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High Tech, Low Touch

Published: 30/10/2013 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2013 » November 2013 » Special Reports » Home » Features »

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While evolving technology has engulfed our day-to-day lives, it seems the hotel industry hasn’t always kept pace. From heavy brass room keys in Europe to lengthy check-in lines in Los Angeles, innovations in hotel technology have been relatively scarce in recent times. However, today we find ourselves on the horizon of an entirely new hospitality world where revolutionary technologies will surely open doors – both literally and figuratively – to a more expedited, efficient and, ultimately, more enjoyable traveler experience.

If you relish the idea of obsolete keys, cash and rewards cards, and the introduction of NFC, RFID, high-tech gizmos and whatchamacallits, you’re in luck. Though it may sound more like something out of Inspector Gadget, the hotels of tomorrow have already begun to deploy and integrate sci-fi-like technologies throughout their establishments. From West Hollywood to Orlando, Stockholm to Shanghai, tech-savvy hotels and resorts are offering their corporate and leisure travelers futuristic conveniences that go way beyond free WiFi and iPod docking stations. 

What if you were told you could leave those old-fashioned, plastic keycards behind? Imagine one hotel stay without demagnetization or some other card malfunction. Envision a hotel stay where you didn’t have to wait in long check-in lines. In fact, think about a hotel lobby with no front desk. Yet, today’s innovations all embody a common theme: Less is more. Touch-less, contact-less, wire-less, and ultimately bringing less – while experiencing more.  

NFC? No Friggin’ Clue! 

Harnessing the functionality of already existing smartphone technology and integrating it into today’s connected world brings the all-in-one device of tomorrow closer than ever. By now, it’s likely that you’ve heard the buzz around something called near field communication, or NFC. Mostly that buzz surrounds NFC’s pivotal role in the up-and-coming mobile payment market, or even more recently, its involvement in the ongoing craze surrounding the iPhone 5S. 

According to recent report from Strategy Analytics, in 2013 the number of NFC-equipped smartphones will surpass 400 million devices globally. That’s nearly one in three smartphones sold throughout the world. Given the upsurge of NFC-enabled mobile devices, hospitality chains have already begun deploying contactless technology to encourage guests to make reservations, check in, check out, access their rooms, enjoy amenities and partake in newly-unveiled loyalty programs – all through their handset. 

Using NFC-equipped smartphones, guests can check in remotely after a simplified, expedited process that works like this: First, the hotel sends its future guest a link via text message. From there, the guests are provided with the room number for their upcoming stay along with an encrypted key that is sent by SMS over the air to a SIM card. With their digitized room key, guests can forego those daunting lobby lines and head straight up to their rooms. To gain entry, guests merely place their NFC-equipped device in close proximity to the contactless reader on the door and, presto! 

Though it may initially seem like a brand spanking new innovation, it’s not entirely in its infancy. NFC is the successor to radio frequency identification (RFID), which has been used throughout the hospitality industry for years. The frictionless, contactless and above all, versatile technology gives users the unparalleled ability to streamline a host of common tasks throughout their hotel stay. 

The transition from mere concept to universal adoption will no doubt take time; but with nine out of 10 major phone manufacturers having already unveiled NFC-enabled mobile devices in their lineup, not only will supported gadgets become more widely available, but the public is consequently more likely to adopt them. In the end, it really comes down to developing solutions that are secure and easy for travelers, hoteliers and the rest of the market to grasp and implement – much like the rest of the contactless experience. 

Courtesy of new technologies and applications, that experience begins even before passing through the hotel doors. In fact, nearly half (47 percent) of guests start planning their travel itineraries from a mobile device. 

Mobile Bookings

The rumor mill continues churn out speculation on Apple’s decision not to include contactless technology in its latest iPhone. However, forgoing NFC doesn’t mean the Cupertino giant is abandoning its commitment to expedited travel via mobile. In fact, many hotel chains and hospitality establishments have already taken advantage of Apple’s Passbook app, which stores guests’ membership cards, coupons, tickets and reservations on iPhone and iPod Touch devices. 

Similar to the NFC digital wallet, the Passbook app transforms a hotel confirmation into a mobile pass that is sent directly to the guest’s Apple device and added to their Passbook app account. Since the app is location-based and in real-time, hotel confirmations automatically appear on the screen when and where the information is required. As travelers approach the hotel, their confirmations appear for easy access, viewing and expedited check-in. 

Expedited Check-Ins

Truth be told, we have now entered a hospitality world where the front desk has fallen into obsolescence, a result of nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) hotel guests choosing to check in and out of hotels from mobile devices. 

One hotel brand jumping into the expedited check-in pool is Hyatt, where properties like the Hyatt Regency Chicago have already begun offering check-in via a lobby ambassador using a special iPad, while also providing its guests the opportunity to select a room, inquire about an upgrade and obtain an RFID-embedded key using a self-service kiosk. 

Radisson has also experimented with kiosks at a number of pilot locations including Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Seattle. Here, guests had the ability to check-in online 24 hours ahead of arrival by entering their credit card information. The confirmation e-mail has a barcode, which is then scanned at the lobby to receive their room key. This pilot was only one component of Carlson Rezidor’s Radisson Re-Imagined Concept, an initiative which focuses on enhancing 11 guests “touch points.”

“Today’s traveler is accustomed to having technology at their finger tips and is constantly connected through the use of smartphones, tablets and computers,” Richard Flores, Carlson’s vice president of branding, explained recently in Hotel Business Technology.  “At Radisson, we want to leverage technology and give our guest the ability to stay connected with our brand through multiple touch points.”

So what to do if you’re ready, but your room isn’t? At the Andaz West Hollywood, the hotel has taken the guesswork out of the wait. An iPad-equipped hostess will take a guest’s cell phone number, give them a NFC-enabled key and then text the room number when it’s ready. From there, a mere tap of the embedded card to the contactless reader on the elevator panel enables a guest to access their respective floor and a wave over the affixed electronic lock on the room’s door grants entry.  

Room Access

Ever thought about tapping your mobile device or high-fiving your hotel room door? From RFID embedded cards to NFC-enabled rings and wristbands, the hotel door locks of tomorrow will enable guests to simply tap their contactless card or smartphone to access their rooms. 

In June 2011, Clarion Hotel Stockholm launched the world’s first NFC pilot, replacing those run-of-the-mill, often lost and sometimes demagnetized plastic hotel room keys with NFC-enabled mobile devices. As a testament to the convenience and ease of use, nearly 80 percent of those who took part in the pilot said they’d like NFC applications to enable them to pay for food, drinks and other hotel amenities. Furthermore, nearly 1 in 3 claimed they’d seek an NFC-equipped smartphone for their next handset to enable mobile-key room access.

“Contactless readers replace the ubiquitous standard lock and allows hotel doors to be opened almost magically by simply holding a smartphone to the lock area. There is a major benefit not only to the hotel guest but also to the hotel chain,“ says Louis Modell, Identive vice president of sales, Americas. “RFID technology eliminates the need for traditional cards, keys and eradicates friction all together resulting in overall less maintenance.” 

Aside from the convenience, contactless room entry also enhances security. If a guest were to lose his or her mobile device, the access credentials can be revoked remotely and then reissued to the guest, thus reducing opportunities for unauthorized users. 

This past February, Mobile World Congress Barcelona staff members were provided an NFC-enabled Sony Xperia T handset to access their hotel rooms at the 320-room Hotel Porta Santos, one of Barcelona’s most tech-savvy establishments. Upon check-in, staff received digital room keys straight to their devices, sent over the air and held securely in the handset’s SIM card. Then trial participants simply tapped their handset to the NFC-compatible electronic door lock reader to access their hotel room. 

Among the other hotel chains and properties jumping on the contactless bandwagon are Starwood, Hilton, InterContinental, Hyatt and even the Times Square Yotel.

With 4,004 guestrooms, on-site casino and 100,000 square feet of meeting space, the Aria Resort in Las Vegas fully embraces the mantra of “bigger is better” while also taking on the notion “less is more.” Here, RFID cards enable various systems throughout the hotel to detect your presence automatically and respond in real-time. Elevators and rooms correlate the radio signal coming from your pocket with the computer record of who you are, and grant you effortless access to your suite, the gym or the parking garage. 

Hyatt is also experimenting with RFID technology embedded into loyalty cards so regular guests can bypass the front desk and head straight for their rooms. At the Grand Hyatt San Francisco, each room has an electronic lock for simple, contactless entry. The system also provides hotel staff a real-time view of guestroom access attempts, which enables quick security response in the event of an intruder, or to notify guests if a door is left open. The system is also designed to be easily adapted to NFC, which will allow travelers carrying enabled devices to use their phones as room keys.

A Cashless World
As the world grows increasingly mobile, there is a rising demand for electronic payment systems tied to personal mobile devices. Tap, pay and on your way! By 2015, 53 percent of restaurants and 39 percent of hotels plan to offer mobile payment, according to a survey conducted by Hospitality Technology Magazine

NFC transactions will also speed payments for items throughout the hotel, from lobby gift store to vending machines on each floor. In addition to making purchases with a simple tap of their phone, travelers can receive special discounts and offers via their mobile devices.

Disney, once known as the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’ has recently also become the ‘Most Contactless Place on Earth’ as well. The next generation of technology at Walt Disney World has arrived through its celebrated gates, ranging from RFID-equipped cards and wristbands to embedded refillable mugs distributed at the All-Star Resorts. 

Aside from the RFID proximity door locks throughout properties, Disney’s MagicBand, an ID tag that uses NFC technology, is replacing a visitor’s ticket to access rides and other features all over the Magic Kingdom. In addition, it can be used to open a guest’s hotel door and pay in stores at the resort.

In the near future, these wristbands will make it possible for you to wander up to an attraction or Disney character and have them greet you with your own first name. Guests will be able to use the devices to reduce their wait times, interact with Disney characters, pre-book and access attractions, unlock their hotel room and even make cashless payments at contactless point-of-sale terminals. 

Loyal and True

The increase in mobile-savvy consumers and digital out-of-home interaction means that relevance to the consumer and individualized content have become the driving forces behind the shift from traditional advertising to mobile and “smart” interactive marketing. With nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of hotel loyalty members using hotel mobile apps, the days of plastic cards are numbered. As the appetite for NFC-based marketing matures – whether content downloads, social media or discount and loyalty-based programs – demand for a more personalized, engaged, and simplified guest experience grows. 

In days gone by, businesses offered customers those 3.5 x 2-inch paper cards, generally kept in wallets, then punched or stamped upon each purchase. Thanks to innovative technologies, hoteliers, restaurateurs and retailers can bring loyalty programs online. Rather than use the old-fashioned punch cards, NFC ‘touch points’ can be adhered to cash registers, tables and signs, then accessed in an easy, paperless manner, whether it’s to track how many stays before receiving a free one or sign-up for e-newsletters. 

Aside from consumer benefits, contactless technology offers businesses a new way to keep track of an emerging customer base. The unique identifiers in the cards enable staff to know where visitors are throughout the property. This significantly bolsters security since each card can be tracked by multiple sensors located throughout the lobby, elevator, hallway and other areas of the establishment. 

Wayfinding and Data Access

A recent study from Amadeus Travel found that 47 percent of travelers claim to be frustrated by the time it takes to find their way around when on the road. As further validation of today’s mobile-centric society, 86 percent of respondents also expressed a desire to have a personalized travel guide aggregating recommendations. 

“NFC is all about simplicity and intent. Now that it is being built into almost all of the new smartphones, it opens new paradigms for consumers. I can reach out and touch my phone to physical objects to get access to information and services,” explains Dave Holmes, NFC expert and Identive vice president of NFC and mobility. “Touch the door lock to get into my room and touch the check-out tag when I leave, all without pushing any buttons or navigating menus, so even the most un-tech savvy individual can do it.” 

Tap your NFC-enabled device to one of the tags posted throughout an establishment and open up a map with turn-by-turn directions to guide you to the lobby, the restaurant, pool, fitness center and more. With this, hotels increasingly give guests a reason not to pick up the phone or have to wait for service; instead, travelers can simply tap the ‘smart’ map. 

Hotels like the Aimia Hotel in Port de Sóller in Mallorca are using NFC to provide guests with information on local services. Printed panels with NFC labels throughout the hotel’s reception area enable guests to tap to access information about public transit, places to visit and weather forecasts, in addition to downloadable maps, access to the hotel’s WiFi password and its restaurant menu. 

Even more recently, Starwood Preferred Guest turned to NFC technology to promote downloads of its newly-unveiled Chinese Android app. Visitors can download the SPG mobile app by tapping NFC-enabled posters at the front desk of 121 hotels throughout China. 

With mobile devices – both big and small – increasingly becoming attached to traveler’s hands and hips at all times, it would only make sense to bring connectedness and contactless into the room, right? The Hotel Sky Park Central in Seoul not only deploys in-room mobile devices, but provides its guests on the 15th floor with an NFC-enabled phone for use during their stay; they can use it to gain entry into the room, to set a ‘do not disturb’ notice and to request that their room is made up. 

Social Connectivity

Spain’s Ushuaia Ibiza Beach Hotel is one property that pays attention to its guests’ desire to remain connected to social networking sites. The hotel uses innovative technology to enhance guests’ social experience through Facebook pillars located throughout the property, where guests can check-in, take photos and update their status, simply by swiping the slim hotel-provided wristband that is synced to their Facebook profile. The hotel is also using RFID-enabled wristbands to allow guests to instantly update their Facebook status by tapping their wrists to sensors around the property. 

In addition to the innovative features currently deployed by the Spanish beach hotel, further interaction between guests and hotels can be made through the deployment of NFC by programming tags to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other social media channels. Just tap to launch a respective page. 

It all points to more frictionless additions to travelers’ experiences, leading to the obsolescence of many common items in the hospitality and travel world – keys, boarding passes, cash, rewards cards and more. Despite the general public’s subpar grasp of the technology, the limitless possibilities of NFC-based applications shift the focus to the potential of a frictionless future, which makes way for a simplified world of tomorrow. From airports and events to rental cars and mass transit, we’re ever so close to bridging the gap that exists between the traveler’s physical and digital worlds.

In the words of Katherine Doggrell, editor ofHotel Analyst Distribution & Technology, “Increasingly, technology is less about what hotels provide and more about accommodating what consumers bring with them.”   

— Artie Beavis




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