One hotel has a customized application that allows guests to request an early check-in or order valet service. Another is offering exercise videos with virtual instructors in its fitness room.
Hotels may have come late to technology, but recently they have been jumping in as travelers, especially those on business trips, demand to be constantly connected and expect hotels to make that possible. Hotels, for their part, now see technology as a way to stand out in the crowd of brands.
“The hotels are looking at a total strategy," said Lorraine Sileo, vice president of research for the travel market research firm PhoCusWright. “It’s all about interacting with the customer at the right time, at the right place."
As their homes have become more technologically advanced, travelers want at least as much on the road, if not more. And different age groups and types of travelers expect different types of service from hotels.
“We’re in a period of transition," said Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University.
“Hotels are discovering not only how to be different, hotels are trying to figure out what people really want. They seem to want productivity — and the ‘wow factor.’ They ask themselves, ‘Is what I get at the hotel at least as good as what I have at home? It should be better, faster and more impressive than what I have at home.’"
Business travelers vary. “The business traveler is not a uniform population," Hanson said. “The younger traveler wants to know why they need to plug in. ‘Why not have Wi-Fi everywhere?’ Their expectations are higher. Their work is affected more when current technology is not available. They want technology wherever they are, whenever they need it. They need wireless and they need a lot of capacity." For baby boomers, he added, a hotel can be a place to try out technology that they have not yet purchased.
David Stahl, president of CrowdMagnet, a specialty marketing company based in Minneapolis, said he traveled 140 to 160 days on average a year. Like many frequent travelers, he carries a smartphone and a laptop, his “two portals to the world." He relies on various apps, including FlightAware and SeatGuru. Though he said he was “not a tech-driven guy," he ended up making a dinner reservation via an iPad he found in his room at the Plaza Hotel in New York recently.
“My first thought was somebody forgot it," Stahl said. When he called the front desk to report it had been lost, a staff member told him it was for concierge service. “It was pretty neat," Stahl said. “It was convenient."
Almost two years ago, the Chancellor Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco collaborated with Amaratech, a Bay Area hotel technology company, to create its own app that guests can use before and during their stay to request an early check-in, a late checkout, search for a nearby restaurant or order valet service. “With technology, guests are doing everything by themselves," said Nathaniel Ramos, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.
At the Ocean House in Watch Hill, R.I., guests can use free iPads as well a “virtual fitness" machine in the OH! Spa. On a touch-screen machine the size of a bank’s ATM, they can select fitness classes like spinning and Zumba at any hour of the day. Once they have made their choice, a large screen descends from the ceiling, and a virtual instructor appears.
Independent hotels, hotel groups and brands are responding to what they perceive their guests want or will want, which is the challenge. Technology is not just one thing. It is a combination of services and gadgets that travelers feel they want and need to have. “They’re used to being connected and linked in wherever they are," said Lindsey Ueberroth, president of the Preferred Hotel Group, a collection of more than 650 independent luxury hotels.
The No. 1 thing travelers want, she said, is high-speed Internet access and enough bandwidth to download videos, social media and music as well as to access email and attachments.
“It’s anticipating a guest’s needs," she said. “It builds loyalty."
According to a 2011 Concur/Global Business Travel Association study, 91 percent of business travelers use a laptop computer, 81 percent use wireless broadband, 73 percent use a personal smartphone, 67 percent use mobile travel apps on their phone, 63 percent use an iPod or other MP3 player and 62 percent use a business smartphone. Technology experts say the numbers have continued to grow.
For hotels, one of the largest investments can be adequate bandwidth.
“It’s the idea of having services at your fingertips, literally," said Phil Schwartz, chief marketing officer of Intelity Corp., a software company in Orlando, Fla., that focuses on the hospitality industry. “It’s about content, convenience and control."
Intelity, which has been in business for five years, employs software called ICE, Interactive Customer Experience, that is customized for hotel apps. It has reached almost 500 hotels internationally, he said.
The software allows hotel guests to interact digitally with the hotel through their phone, tablet or laptop on 35 different services, ranging from setting the time for a wake-up call to requesting a toothbrush from housekeeping. The most popular requests for a customized hotel app are wake-up calls, in-room dining and turndown service, Schwartz said.
Consumers are moving from a 12-inch screen on their desktop to a 9-inch one on their tablet to a 4-inch one on their smartphone, said John Hach, senior vice president for global product management at TravelClick, a hotel service provider in New York. “They’re using a browser and not always an app," he noted. Hach said that hotels with optimized websites were capturing 10 percent or more of their reservations from mobile devices.
Technology can be a marketing tool. “Being cutting edge, you stay in the eye of the consumer," said Ramos. “You don’t want to be left behind."