Now in its 15th year, the Hotel Visionary Awards seek to honor hotel companies for outstanding leadership in customer-facing and enterprise innovation. This year’s winners were announced during the 2019 HT-NEXT Awards program, sponsored by Datatrend, in New Orleans on April 10. Honorees proved that hospitality is at the forefront of the new crusade for customized convenience. Both guests and employees continue to seek streamlined and effective methods for communicating and receiving or providing service. This year’s winners demonstrate how embracing innovation, from artificial intelligence to a hyper-focus on integration, can yield big business benefits.The 2019 Visionaries are: Choice Hotels International, IHG, Hyatt and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
Here are their stories...
In 1965, IHG introduced HOLIDEX, the first computerized hotel reservation system. Over the years, the company customized HOLIDEX to address the changing needs of owners, hotel colleagues and guests. But travelers’ expectations have continued to evolve and today’s guests seek efficiency, flexibility, and a completely new dream, shop and book experience. To give guests what they are looking for, IHG realized it required a new technology platform that would enable its applications to work together seamlessly while also allowing the company to evolve as the market continues to change. The result is IHG Concerto, the most sophisticated cloud-based technology platform in the industry.
Concerto ensures all systems are discrete and interface with each other through a unified services layer. IHG’s Global Technology division bundled like functions and eliminated interdependencies. Systems can now work with each other but also stand alone. This enables IHG to upgrade its systems by enhancing existing systems, or switching out systems entirely, without jeopardizing the entire IHG ecosystem.
“The IHG Concerto platform provides flexibility for the future,” noted Lisa LoRusso, IHG Vice President, Revenue Management Systems and Tools. “If we find, or create, a better solution for an existing capability, we can replace that system without impacting the others. Concerto allows us to grow well into the future — for perhaps another 50 years just as HOLIDEX served us.”
As an added bonus, the IHG team introduced a new common user experience. Instead of jumping between applications, users can access capabilities across systems through a common interface.
“Today, Concerto’s focus on improved user efficiency means hotel colleagues can complete many tasks more quickly, allowing them to spend more time with guests,” LoRusso said. “That extra minute or two of focused attention during check in or while managing a reservation can make a lasting, positive impression.”
A key solution within Concerto is the next-generation Guest Reservation System (GRS) created in partnership with Amadeus. This system is a powerful global platform for hotels to manage guest interaction that’s intuitive for hotel teams and will help IHG accelerate its vision to revolutionize and personalize the guest experience through technology.
“Because of Amadeus’ experience in the airline industry, they were an ideal partner to build the core Guest Reservations System while we focused on our knowledge of the hospitality industry and further enhancement of our in-house proprietary systems, along with other third party systems,” LoRusso explained.
The GRS solution requires extremely high resiliency, as well as low latency. All inventory and items are in an “active” state with bookings being managed live with automatic failover if needed.
The capabilities of the new GRS will also enable IHG to move towards attribute-based selling like highlighting views and room size, and allow hotels to inventory and sell non-traditional items. As the ecosystems mature, IHG will be able to provide even more ways for guests to further customize their stays.
“In the future, our ability to create personalized offers will help guests feel more satisfied and more connected to IHG and our portfolio of brands,” LoRusso explained. “Research shows consumers feel a greater sense of loyalty to a brand when they’ve played a key role in the creation of their experience.”
During 2018, IHG implemented Concerto at more than 5,600 hotels in more than 100 countries — all while IHG aggressively grew its business year-over-year. In the next few years, IHG’s Concerto will begin to realize its true potential, LoRusso predicts.
“Owners will have a new portal in Concerto to help them manage their business; guests will be able to customize stays and have a new arrivals experience,” she explains. “Hotels will be able to make personalized offers based on new data and insights about our guests, and manage groups and events in a whole new way.”
CHOICE HOTELS INTERNATIONAL
Choice Hotels International is one of the world’s largest hotel companies with more than 7,000 franchised hotels in more than 40 countries and territories. Prior to 2018, the company was running on a 27-year-old global reservation system (GRS) — created before the internet was a primary booking channel. While the legacy system performed reliably, Choice needed to bring new business capabilities to market faster and decrease the amount of time it took to onboard new OTA, switch, and metasearch partners. In addition, Choice faced
the very real prospect that its GRS physical hardware could not keep pace with ever-increasing annual peak season activity.
Choice recognized the need to take bold action.
“Many companies in the travel sector hadn’t updated their GRS infrastructure in decades — well before the advent of e-commerce and mobile,” said Sireesha Kunduri, vice president of engineering for distribution and revenue management. “Legacy systems were showing their age as increased digital consumer demands challenged our systems’ ability to operate safely and efficiently. Ultimately, our systems weren’t designed to handle today’s volume and ever-changing consumer behaviors. We knew we needed to lead this digital evolution and get Choice future ready.”
This left Choice Hotels with a dilemma: Build or buy a new GRS? There had been tales of travel companies trying the “build” option and ultimately failing, causing wide-scale financial and reputational harm. Choice was undeterred by precedent. Not only was the company confident in its in-house engineering capabilities, there wasn’t a product on the market that met Choice’s requirements — two factors that tipped the scales in favor of developing a new cloud-based GRS platform in-house. The result was choiceEDGE.
“Choice Hotels is the first major hotel company to code our own, proprietary GRS and global distribution system,” Kunduri explained. “We succeeded where others failed. While other companies have purchased third-party software off-the-shelf, we knew the best option for our 7,000 franchised hotels was to use our in-house engineers to design a custom solution. After all, no one knows our business better than us.”
Using Amazon Web Services (AWS) as its cloud platform provider, Choice developed an entirely new platform based on modern technologies and techniques from the ground up, leveraging technologies available in AWS. This micro-service-based platform includes sophisticated DevOps facilities for continuous integration and deployment of new software, high-volume message processing, system health and statistics monitoring, tagging and tracking specific service calls.
Choice also teamed up with Amazon’s experts to identify uses for machine learning across its businesses and guide its teams in the development of new machine learning-enabled features, products, and processes. This has allowed Choice to achieve several new capabilities, from providing a more personalized customer experience to identifying systems issues — and resolving those issues without human intervention.
“choiceEDGE also allows Choice to meet customers where they are in the voice-enabled digital world,” Kunduri says. “The system feeds this information to shoppers, whether they are looking for a hotel room on their mobile phones, laptop, or Google assistant — or via call centers and travel agents.”
When it finally came time to migrate to the new GRS, Choice’s goal was to ensure zero system downtime. This meant it had to migrate hotels gradually onto the GRS, allowing both systems to run simultaneously, with each system running in sync and updating in real-time. This is in stark contrast to other companies who took a “light switch” approach, which is riskier and can create service interruptions for guests and hotel owners alike. “Our franchisees depend on our systems to fuel their small business,” said Kunduri. “I’m proud to report that not only did Choice fulfill our goal of no downtime, but the project — which is the largest technology endeavor in company history — was also completed on schedule.”
Since the deployment of choiceEDGE, Choice Hotels has seen several major benefits:
• choiceEDGE uptime is 99.9% and the shopping and booking response times are twice as fast as legacy systems.
• Unintentional overbooking is down 80 percent, thanks to the system’s ability to push room and rate data to third-party partners faster than ever.
• The time required to onboard partners now takes days instead of weeks or even months.
Beyond what choiceEDGE can do today, it’s the future that excites Kunduri.
“The ability to scale has also allowed us to pursue exciting new growth opportunities that position Choice as a platform company,” said Kunduri. “We’re positioned to meet guests’ needs better than ever before.”
THE COSMOPOLITAN OF LAS VEGAS
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas prides itself on being one of the largest “boutique” hotels in the world. While it has more than 3,000 rooms, 27 restaurants, 13 retail shops, a sprawling casino floor, three distinct pools, an array of entertainment experiences and more than two million Identity Membership & Rewards loyalty members, its goal is for guests to receive the same attention and personalization on property as they would at a small-scale hotel.
“We also desired to increase guest spend and direct bookings, specifically by converting third-party bookers to future direct bookers,” said Tom Evans, CMO.
The resort decided that the best way to achieve these goals was to add a digital touchpoint to create a direct relationship with guests. Enter Rose, a sassy chatbot that uses artificial intelligence and a natural language processing-based platform in conjunction with Reply.ai.
Developed by The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and its digital agency R/GA Chicago, Rose is available to guests as both an SMS and online chat service powered by more than 1,000 automations as well as long-time guest service and concierge employees. Upon check-in, guests receive Rose’s direct phone number which they can text at any point during their stay. Ease-of-use was of paramount importance to The Cosmopolitan. With a simple text, Rose becomes guests’ personal host and makes it seamless for guests to experience everything the resort has to offer — from getting more towels to discovering the best dessert on property. She can even lead them through immersive art, dining, nightlife and scenic tours or tell jokes.
“Rose creates an emotional, personal connection with guests through her quick-witted personality and vast knowledge of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas,” said Evans. “It is through her ability to educate guests about all the resort has to offer while guiding them to book activities like restaurant reservations or spa appointments, that we really see her capabilities.”
Upon Rose’s 2017 launch, she was able to answer 80 percent of guest’s questions automatically and has only gotten smarter in the years following. Her accuracy and fun, quick-witted responses are due in large part to her integration with Reply.ai, a technology partner that specializes in personalized, one-on-one engagement at scale through the use of artificial intelligence.
“Following the implementation of AI with Rose, she now has the ability to use conversational data to learn from it over time, ultimately helping enhance the guest experience,” Evans notes.
Additionally, Rose’s NLP can help her process guest services requests, transferring guests to humans as needed. If she detects that a guest has an issue or concern about a room or service, she can immediately call upon a guest service agent or more internal teams for a quick and seamless resolution. However, this transfer to a live human is not hidden from guest view.
“When Rose is unable to answer a guest question, she lets you know she is going to ‘fetch one of her humans’ to help,” Evans explains. “The handoff is explicit from bot to human and from human back to bot.”
Rose is also connected to The Cosmopolitan’s casino loyalty platform, making her the first chatbot to directly serve casino and loyalty customers. This allows her to tell a customer their rewards status, tier level, how many points are needed to reach the next tier, and can offer personalized promotional offers. If Rose is ever “stumped” by a casino-related question, she transfers to a casino service agent who can text back answers to the customer in real time.
In the first year of incremental rollout, 15,000 guests texted Rose and more than 70 percent were “highly engaged,” or texted with Rose on more than three separate occasions — far exceeding the goal of 45 percent. The guests who use her also tend to spend quite a bit more while at the resort. Guests who used Rose were 33 percent more satisfied with their stay based on guest feedback and spent an average of 15 percent more while on property.
Since her inception, Rose has evolved from a revenue generating tool to an instrumental part of the guest experience. In 2018, The Cosmopolitan had created a Digital Guest Services Team to ensure the resort had “Rose coverage” almost 24 hours a day, and could meet its 60-second response time goal if a human was needed to assist a guest, Evans notes.
When it comes to giving guests what they want, Hyatt recognized that guests expect to consume content in a hotel room the same way they do at home: via streaming service provider. In fact, when researching streaming versus linear TV content, Hyatt found that U.S. adults spend 42 percent more minutes (approximately two hours) watching OTT content compared to linear content. However, finding an easy-to-use streaming or OTT product that would also provide guests with a consistent guest experience proved to be quite difficult as Hyatt had to take into consideration a number of factors that could impact the guest experience, says Jeff Bzdawka, Senior Vice President of Global Hotel Technology.
“When making the decision around a streaming capability, the top priority was ensuring the technology was able to support the most common types of devices guests carry and providing an array of entertainment choices,” he notes. “Guests use a variety of items — smartphones, tablets, laptops — and we wanted to ensure we were providing a solution that worked best with their devices. Additionally, the solution needed to be cost effective for owners and operators.”
To ensure it gave guests the perfect solution, Hyatt monitored the streaming space and watched the evolution of a wide variety of solutions, including SONIFI which first brought its solution to the market in late 2015. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that SONIFI’s STAYCAST solution — powered by Google Chromecast — was announced as Hyatt’s preferred vendor for streaming.
Through this platform, Hyatt provides guests with the ability to stream content from 2,000+ apps to the in-room TV using the World of Hyatt iOS or Android mobile apps as the control. Guests do not need to enter personal information; they simply pair their mobile device to the in-room TV through Hyatt’s exclusive integration with the World of Hyatt mobile app.
When deploying any new technology, hotel owners are often worried about how long deployment will take and if the deployment process will affect the hotel’s bottom line. “The deployment process is simple, and we work with our hotels to ensure they meet the necessary infrastructure requirements,” explains Bzdawka. “From there, SONIFI leads the implementation and deployment with the hotels. On average it takes less than 10 minutes per room, and we average about 60 rooms per day. Our exclusive STAYCAST integration with the World of Hyatt mobile app is enabled and tested for each hotel once the hotel is completely installed.”
The solution offered an industry first: Hyatt effectively decoupled linear content from interactive features. Historically these features have been managed by the same hardware whether that is the TV or the Set-Top-Box (STB). By decoupling, Hyatt not only has greater freedom to deliver the capabilities across a wider variety of hardware (TVs, STBs, etc.) with less chance of impacting the experience for guests, but also reduced linear channel and content provider costs. By leveraging the Chromecast as a set top box, Hyatt properties are able to enjoy additional energy savings as there is less hardware in the room. This innovation results in CapEx savings while delivering on a flexible and expandable platform.
The placement of STAYCAST also serves as an in-room monitoring device to help detect underperforming guest WiFi signals before the guest does. No room visits are required to remotely monitor network health. Viewing a dashboard with aggregated data or using regular reports identifies any issues or isolated weak spots. This monitoring is also helping Hyatt understand minimum bandwidth requirements to ensure a positive guest experience.
“A benefit of STAYCAST is that it experiences internet connectivity in a similar manner to a guest’s mobile device,” Bzdawka explains. “Through STAYCAST monitoring, we are able to see the quality of the WiFi signal and are able to better understand how our network is experienced by guests.”
Since its initial deployment in 2017, Hyatt has seen usage of the STAYCAST streaming solution skyrocket. In 2017, guests averaged five streaming sessions per stay and approximately 353 unique apps were cast onto the in-room television. In 2018, guests were still averaging five streaming sessions per stay, but the number of unique apps cast increased to more than one thousand. Additionally, Hyatt found that more international apps were being cast by hotel guests, with 144 international apps cast in 2018 versus 74 in 2017.
STAYCAST will be available in the majority of Hyatt’s properties by March 31, 2020. Hyatt plans to use the platform to further enhance the in-room entertainment experience.