What makes HT-Next special is the fact that it has become a unique forum for hotel companies and technology providers to come together, highlight innovation happening across the industry, and then identify hurdles and work together to iron out solutions.
There was no shortage of innovation to showcase at the 2022 event produced by HTNG (now AHLA), held at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach last week. At a high level, leaders discussed continued movement toward hospitality becoming better global stewards in areas like sustainability, diversity in leadership, and human trafficking. On a more granular level, innovators tackled advancements in operations like labor management and marketing automation, and improved guest experiences like personalized welcome arrivals and digital key.
One particularly engaging general session brought together leaders who had won Hospitality Technology magazine Visionary Awards to share details around tech advancements made in 2022: Lee Graham of Hilton discussed the reasons behind Hilton’s decisions to develop its own Central Reservation System; Ben Weiss of Hyatt Hotels shared insight behind integrating mobile keys into Apple Wallet; and Rami Zeidan of Life House shared best practices his company has seen around automating the manual tasks in hotel operations.
Weiss discussed Hyatt’s decision-making process behind its digital key strategy, which was led by the internal Digital Amenities team, who considered digital room access “table stakes” in the industry. They determined a couple important things early: that previous advancements around Bluetooth keycards proved not much easier or faster than plastic cards, and that integrating the room key into the brand app would only complicate the process.
“We studied the space and decided the app wasn’t the way to go,” said Weiss, VP of Product Management at Hyatt. “We told ourselves that we’ve got to make the experience and the process better.”
Integrating digital keys with Apple Wallet’s NFC capabilities to allow guests to bypass the front desk and access their room even when their phone is off required backend technology that shares data – event triggers between several systems – in real time.
“Things change over the course of a stay, guests change rooms, and we also needed to solve for multiple people in one room sharing the key,” Weiss said. “We can’t rely on batch data delivered once a night – that’s way too late. The plumbing and infrastructure we needed has been transformational to advance our capabilities.”
Zeidan, who has built Life House into a tech-enabled management company with 75 “independent” hotels, was more outspoken with his critiques of the current hospitality technology landscape, and spoke deliberately to the audience of suppliers with suggestions about areas where advancements can be made.
He described how Life House started as a technology provider until he learned “it’s really hard to make money in SaaS hotel tech” and went looking for a preferred model of collecting a percentage of revenue through an “operationally profitable and autonomous” management company.
“Life House is trying to turn to automation to enable the onsite team to provide a better guest experience at a lower-cost operating model,” he said. “I saw the opportunity in independent hoteliers, who are way more receptive to automation. Independent hotels don’t have revenue management teams, they’re yearning for solutions, and we automate the entire revenue management function from pricing, distribution and metasearch marketing. We’re driving 70% of business direct through meta.”
Zeidan said his idea is to simplify the role of the hotel GM. “At Life House, house managers can graduate to a GM in six months – the GM role is really simple. Most come from the F&B industry and are just great ‘people’ people. We try to make their jobs much easier rather than incur that high cost in recruiting experienced hotel GMs.”
On the other side of the spectrum, 7,000 hotels across the Hilton portfolio are operating on a proprietary CRS built by an internal team that was “encouraged to push boundaries,” Graham said. He shared that Hilton decided to build its own CRS for two reasons: 1) They thought there was much more experience in reservations and distribution within Hilton’s collective team as compared to a third-party provider, and 2) to provide those team members at Hilton with the opportunity to grow professionally and push industry innovation.
“Most of our team has at least 15 years experience in distribution systems,” Graham said. “We were able to outline the objectives for the project and ensure it is built in such a way that it decreases downtime and operational costs, and also that we can continue to innovate upon it moving forward.”
GMs identify tech challenges and opportunities
For the property-level perspective on hotel technology, two local GMs from standout Miami properties answered audience questions on their most pressing challenges and opportunities. Both Glenn Sampert, GM of the Intercontinental Miami, and Mutluhan Kucuk, GM of the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, pointed to communication between staff and with guests – preferably personalized communications – as a key area where technology can be revolutionary.
“Text chat, mobile check-in, key straight to the cell phone, these things have moved from delights to expectations,” Kucuks said.
Sampert described how his teams need the data to make decisions around implementing new guest-facing technologies, because “it’s not too often a guest will tell you exactly what they want.” He said he’ll often ask his team: “Where’s the pain? What are you saying ‘no’ to?”
“We try to stay a step ahead of what the guests are looking for, but that sometimes backfires when it’s not widely adopted,” he said, using in-room dining inside the brand app as an example. “Last night it was 3% of my orders. Sometimes it’s just easier to pick up the phone.”
Personalization improvements are critical, both agreed.
“There’s got to be a way to better identify your repeat guests, outside of the loyalty program, without needing a human to take action,” Sampert said. “Forty-eight hours before the guest arrives, we should know all their preferences at the hotel and it should automatically activate all the systems within the hotel to act accordingly. They shouldn’t have to go to the front desk, they walk in and their room is ready, and their amenity has already been prepared how they like it.
“The information is there, the tech is there, but it doesn’t always communicate.”
Tech Powers Progress in Sustainability, Diversity
Two leaders in hotel sustainability – again providing unique perspectives from opposite ends of the industry spectrum – took the stage to share best practices they’ve learned from environmentally forward projects.
Bruce Becker, owner and architect at the Hotel Marcel in Connecticut, shared details about the renovation of a vacant office headquarters building that resulted in a 100% electric-powered, LEED Platinum-certified boutique hotel. Hotel Marcel consumes no fossil fuels – 100% of the HVAC system, water system, kitchen, laundry facilities, and lighting operate on the property’s self-powered electric grid.
The shuttle van has been retrofitted with a Tesla Model 3 battery and the parking lot includes a supercharger station which, due to its location near a highway, provides a steady flow of traffic for the hotel’s full-service restaurant and grab-and-go market.
“We’ve recycled the building,” Becker said of the Hotel Marcel. “We’ve now learned how to operate buildings very efficiently with very little carbon footprint.”
On a much larger scale, Townsend Bailey, Head of Corporate Responsibility for IHG Hotels & Resorts in the Americas, shed light on how IHG is using technology to empower improved sustainability efforts across its 6,000-hotel global portfolio.
“We are rethinking how we design our hotels so that by 2030 all new-build hotels will operate with low or zero operational carbon footprint,” Bailey said. “Across our hotels already in operation, we’ve set a science-based target to deliver a 46% absolute reduction in carbon emissions.”
IHG has created data-driven processes, tools and resources for franchisees to reach these goals, including the ability to report and track their energy use monthly and a library of more than 200 approved green-focused tech solutions.
On the diversity front, Kristie Goshow of KSL Resorts and Vanessa Ogle of Enseo led a frank and pointed discussion about the lack of women in hospitality leadership positions. “Every organization should choose the best person for the job, but the pool, the choice, needs to be wider,” Goshow said.
She suggested hospitality leaders look inward and ask: Does your board, your leadership team, look like your customers, or the customers you’re seeking to serve?
Ogle said leaders today must be thinking about the future, and that small triggers, slight influences, can create widely adopted behavioral changes.