2018 Hotel Visionaries

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2018 Hotel Visionaries

By Dorothy Creamer, Editor and Anna Wolfe, Senior Editor - 06/14/2018

Now in its 14th year, the Hotel Visionary Awards seek to honor hotel companies for outstanding leadership in customer-facing and enterprise innovation. The 2018 winners were announced during the HT-NEXT Awards program, sponsored by Datatrend (www.datatrend.com). Honorees exemplify how forward-thinking companies are responding to a new normal — an era where exponential growth in technology has resulted in guests having incredibly advanced technology in their own homes — or in their pockets. From artificial intelligence to blockchain, the recurring theme with this year’s winners is that technology must not only improve the way companies do business, but must also deliver the kinds of experiences, services and interactions guests want.

The 2018 Visionaries are: Caesars Entertainment, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Worldwide, EAST, Miami and Nordic Choice Hotels. Here are their stories...

CUSTOMER-FACING INNOVATOR | CAESARS ENTERTAINMENT

Elevating & Automating Guest Experience While Improving Efficiency

Michael Marino

SVP & Chief Experience Officer, Caesars Entertainment

How do you empower today’s digitally savvy customers who expect on-demand service 24/7? For Caesars Entertainment (www.caesars.com) the answer came in the form of a chatbot named Ivy. Caesars prides itself on empowering guests with innovation that helps to provide seamless, efficient experiences and the company believes that offering automated options will be the key to next-generation service. 

Ivy, created by GoMoment (www.gomoment.com), is an automated guest engagement platform for hotels powered by IBM Watson. Caesars Entertainment is the first major gaming company in Las Vegas to offer a widespread guest text messaging program with built-in artificial intelligence.

The company began its rollout with a couple select boutique properties — Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace and The Cromwell in December 2016. Other locations were added including: Caesars Palace, The LINQ Hotel & Casino and more recently, Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, Harrah’s Las Vegas and Harrah’s New Orleans. The company continues to add locations in Las Vegas and is now expanding into other markets to test the technology’s impact there. 

“[As of April 2018], more than 14,000 hotel rooms offer service by Ivy and by the end of June, we expect that number to be closer to 20,000,” reports Michael Marino, SVP & chief experience officer. 

After checking in, guests who have provided a cell phone number will receive a welcome message from Ivy encouraging them to text her with any questions or requests. Ivy allows guests to request the services they need to enhance their stay all from their mobile device. Ivy can book dining, entertainment and spa experiences and facilitate housekeeping and maintenance requests. 

While Ivy is an automated artificial intelligence system, a human touch is incorporated when Ivy cannot provide a confident response. The employee interface was one of the deciding factors in Caesars’ selection of GoMoment as a partner. “A business like ours gets many random questions and we have a lot of things to sell,” Marino notes. “We wanted a solution to be more conversational than robotic and go beyond just answering FAQs to create a relationship with customers. Finding that balance is what is driving our success.”

In addition to the hotel front desk agents, a specially trained universal agent team is available to provide around the clock coverage to address requests or inquiries. The average resolution time for manual guest text messages is less than
one minute. 

Marino notes that where Ivy excels is providing guests with the instantaneous acknowledgement of a request. Marino says that the average response is under two minutes, but stresses that a response from the bot is instantaneous. The two-minute average includes responses that require manual intervention. When that is the case, a response is sent to let guests know the request was received and another when service is on its way. “We want guests to get a reaction right away,” Marino says. “They want to know they’ve been heard.”   

Ivy also surveys guests during the stay, allowing Caesars to address issues in real-time and avoid unnecessary negative feedback after the fact. Users may opt out of receiving messages from Ivy at any time, but guests can continue to text with Ivy once they return home for common requests such as to obtain a copy of their folio or locate a missing item. Guests who engage with Ivy rated their overall experience an average of five points higher than guests who knew about Ivy but did not engage.

“This area is moving so fast,” Marino notes. “The next iteration is to drive usage by making guests aware that this self-service is available and the best way to get their requests delivered quickly.” 

 

CUSTOMER-FACING INNOVATOR | FOUR SEASONS HOTELS & RESORTS

Giving Voice to a More Intimate Guest Experience

Marco Trecroce

CIO, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

The successful launch of a mobile app in 2015 was not an impetus for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts technology staff to rest on its laurels. Instead, the team set out to further enhance the digital guest experience. Taking note of the global trend of decreasing app downloads while the use of messaging platforms continued to grow, Four Seasons set out to incorporate chat functionality into its app. 

“The ability to add chat was always on the roadmap,” explains Marco Trecroce, CIO. “We recognized that the technology is becoming pretty pervasive especially in countries like China, but deploying a global technology that provides a common experience to everyone is complicated.”

Despite the challenges, Trecroce stresses that finding a solution with chat functionality was paramount to delivering on the brand’s core values and renowned service culture. Four
Seasons conceived of the custom criteria that makes the platform unique based on what guests would find important and continues to iterate based on staff and guest feedback to remain up-to-date. 

Four Seasons was responsible for creating the workflow for multi-departmental conversations that would make messaging run more efficiently for the staff using it. In addition, Four Seasons compiled guest feedback to inform further upgrades to the software, tested translation accuracy, and managed the pilot program of chat in properties around the world. 

Four Seasons recognized that they would need to create a service that was accessible on all of the platforms where their guests were already engaging. The company then began to explore an omni-channel approach to chat. A differentiator for  the Four Seasons platform is that it is powered by people, rather than a chatbot. In order to also meet the needs of its global business, Four Seasons focused on providing a multi-lingual, omni-channel, 24/7 service that would be hosted at the property level, guaranteeing best-in-class response times, in the language and on the platform preferred by the guest. 

To achieve this, the company brought development in-house and worked in collaboration with development partner, Alliants  and omni-channel messaging platform, Smooch (www.smooch.io) to create a custom chat platform specific to Four Seasons’ needs. The resulting platform is available in more than 100 languages, works around the clock, and is accessible on a range of messaging platforms including the Four Seasons App, SMS, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and Kakao Talk. 

The service is powered by people in real-time and is hosted at the property where guest requests are received, resulting in response times much faster than industry average, with 95% of messages receiving responses in less than five minutes, and 75% receiving responses in 90 seconds or less. Chat has also been successful from a guest satisfaction standpoint, fostering a 25% increase in guest satisfaction on the mobile app, and with 51% chat engagement for those aware of the platform.  

“Guests are engaging with us earlier in the pre-arrival stage through chat,” Trecroce admits. “Once they do it once, that’s the way they prefer to communicate. On-property the chat conversations are becoming more pervasive — guests won’t call, and instead they use chat as their primary communication vehicle.”  

Trecroce believes that the growth of chat technology will be exponential. While still in its infancy he states, it’s exploding. As a case study, the Four Seasons app with voice technology is a portent of things to come. “Adoption was quick,” Trecroce illustrates. “We rolled out in June 2017 to a handful of hotels in pilot. By September, the word was out and by November it was at 100% and became the defacto system for all our hotels. Now, it’s just the way we work.”

CUSTOMER-FACING INNOVATOR | EAST, MIAMI

Integrated Infrastructure to Support 

Future-Ready Hotel

Mihai Bote

CHTP, Director of Technology, EAST, Miami

When Swire Hotels (www.swirehotels.com) decided to enter the U.S. market, it did so with style and ultra-modern conveniences in mind. EAST, Miami offers distinctive experiences for discerning guests seeking innovation, style and personalized service. From the planning stages, tech solutions were a core part of the amenities planned for this world-class property that includes 352 guest rooms and 89 residence suites.

Led by Mihai Bote, CHTP, director of technology, the technology team was entrusted not only with the selection of the technology stack, but also with securing these business partnerships. EAST, Miami was the pilot property to use these ground-breaking tech solutions that secure, streamline and personalize the guest experience. 

Paperless check-in and check-out, a next-generation native mobile app, which features mobile check-in and mobile key for IOS and Android created in partnership with TripCraft, and in-room content streaming powered by Hotwire’s Fision EchoCast are a few of the amenities. Of note is EAST, Miami’s successful integration and implementation of Otis Smart Dispatch Panels, ASSA ABBLOY and VingCard RFID Guest Keys, powered by Braxos Solutions. This solution provides secure, one-touch access to guest floors and staff controlled access to meeting areas on a custom-schedule basis.

The key task: integrating VingCard RFID guest keys into Otis Smart Dispatch Panels to allow seamless one-touch access.

“Braxos was the only middleware willing to create a brand new API,” said Bote. “The expectation was to provide a turn-key solution between  platforms.” 

Bote said he is proud of the final solution, which took about 18 months to develop. “As a result of our concentrated efforts, EAST, Miami has become a benchmark in technological innovation, pushing the boundaries of creativity and collaboration to benefit both guests and staff alike,” said Bote.

The solutions were part of the opening design and have been 100% operational since 2017. The main result for EAST, Miami is an integrated and secure hotel, that Bote believes “has become a template for properties in the USA and Asia.” 

Swire Hotels also operates properties in Hong Kong, Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai. Using the EAST, Miami solutions as a template, these properties will add a tech solution that is tailored to fit each property’s local operational needs.

 

ENTERPRISE INNOVATOR | HILTON WORLDWIDE

Connected Room Bridges Gap Between
Streamlining Ops & Improving Guest Experience

Josh Weiss

VP of Brand and Guest Technology, Hilton Worldwide

Technology is increasingly being tasked to improve guest experience as digital natives become more pervasive. Hilton’s Connected Room delivers on this as it leverages mobile-first technology that guests routinely use in their daily lives and empowers guests to personalize their stay in a seamless, hands-on way. Guests who stay at Connected Room-enabled properties will be able to use the Hilton Honors app to manage things they would traditionally do manually in a room, including controlling temperature, lighting and TV. 

The Connected Room also streamlines operations. For example, engineering will be able to see when batteries are low on digital key locks, or when lightbulbs have blown before it becomes a nuisance to the guest. Since hotel rooms are vacant 70% of the time, the Connected Room allows hotels to power down devices when a room is unoccupied, reducing energy consumption. Connected Room was developed in-house.

“We have designed the platform so that it can ultimately scale to our global operation across more than 100 countries and 14 current brands,” says Josh Weiss, vice president of brand and guest technology. 

Connected devices in the room and guests’ mobile devices communicate with the Connected Room “brain” via a combination of Zigbee and Bluetooth Low Energy protocols. 

Connected Room is one of the innovations that is featured at Hilton’s Innovation Gallery, the operator’s experiential showcase for product developments that will shape the future of Hilton hospitality.

Armed with feedback from guests and staff, the in-house team created a minimum viable product. Hilton began testing Connected Room at 500 rooms in 2017 and is “rapidly scaling” to hit 1,000 rooms in the coming months. 

“The plan is to prove the solution at a small subset of hotels then scale rapidly once bugs are eliminated,” says Weiss. 

The project parallels that of Digital Key, which entered beta in 2015 and is now at more than 3,400 hotels. (At properties that have Digital Key, guests use the Hilton Honors app not only to check in and select their room, but also open doors that would usually be opened with a key card.) The team has built a platform where they can push new features, apps and functionality to existing devices over time, without the need for additional hardware. 

Software and hardware have been updated since the debut, and the team actively solicits feedback from guests and staff. 

“We are running this in an agile way, constantly upgrading components,” says Weiss. “We are in the fourth iteration, and we’re not done. We are determined to have the best guest experience in the world.”

ENTERPRISE INNOVATOR | NORDIC CHOICE HOTELS

Building Blocks of Opportunity

Christian Lunden

Director of Future Business, Nordic Choice Hotels

Nordic Choice Hotels is building the next generation distribution channel for hotel rooms. In December 2017, Nordic’s Hobo Hotel in Stockholm became the first hotel to use Winding Tree, a blockchain-based distribution platform for the travel industry. Winding Tree’s aim is to decentralize travel, making travel cheaper for consumers and more profitable for suppliers. 

“We are the first hotel chain ever on this kind of open blockchain platform,” explains Christian Lunden, director of future business for Nordic Choice Hotels. “Today we’re using a test network to explore how the bookings flow through a blockchain and at what stages this can be best integrated into our existing tech stack.”

The blockchain initiative is the latest step in Nordic Choice Hotels’ journey to create “the world’s best ecosystem for digital booking and guest journey.” About two years ago, the operator launched its eBerry division with that directive in mind. There’s great promise for what this technology means not only for Nordic but also for all hotel operators and travel companies that are chained to the current distribution system. The technology is still in a beta phase, and Nordic Choice Hotels plans to roll out the first platform later this year. 

“The platform is looking to expand far beyond hotel rooms, adding inventory from airlines, car rentals, tours, activities and more,” Lunden explains. “We have now gone from doing this in a small test to build it so it can be scaled fast in a very easy way. “The interest in this kind of platform is huge.”