the back-of-house area. For instance, AI could be used to forecast staff skills sets, and match them directly to the relevant job in real-time. For example, it would know that a group of Japanese tourists are due to check in in three days, it would identify the best, most qualified group of employees to deal with these guests and automatically assign them to work on those days the guests will be in house. It could also initiate a short term Japan-specific training program, where staff are given refreshers on Japanese language, habits and potential pitfalls etc. The data gained through mobile and online learning would feed directly into the system, allowing it to identify and assign the most suitable employees for the most suitable tasks.
AI can also be used to forecast stock and supplies. Knowing that during the next three weeks the hotel occupancy will be particularly high, thanks to a group of US delegates visiting for a major conference, the system will ensure extra food is brought in, including extra burger patties and fries. It would know when the major city events will take place throughout the year, and what number and demographic of delegate will attend, as well as stay at the hotel. Based on this data it will be able to make the necessary orders.
The damaging dangers of data
While data will enable the hotel to provide a higher level of service for less, there are also huge dangers that come from the shift towards technology. Cybersecurity is not something that is necessarily a priority for many hotels, despite a slew of attacks over the past year aimed mostly at credit card data. Hilton reported in September 2015 that it was investigating a credit card breach in several of its US-based properties, The Trump Hotel Collection also suffered from an attack at many of its properties, as did Starwood following the announcement of its acquisition by Marriott. It is only a matter of time before one or two major hotels suffer from a high-profile cyber-attack that targets actual customer data – including information on what they purchased and habits, and they will soon have to incorporate cybersecurity training into their learning programs.
Hotels possess a huge amount of often very personal data on their guests, some of whom are very high profile, including politicians, celebrities and businesspersons. A cybersecurity breach could expose some seriously sensitive information, significantly damaging the hotel brand. If high profile guests believe that their data will be exposed if they stay at a particular hotel, there is no way they would stay. This would have a trickle-down effect to regular guests as well.
Here is a fictitious, but ultimately plausible, scenario. Hollywood couple Mr. and Mrs. Celebrity check in to a top hotel in Kuala Lumpur. They are in Malaysia on their last leg of their world tour and a due to launch their latest album the next month. Their brand is built on the fact that they are sweet and well-meaning, they eschew alcohol and partying, and promote a healthy, wholesome lifestyle.
During their stay, however, hackers easily circumvent the weak to non-existent hotel online security features. Through the WiFi system, they gain access to all of their e-mails, including some sent from the couple which are particularly disparaging about fellow celebrities and even their Malaysian hosts – perhaps normal in Hollywood, but completely at odds with the image they want to portray. Even more damaging, hackers gain access to the hotel CMS, and are able to view every single item that they ordered during their stay. This, of course, includes large amounts of alcohol, and room service notes on the large end-of-tour party they held, including invoices for TVs and vases that were broken.
The hackers quickly sold this information to major US tabloids, who took no time in spreading the news across their front pages. Suddenly, their album launch was cancelled, and their legions of young fans left them in droves. This is not an unrealistic scenario, and the celebrities could easily be replaced by heads of state, potentially exposing sensitive security secrets, business leaders exposing company strategies and other secrets, or human rights activists who are targeted by corrupt or venal governments.
The damage to the hotel brand would be just as significant, even existential. Experian, T-Mobile, Sony Pictures and others are now tainted by the hacking scandals that affected them, but for a high profile hotel chain whose Unique Selling Point (USP) is the ability to look after their guests in privacy and safety, a cyber breach would undermine their greatest selling point, leading to a flight of high-paying guests and potentially irreparable damage to the brand.
Alongside more investment in cybersecurity measures such as software and the hiring of experts, staff training will play a significant role in reducing the risk of a high-profile cyberattack. Hotels will need to start with ‘cyber basics’ – simple things like changing passwords regularly, and implementing two-step verification – and instilling these habits among their staff. This may sound like common sense, but in one major attack that made headline news, a company kept all of their passwords in a folder labeled “passwords.” And the password required for access? “Password.”
Cyberattack scenarios will have to be incorporated into their training programs, employees will need to know what to do should the hotel be affected by a cyberattack, this could include SOPs such as the immediate shutdown of the hotel’s CMS system until the breach has been plugged, or simply knowing who to contact in the event of a suspected attack. When a high-profile guest comes to stay and the risk of an attack is highest, staff will need to be aware, and the hotel’s IT team will have to be on alert. All these scenarios require practice.
While it is impossible to predict the future with complete accuracy, we can already see the potential applications that tomorrow’s tech will have on the hotel industry, and hotels need to embrace these developments now rather than wait and get left behind. For many years’ hotels stuck with traditional classroom-based learning as a way to teach their staff the requisite language skills to serve their guests, or train them in upselling. Only recently has mobile learning taken hold, despite having proven to be more effective, more affordable and most importantly, more relevant to the tech-savvy, younger employees of the hospitality industry.
It is tempting to dismiss VR, AI and cybersecurity as technology, or technological issues, which will only be relevant in the future. Most hotel General Managers and owners will adopt a wait-and-see approach, and are loath to make the necessary upfront investments. This approach is just delaying the inevitable, and in the case of cybersecurity, is potentially dangerous for the brand. The current and next generation of traveler is and will be incredibly tech savvy, and may well choose their next stay based on the technological applications available at the hotel. For those who are playing catch up, the results could be empty rooms, poorer service, or a hacker’s paradise.