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Future Perfect, Past Tense

Hotel Operators Look to New Technology to Personalize the Stay of Guests


Date: April 24, 2007


It's late, and all the grumpy business traveler wants to do is collapse into eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Her cab enters the driveway of a high-end chain hotel that her company uses to put up employees away on business.

A device at the mouth of the driveway scans the cab and homes in on a computer chip embedded in a plastic card in the businesswoman's wallet. Instantly, an unstaffed computer inside the hotel checks the traveler in as a guest, her credit card and personal information already on file.

Inside a guest room, a small wall console activates the in-room climate control and adjusts the temperature to the businesswoman's specifications, which also are on file. A digital device, perhaps still called a TV but with substantially broader capabilities, cues up a selection of the woman's favorite music.

At this point, the traveler is only now getting out of her cab, and a doorman greets her by name using a hand-held computer that also has scanned the woman's "smart card." The doorman directs the traveler to the guest quarters the computer has chosen, and the businesswoman proceeds to the room without having to stand in line or even stop by the front desk.

Once at the door to her room, she waves her smart card over a sensor on the latch. Click. The door opens, lights come on automatically, and her favorite music fills the room, which is now precisely adjusted to her preferred temperature.


From today's perspective, such a picture of the hotel of the future might seem like wishful thinking on the part of techno-visionaries. Yet hotel industry insiders and observers say these and other examples of high-tech wizardry are on the drawing board at major hotel chains as they strategize over the best way to secure the brand loyalty of the undoubtedly wired--or more probably wireless--guest of the future.

To that end, hotel operators are looking to use new technology to personalize the guest experience as much as possible. They are hoping that greater attention to the little things--albeit by digital means--will translate into greater revenue. One concept, for example, calls for the development of a "virtual concierge" that knows the restaurant and entertainment tastes of frequent guests and can customize a list of leisure-time suggestions in any number of cities around the world.

That and other advancements under consideration are part of an industrywide effort to bring what hotel operators call "customer service management" into the digital age, said Roger Cline, director of hospitality consulting for Arthur Andersen in New York. With the help of new technology and computerized personal profile information, Cline said, hotels hope to better anticipate the needs of frequent guests and make them feel more at home. "The hotel business is all about being hospitable, after all," he said.

New technology appears to be an important part of that goal, given the considerable sums major chains have set aside to pursue it. Beverly Hills-based Hilton Hotels Corp., for example, has earmarked $120 million this year to support current technology at its hotels and to develop new devices to save time and labor, said Tim Harvey, Hilton's chief information officer. Part of this money will finance a pilot program to test wireless networking in 20 of the chain's 130 North American properties.

Likewise, investment in new technology at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. has "grown substantially and will continue to grow substantially," said Steve Hankin, president of the technology and marketing division for the White Plains, N.Y., company. He declined to specify dollar amounts. Starwood, however, also plans to begin limited deployment this year of its own package of wireless services.

Yet while they increase spending for new technology, the major chains also are proceeding with caution, waiting for the consumer market to fully embrace the next new device or standard thing before committing themselves to it. Few, if any, hotel operators want to make the mistake of outfitting their properties with the modern equivalent of Beta videotape players.

"We certainly don't want to introduce technology just for the sake of technology," Hankin said.

Carl Wilson, executive vice president and chief information officer for Marriott International Inc. in Bethesda, Md., agreed. "Our job is not to push technology but to enable technology to produce a better customer experience. We could throw a lot of good capital away by investing in the latest trend in technology," Wilson said. "We're waiting for the push to come from the consumers. We'll meet them wherever they are in their own personal adoption of technology."

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