Enterprises in the traditional hospitality industry are facing a serious problem: on one side, online aggregators like Kayak and Trivago are pushing to own the relationship with the customer, treating the hotels themselves as wholesalers to be squeezed on price. On the other side are alternative, startup providers, such as Airbnb, whose more personal offering has a certain appeal when compared with somewhat anonymous chain hotels.
Today, highly customized hotel experiences are the preserve of the very wealthy, where guests can demand almost anything and the bill comes in the tens of thousands, if not more. Through innovative use of technology, similar customization and personalization can be offered to the business traveler as affordable services. All the technology needed to make this happen exists today, and for a large part of the hospitality industry, these enhanced customer experiences could be the thing to save their businesses.
The following sections present a business travel scenario where innovative hospitality service providers use technology that leverages the traveler’s context and prior interactions to:
- Anticipate needs and itinerary changes
- Proactively offer real-time assistance
- Deliver a highly personalized customer experience
Business Travel Experience: Arrival
Your plane just started its descent and your lunch meeting starts in an hour. You’d been looking forward to freshening up at your hotel but, thanks to a late arrival, now that’s out of the question.
The plane’s wifi has been out since the descent began. As the wheels touch down, you flick your phone out of flight mode and the AI assistant spins up in the background. It checks your current location and cross-references that with your flight’s status. It recognizes that you’ve landed but the flight was delayed. After checking your calendar and the local traffic, the app sees you can still make it to your meeting in time.
Your phone buzzes. There’s a notification:
Recommended change of itinerary: take car service to your meeting at Second Street. Send bag directly to hotel. Notify hotel of later check-in.
You hit the OK button and wait for the seatbelt light to go out.
In the background, the assistant app marshals your rideshare and hotel apps. It books two cars: one to take you to the meeting and another to transport your bag directly to the hotel. Then it informs the hotel that your bag will be arriving ahead of you and that it should be taken to your room.
An SMS alert buzzes on your phone; it’s the driver who will collect your bag. She wants to check the size of your bag, as she’s at the airport collecting a passenger who is also going to your hotel. Your bag isn’t that big but it’s an awkward shape, so it’ll be easier to describe in a voice call. You hit the “Call” button in your rideshare app and it connects you directly to the driver.
Next, you remember you should call the person you’re meeting to let them know there’s a chance you’ll be late. Before you finish dialing, your phone’s assistant app tells you that it has already sent a text message on your behalf, complete with a link to your individual ride status. The person you’re meeting replies with a cheery, “We’re not on a tight schedule. See you when you get here!”
The app parses the reply and sees that there’s no pressing need to bug you. From your previous trips, it knows that there’s a period after landing of around 25 minutes where you tend not to respond to notifications unless they’re urgent.
You get your carry-on bag and leave the aircraft. As you walk into arrivals, the two drivers from your ride share service are waiting: one for your bag and one for you. You’re on your way.
Business Travel Experience: Check-in
The meeting went well. It’s sunny but not too warm, so you decide to walk the few blocks from the office to your hotel. Your hotel chain’s app sees that you’re getting close. It alerts the check-in desk of your ETA.
So far, all the help you’ve had from your phone’s AI assistant and your various apps has relied on the cell network, GPS and publicly available information such as your flight status. As you enter the hotel, that changes.
You already have the hotel chain’s digital concierge app on your phone. This app recognizes that you’ve entered the hotel and connects you to the hotel wifi. This wifi isn’t just about giving guests a more reliable internet connection; it’s at the heart of the hotel’s indoor positioning system (IPS). Similar to GPS, IPS pinpoints your location but using internal location beacons—in this case, wireless access points—rather than geostationary satellites. As you walk towards the desk, your photo and booking details appear on the front desk manager’s display.
He greets you by name, tells you your room number and that your bag is already there waiting for you. You walk to the elevator; using the IPS, the digital concierge knows you’re entering the elevator and, before you even glance at the button, it selects the floor for you. A screen in the elevator reminds you of your room number and tells you which direction to take when you reach the right floor.
As you walk along the corridor, the virtual concierge tracks your progress. It causes LED arrows to light-up in the carpet, pointing the way to your room. It has also set the temperature in your room. However, rather than using the preferred temperature you recorded in your loyalty profile, it sees that each time you enter a room you set the temperature to 68 degrees Fahrenheit and it uses that instead.
When you arrive at the door, you fish the phone from your pocket and double-tap the home button. In your wallet app, there’s a card with your hotel’s logo; you select it and hold the phone against the door. With a buzz from your phone, the door unlocks.
Business Travel Experience: The Room
Your bag is right there, where the front desk manager said it would be. The temperature is perfect and the lighting is set to your preferred warm white. From the speakers, you hear the rest of the playlist you were listening to during the flight.
Despite a little jetlag, you feel calm. Happy, even.
As you sit on the bed to remove your shoes, your mind wanders and you think back to all those little things you used to hate about hotel rooms:
- The TV blaring with an ad for the hotel spa as you walked into the room
- Stiflingly stale air or an arctic gale blowing directly into your face
- Fumbling with keycards so delicate that the slightest hint of a magnet nearby would render them useless
- Struggling through a foreign language you don’t really know to order room service or ask for a different pillow
That’s when your phone buzzes. It appears to be a call from housekeeping. In fact, it’s a voice-enabled chatbot. The hotel’s management system flagged that, during your last three stays, you called within 10 minutes of entering your room to request an extra towel.
Hello, Miss Hogarth! This is housekeeping. Can we get your some more towels?
You reply that, yes, you’d love to have another towel. You think about how thoughtful the housekeeping team is at this hotel and how warm your conversational partner seems to be; of course, you have no idea that you’re talking to a bot.
No problem. We’ll have the towels with you shortly.
Before the call ends, you ask for recommendations for places to play tennis that evening.
Sounds like a great way to spend the evening! Please wait a moment while I pass you to someone who can help you with that.
Seamlessly, the hotel’s human concierge joins the conversation and tells you that the hotel itself has a new tennis court and that you can use the digital concierge app to find other people to play against. As the call ends, a scheduler with the other players’ available times comes to the fore on your phone and you arrange a game for an hour’s time.
You’d rather sleep in your own bed but you think to yourself, hotels are far more like home than they used to be.
Business Travel Experience: The Tech
Let’s review our business traveler’s story to get a closer look at the underlying technology that enabled all those personalized services.
Starting with the flight arrival: there’s nothing groundbreaking here. A pseudo-AI in the phone’s operating system has access to the apps running on the phone and it relies on basic machine learning to observe and learn what to do. All it’s doing is making sense of the context in which it is operating and the information it has available to it.
Not convinced? Try Google Now on an Android phone and you’ll see that we’re just a few short steps from what happened during the flight arrival portion of our story.
Now onto the hotel. What we see in this part of the story comes down to five main technologies:
- Indoor positioning systems are already in development and use, with several companies competing to produce systems using existing and novel tech.
- A 360-degree customer view gives the company a thorough understanding of the guest and ensures it is available everywhere it is needed, from the check-in desk through to the room’s thermostat.
- Simple chatbots—while not yet perfect—can combine natural language processing and machine learning with the 360-degree customer view to provide a further customized experience that doesn’t rely on staff being available to answer the phone each time a guest has a question.
- Hilton and Marriott are already trialing keyless room entry using a mobile app. There’s no reason NFC and digital wallet technology couldn’t offer an even more secure cellphone alternative to ordinary hotel keycards.
The fifth technology tying the whole thing together is cloud communications. The most important part of this story is that information flows effortlessly across communication channels at each stage. With the use of a communications API platform, all manner of communication channels are available: SMS, chat, voice are all easily accessible by any provider’s developers on pretty much any device.
Importantly, the developer doesn’t even really need to worry about which method will be employed for a given user. The text message to warn of being late for the meeting could just as easily have been sent in Facebook Messenger or as a text to speech telephone call, for example.
To thrive, the hotels of the near future will combine all these technologies—and more—to offer seamless, personalized customer experiences that build loyalty far more than points schemes or discounts ever could. As a hotel chain builds its understanding of what each guest prefers, the story will become less about price and more about feeling at home.