STAY CONNECTED IN 2020

It’s the start of a new decade: in 2020, the iPhone turns 13, Facebook turns 16, and the World Wide Web celebrates its 29th year since going public.

In a relatively short period, these technologies and others like them have dramatically transformed almost every aspect of our lives, from the way we travel to the way we eat.

Accordingly, today’s hotel guest’s expectations now exceed merely a hot shower and room service. Busy guests with places to be may rarely stop to think about the complexities of providing high-speed Wi-Fi and in-room streaming in a hotel, but these are services that hoteliers and technology companies alike have had to implement remarkably quickly in the race to provide guests with the seamless in-room experience they demand.

Streamvision is an Australian provider of bespoke digital solutions, working with a variety of clients from hospitality ventures to large corporate entities. Hotel Magazine spoke to CEO Greg Bassine about the needs of the modern hotel guest.

“Ultimately, as the end-user, hotel guests and home consumers want the same thing – high speed, high definition content at their fingertips, and the ability to intuitively and immediately understand how to interact with an entertainment system,” he said.

Greg Bassine.

Bassine pointed out some easily overlooked problems that hotels face when providing guests with connectivity technology. “It’s important that all guests staying in a given hotel room are able to cast their content to the in-room TV, but that their next-door neighbour is unable to ‘hijack’ their TV, either intentionally or unintentionally.”

Such a blatant ‘digital intrusion’ is a more visible example of a wider problem facing hotels: that of hundreds, or even thousands of guests accessing the same digital services in close proximity.

“The ability to monitor and control bandwidth usage is essential,” Bassine said, “to ensure that a few data hogs don’t consume all the available bandwidth, spoiling the experience for other guests.”

As well as virtual crowd control, hotels must deal with the fact that their guests are transient. Just as clean sheets and towels are a prerequisite of any guest room from budget to boutique, so too is clean data.

“Hotel entertainment systems need the ability to automatically log out of and erase all user data upon check-out,” Bassine pointed out. “If a guest has logged into her YouTube account on the in-room smart TV, that could lead to their data security being compromised.”

Such compromises are not unheard of – in July, Marriott was fined £99m (NZ$187m) for infringements of the UK’s General Data Protection Regulation after a cyber-incident exposed a variety of personal data contained in approximately 339 million guest records. Just a week or so later, US hotel management company AavGo was alerted by a benevolent ‘white hat’ hacker to a security lapse in their online booking system, exposing the data of up to 8 million entries.

Paul Blackwood, of Hospitality Internet, is familiar with the challenges of providing guests with the connectivity they desire without compromising their data security.

“A hotel Wi-Fi network has a single job: connect a device to the internet, and nothing else,” he explained. “That means that device cannot see, and is protected from, all other devices on that network.”

Paul Blackwood

This is usually achieved through a process known as client isolation, which prevents devices on the same network from communicating. Though sufficient for most hospitality ventures like restaurants and cafés, modern hotels also need to be able to offer shared micro-networks which allow guests within rooms to share digital services.

“Top-end guests expect a more homelike experience,” Blackwood said. “They’re used to connecting all their personal devices together on a private local network.”

Achieving this in a hotel situation is tricky. “Can you imagine all devices talking freely in a hotel with, say, 50 Chromecast devices?” Blackwood asked. “Instead, if you have personal networks for each room, then we used encrypted Wi-Fi that is personal to that room, and that room only. Then, devices in that room can share their devices in their own secure environment.”

Of course, once the technicalities have been dealt with and the system is up and running, there remains the small task of providing guests with the kinds of services they desire.

For the hotelier’s perspective, Hotel Magazine spoke to Sihil Piyasiri, director of global hotel and owner solutions in Australasia and Japan for Intercontinental Hotels Group. Piyasiri explained that good connectivity is now expected as standard, across the budget spectrum.

“At a base level that means having great Wi-Fi with enough bandwidth to accommodate guest needs, whether it’s downloading work files or streaming their favourite shows,” he said.

Sihi Piyasiri

But just as upmarket hotels distinguish themselves with more luxurious facilities and services, so too should they offer improved connectivity features.

“Where we are starting to add some extra touches in upscale or luxury brands is around sound systems with quality speakers and Bluetooth pairing capabilities, so that guests can enjoy their own music,” said Piyasiri. “We’re even starting to look at voice control to operate blinds and lights, and tablets for room service ordering, guest requests and in-room controls.”

These changes are reflective of the drastic transformation occurring in the home entertainment industry, changes Piyasiri and his team are constantly monitoring. From their Atlanta office, the Global Hotel and Owner Solutions team has a laser-like focus on the latest technology, testing ideas with guests, and implementing those solutions that will have the biggest impact on the guest experience.

“I don’t remember the last time I watched free-to-air TV, and I don’t think I’m alone,” Piyasiri joked. “Of course, there are still many people who watch TV but, for many, the way we consume has changed dramatically, so we have had to adapt.”

Piyasiri was keen to point out, though, that hoteliers should never let technology replace the human touch crucial to hospitality.

“While we are innovating in many areas, we still need to provide options that work for different generations of traveller,” he explained. Working in hospitality means keeping the guest experience front and centre, providing efficient service at scale without replacing the human touch.

“As an example, if we introduce in-room tablets for room service ordering, we need to offer the ability for guests to call room service to speak with someone to order. Instead of overwhelming guests with the hospitality equivalent of a webpage full of pop-ups, digital services should be just like any other services in a good hotel – inconspicuous, yet easily accessible,” he said.

A good example of this is IHG’s new IHG Connect service. “When the guest arrives at any IHG hotel with IHG connect, they are automatically connected to high-speed Wi-Fi via their IHG Rewards Club profile,” said Piyasiri. “No more waiting to check-in and get your room number before you can log in.”

This unobtrusive but robust service streamlines the guest experience and makes life easier for the hotel, a perfect example of the kind of win-win solutions that innovative digital services can provide.

“Technology shouldn’t replace hospitality, it should complement it,” Piyasiri concluded. “The important thing is providing the human connection to those who value it, and technology and automation for those who prefer that.”