The Internet of Things (IoT) has evolved from the buzzy trend dujour to a validated strategy to improve operations, safety and guest experience in a flexible, future-ready manner. Hoteliers increasingly acknowledge the need to take a thoughtful approach to integrating IoT into their infrastructure: More than two-thirds of hoteliers plan to have an IoT platform in place by the end of 2019, according to Hospitality Technology’s 2018 Customer Engagement Technology Study.
A good IoT platform is a place to “create and manage applications, to run analytics, and to store and secure your data. Like an operating system for a laptop, a platform does a lot of things in the background that makes life easier and less expensive for developers, managers and users,” according to McKinsey’s “Making Sense of Internet of Things Platforms” article.
According to HTNG’s whitepaper titled “Internet of Things Fundamentals,” “application-specific logic and data should be separate from underlying architecture, with the architecture being flexible enough to support a wide variety of applications.”
The IoT platform marketplace remains fragmented; McKinsey counts more than 100 providers, including broad-based and industry- and device-specific providers. By paying close attention to the characteristics of vendor solutions such as use of industry standards and protocols, integration, flexibility, security, privacy and partner ecosystem, hoteliers can start an IoT journey with specific, problem-solving use cases while leaving the door open to add and manage a much more diverse set of solutions.
The following are 5 steps to establishing an effective IoT environment.
1 Set your vision.
Identify the kinds of problems you are trying to solve and create a short list of high-priority use cases. At Hotel Blu Vancouver, guestroom voice-activated assistant devices were a high priority for early use cases. “We want to ensure we are relevant and always ahead of the rest of the competition in terms of technology,” says Shannon Gu, general manager.
For a hotel prioritizing energy savings, the ability to monitor and control environmental devices may be the main focus early on. For many properties, compliance with the AHLA’s 5-Star Promise, a pledge to provide hotel employees across the U.S. with employee safety devices (ESDs), is a high IoT priority.
2 Assess the current state.
Many hotels have been using IoT, such as sensors on mechanicals to alert operations if a device needs urgent attention. Others have already installed remote door locks, or smart thermostats. Understanding how those systems are architected and what communication protocols they use helps shape the specs an IoT platform choice will seek to accommodate.
Hilton accounted for the fact that many properties have already installed some IoT as it developed its Connected Rooms platform. The team defined its own core platform consisting of an edge controller housed behind the TV in every guest room. This provides Hilton’s interactive TV experience and supports optional IoT devices such as thermostats and lighting controls. The system is being tested in more than 500 rooms near Memphis. Hilton has also developed IoT core guidance for its wide portfolio of properties that includes testing and certifying devices that are highly compatible with its buildings, systems and operations and the guest experiences they want to deliver.
“It became clear that as we approached IoT in hospitality we needed to design for flexibility,” says Josh Weiss, VP, brand and guest technology for Hilton. “We couldn’t align on one exact type and manufacturer of hardware, one exact set of network conditions for 6,000+ hotels around the world.”
The platform would need to accommodate a wide range of needs, incorporate industry standard radio protocols and accommodate “absolutely non-negotiable things like security, safety, privacy and reliability,” as well as affordability, he says. While Hilton is starting with the Connected Room concept, its approach will also allow for operations, safety and other uses.
Hilton’s current platform uses Zigbee, but “We’re paying very close attention to mesh and want to be able to accommodate additional types of protocols and standards that make sense over time,” says Weiss.
3 Consider open versus closed networks.
Makers of specific IoT solutions often offer out-of-the-box solutions, sometimes with proprietary gateways and pre-validated devices that run on top of current networks, to make solutions very easy to deploy. But if the next IoT product, and the one after that, is not compatible and cannot share a platform, hoteliers can end up with many disparate IoT networks, each with their own protocols, security and management requirements, and available only to devices compatible with that vendor’s ecosystem. As devices proliferate, hoteliers may want to connect and extract data from a large number and variety of endpoints for better insight and control of guest experiences and hotel operations.
So it’s important to fully understand an IoT product’s network approach. Royal Park Hotel, for example, chose a Ruckus Wireless network as its IoT platform, upgrading its current Ruckus wireless access points to IoT-enabled APs with Zigbee and BLE radios and a controller that can manage both types of traffic.
“It puts us into the future; we won’t have to think about changing for a decade,” says Scott Rhodes, director of engineering, Royal Park Hotel. “It definitely gives you a feeling of security that there’s not going to be a need to do any upgrading for a while.” Zigbee is most commonly used in sensors, and BLE tends to be used for location services and beaconing technology.
According to HTNG, “Vendor-specific platforms typically offer streamlined deployment, more robust support and greater simplicity while multi-platform options offer greater flexibility. Vendor-specific solutions are typically
best suited to business-critical systems where seamless integration and simplified support are paramount.”
Decision-makers at Innisfree Hotels make product selections such as PMS and IoT with integration in mind.
“For the most part we’re at the behest of the device providers and our PMS, our technology stack, as to what integrates with what. However, there are some solutions now that allow us to create or facilitate the transfer of data and the translation ourselves; that is something that we’re currently looking into,” says Joshua Herron, manager, task force and special projects for Innisfree.
The company installed the Angie interactive guestroom assistant, which is integrated with a range of hospitality solutions, in its Mercantile Hotel in New Orleans, and plans expansion to other properties.
4 Ensure the right ecosystem.
For both Hilton and Innisfree, an IoT provider’s partners are an important consideration. As Hilton seeks to provide guidance to its diverse portfolio of properties, they wanted the core platform to integrate with an array of owner/operators’ preferred hospitality vendors, working with them to ensure compatibility and testing and certifying solutions when possible.
Some IoT platform vendors provide tools to ease this integration, such as enabling partner solutions to self-install on the network, providing an API and writing software development kits with sample code to demonstrate how to talk to the network. Testing and validation programs ensure that devices will integrate smoothly into the platform. Comparing an IoT platform provider’s list of partners against current vendors and those of interest will help ensure easier integration of multiple IoT products down the road.
5 Take a stringent approach to security.
One frequently cited issue with early IoT solutions is their limited or non-existent security features. Because today’s hospitality use cases are sensitive and strategic, hoteliers need robust, end-to-end IoT security and adherence to privacy regulations.
It’s important for hoteliers to understand how a given approach will secure data packets from the device, through the switch, to the controller, and then to the cloud. Issues to probe include: how many parties control the network as data moves through each stage, who they are, and whether data and network security are their core competencies or an add-on. Another thing to keep in mind is what standards are used. Hoteliers using multiple, device-specific IoT solutions will need to take extra care to be sure no vulnerabilities are introduced via multiple networks with different approaches to security.