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Guest services at your fingertips

More hotels around the world are tapping on technology to click with customers

NEW YORK • When Mr Charlie Frye and his wife Lenette arrived recently at the Four Seasons in Orlando, Florida, for a two-night stay, they spotted an iPad loaded with the hotel's app that they could use to order food, call for their car or read about activities in the hotel.

It is an example of how hotels in the United States - and also around the world, including Singapore - are tapping on technology to click with customers.

While apps are not new in the hotel industry, the use of them and other tech devices has grown exponentially in the past five years as hoteliers seek new ways to pamper guests, gain repeat business, differentiate their brands and increase revenue.

As the tools are available at all hours, hotel experts say they may go a long way towards keeping guests happy and avoiding negative reviews on social media and websites such as TripAdvisor.

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Hotels in the US, for example, are spending as much as 6 per cent of total revenue on technology, according to Hospitality Technology's 2017 Lodging Technology Study.

"They're trying to improve the guest experience by doing things on the guests' terms instead of the hotel's," said Mr Gregg Hopkins, chief sales and marketing officer for Intelity Corp.

While apps are not new in the hotel industry, the use of them and other tech devices has grown exponentially in the past five years as hoteliers seek new ways to pamper guests, gain repeat business, differentiate their brands and increase revenue.

It creates technology products for hotels, including Four Seasons, Loews and Conrad.

"It drives loyalty and repeat business. Hotels need to stay engaged with the guest from the time he makes the reservation until he checks out and checks in again.

"They need to differentiate what they do for the guest."

In the past five years, communication with Marriott International from mobile devices has quadrupled, said Mr George Corbin, senior vice-president for digital at the hotel chain.

In addition, 75 per cent of all Marriott guests used a smartphone, tablet or laptop during their most recent stay.

"This space is moving so fast," he said. But "we sort of take a bite at a time" in refining technology developments.

And that is indicative of what is happening in the hotel industry.

Marriott was among the early tech adopters, having introduced an app in 2012 that offered the ability to book a hotel room.

Since then, it has added features that allow guests to use the app to check in and out, receive an alert when a room is ready, make requests of the hotel staff and even unlock a room.

Technology also helps to resolve problems. A quarter of Marriott's guests have an issue or question during their stay, Mr Corbin said.

But guests whose problems were solved the first time they contacted the hotel "report higher satisfaction than people who had no problem at all", he noted.

The new initiatives please customers such as Ms Tina Amber, 64, who travels with her husband to visit family and explore the world.

Technology has become her constant companion. "If a hotel doesn't have it, I'm somewhat put off," she said.

Mr Shayne Paddock, chief innovation officer for guest management solutions at TravelClick, an e-commerce service provider for hotels, said different guests want different things.

"For hospitality, you don't want to lose the human element," he noted.

The aim is "to blend technology with the human side if you want to be successful in this space. Not using cool technology for the sake of cool technology".

Any hotel can use TravelClick's new Guest Messenger, which allows guests and hotel staff to communicate by text message.

Other companies are marketing products to hoteliers and finding niche ways to improve experiences.

Ms Carol Beggs, director of technology at Chatham Bars Inn in Massachusetts, said: "You can book online, not just rooms, but everything else."

By next month, she expects guests to be able to book "ancillary activities" such as a cabana or sailboat on the hotel's website or app using "smartphones, laptop, phone or whatever method you want to use".

Of course, Ms Beggs said, "if the guest wants to speak to a particular person on the staff, nobody wants to take that away".

At the Washington Marriott Georgetown in Washington, which has just undergone a US$28-million (S$39.4-million) renovation that included an update of its technology, guests can use mobile requests to get tickets to a show at the Kennedy Centre, make dinner reservations or have maps ready for them when they return to the hotel.

The digital conveniences are among the ways hotels are "trying to differentiate from one another and from Airbnb, and wean off the usage of online travel agencies," said Ms Lorraine Sileo, senior vice-president for research at Phocuswright, a travel industry research firm.

They want to "grab you in the search process and booking process and in the destination.

"They want to have that relationship with you."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Guest services at your fingertips'. Print Edition | Subscribe