Around 25 years ago, while Abid Butt was staying in a hotel in Thailand, he called downstairs for an adapter. “Ten or 15 minutes later, all of a sudden there were security officers standing outside my door with a first-aid box because they thought I had asked for a doctor and were worried something was wrong,” says Dream Hotel Group’s CEO of Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.
Butt believes these classic cases of misunderstanding could soon be relegated to history. His company’s Dream Downtown hotel in Manhattan has introduced Google Assistant Interpreter Mode to its reception area. Guests can speak in their native language to the device and have their requests translated to hotel staff.
“People are very happy that they’re not struggling trying to express what they need, so it immediately relaxes them,” he says, adding that the most commonly translated languages are Mandarin, Spanish and French.
“In the early 90s when Japanese travelers were contributing hordes of numbers around the globe, we would look for the language proficiency in the staff,” he says. “Now, technology is facilitating that 24 hours a day, and at a much better cost efficiency.”
At the Orchard Hotel Singapore, guests at breakfast may be surprised to find a robot asking how they’d like their eggs. The “Autonomous Service Chef Associate” can cook eggs either as omelets or sunny side up. There is also a front-of-house “Autonomous Service Delivery Robot,” which can deliver room amenities such as towels and bottled water.
“It initially took a while for our guests to warm to the idea of being served by robots. But they offer our guests a nice surprise and, frankly, a great photo opportunity,” says Byron Chong, the hotel’s general manager.
These examples offer a glimpse of what the hotel of the future might look like. While robots may be a little too sci-fi for some, there are other more technological advances that travelers will come to view as being as indispensable as universal high-speed WiFi throughout.
Keyless check-in is one such technology. In 2014 Starwood Hotels & Resorts launched a keyless entry system so its loyalty members could use a smartphone as their hotel key. Other large hotel groups soon followed suit, including Hilton, Hyatt and InterContinental.
“This keyless entry is becoming more and more popular, particularly from a business traveler point of view so you can bypass the desk. A true road warrior wants to just get through it,” says Abid Butt of Dream Hotels Group, which is piloting keyless entry in its Hollywood, CA, property.
However, some hotels are wary of the implementation costs and benefit to guests. “We don’t really see guests screaming for this technology as long as your existing access is working well,” says Cecilia Lo, executive assistant manager, sales and marketing at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. While all new Hyatt hotels are “embracing this technology,” she says, existing hotels will look at market demand when weighing the cost-benefit of installing it.
The Sherwood Taipei, a boutique luxury hotel in the Taiwanese capital, still issues guests with physical keys on a keychain, and does not even have plastic keycards. General manager Achim von Hake describes this as part of the hotel’s philosophy, and says implementing keyless technology is a change that “will be a future direction.”
Another roadblock may be guests’ reluctance to download a dedicated app simply to unlock their rooms. “I’ve got 10,000 blooming apps on my phone,” says Dream Hotels’ CEO Butt. “It’s got to be easier so that for each task you’re not having to download another app.”
Christopher Chan, general manager of research and technology, The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, which owns and operates The Peninsula Hotels, says that “having a QR code to access a web-based app will be the way to go if guests would like to use their own phone ortablet.” But it may mean adding another app.
In Hong Kong, the JW Marriott plans to implement keyless technology this year, though it doesn’t have an exact launch date yet. “My personal take is not that a huge percentage will use it, but that a certain number will – and that will increase once they get used to a certain technology,” says the hotel’s general manager Silvio Rosenberger.
Rosenberger adds that since the JW Marriott’s keyless check-in will be done on the Marriott Bonvoy app (which has several other functions), guests won’t be annoyed at having to download an app that only accomplishes one purpose.
Many business travelers by now have probably encountered a Handy smartphone in their hotel room. The devices are in over 5,000 hotels and 650,000 rooms globally, according to data provided by Hi Inc, the company behind Handy. The smartphone allows visitors to make unlimited local and international calls, as well as access the Internet. It can also create a WiFi hotspot for other connected devices like the traveler’s own smartphone, iPad or laptop.
Abid Butt describes the Handy smartphone as “a bit of a nuisance,” because he says, “A lot of times, these devices are being funded through ad dollars, so I was constantly being fed messages that I didn’t care to look at.” In addition, since telecommunication costs have reduced dramatically over the past decades, most people would probably be more likely to buy a SIM card for their own device. Rosenberger of the JW Marriott Hong Kong – which doesn’t use Handy smartphones – says he doesn’t see the point.
“The way tech develops, I believe people don’t need it anymore. They carry their own phone. Technology is all in here and it’s easy for me because I know how to use it. I think there’s really no need,” he says.However, Chong of Orchard Hotel Singapore says Handy phones “provide great convenience” and have been “a welcome addition” to his hotel. “It seems to be a bit of an expectation in Singapore these days, when you’re at a certain caliber,” he says.
Hi Inc spokesperson Ellin Choy says Handy smartphones have “proven to improve customer satisfaction as they increase partner hotels’ review ratings on TripAdvisor by an average of 0.3 points.”
At the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, diners in the hotel’s steakhouse can choose their wines using a tablet device installed with wine selection software Wine Guru by Vinu. Diners search using criteria like “year range,” “price range” and “rating.”
“You’ve probably seen people pull out their phones to research wines. It frustrates restaurants because it takes a long time for guests to find wines by just hunting and pecking, searching around looking for information. With Vinu, it’s a closed-loop resource with all the information a guest needs to effectively make that informed decision,” according to Paul Saper, chief executive officer of Sponsiv Digital, the creator of Vinu.
However, Saper stresses that the human touch remains crucial, and that Vinu and a sommelier can have a symbiotic relationship. “It’s important for the guest to have that relationship and trust from a sommelier. We’re not eliminating that; we’re enhancing the sommelier’s presentation with a visual canvas with which to present the wines,” he says.
“Sommeliers use it as a tool and then for [ordinary] servers, they oftentimes use it as a crutch because it has information about the wines that they simply don’t have direct recollection of – it’s hard to remember tasting notes for 150 wines.”
The Sherwood’s von Hake says implementing digital menus has been one of his hotel’s most successful technological innovations. “You have a short-term investment that creates flexibility in menus. You have more information available on the device – guests can read about the ingredients and get information if they have dietary issues,” he says.
Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels’ Chan says digital are also good for the elderly, as they provide a bright menu in dimly lit locations, while the downside is that they are “a little bit bulky and not everyone is tech savvy enough to be comfortable using them.”
Alexander Wassermann, general manager of the InterContinental Grand Stanford, says that for his hotel’s signature restaurants – Italian restaurant Theo Mistral by Theo Randall and Chinese restaurant Hoi King Heen – electronic menus might not be appropriate.
“I think the concept would not fit [our restaurants]. At Theo’s place, it’s organic, it’s farm to table – it’s about digital detoxing,” Wasserman says. “We’d rather people put their phones away.”