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Highlights from the 2015 Hotel Tech Forum

There’s a human connection inherent in all facets of hospitality. Even as technology becomes ever-present and more demanded from guests than ever, the core of the hospitality industry centers on service. This merging of a customer-centric culture with next-generation technology was the focus of the 2015 Hotel Technology Forum (HTF). The event’s theme, “Service and Technology Collide,” permeated all of the sessions, workshops and attendees’ own conversations. The eleventh annual HTF brought together a high-level mix of hotel executives and technology suppliers for three days of peer-to-peer networking and educational sessions at the Gran Melia Resort in Puerto Rico from April 22-24, 2015.

The event’s keynote address was delivered by Jim Knight, founder, Knight Speakers and the former head of training & development at Hard Rock International, who immediately revved up the early morning crowd. Knight’s session, titled “How to Create Service that Rocks: Build Unique Guest Experiences, Get Sustainable Results,” encouraged attendees to find new ways to foster differentiated customer experiences through employees that have a shared mindset. He encouraged attendees to “create and embody a guest-obsessed purpose to work” and stressed the importance of having employees who behave like they are in the memory-making business. “Everyone is vanilla,” he said, “so be the chocolate.”

Dion Hinchliffe, IT strategist, continued the first day’s momentum with his insights into “No-Fear Analytics: How to Find and Use Valuable Customer Data.” The session described that data today is real-time, high-volume, unpredictable, less structured, from elsewhere, pervasive and strategic to business. Hinchliffe noted that hospitality organizations should use insight to improve business on a regular basis, but warned, “we are about to enter a golden age of IT as long as we don’t try to do it all ourselves.” He encouraged audience members to consider what is required to move from merely having data to insight, admitting that “adding a data scientist role could be a key add for hotels to move to an insights model.”

Honorary chairperson duties were taken on by David Heckaman, VP technology, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. Heckaman served double duty as moderator for a high-power CIO panel discussing the “Future of Hotel Technology.”  He was joined by Ames Flynn, CIO, Extended Stay America, Matt O’Keefe, CTO, Hyatt Hotels Corp., Martha Poulter, Executive VP & CIO, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and Gabrielle Wolfson, CIO & Sr. Vice President, Wyndham Hotel Group. The panel discussed a wide variety of topics including guest engagement, speed of adoption, and best practices for testing initiatives. O’Keefe stressed that hotels need to evolve quickly and be agile in order to test new initiatives.

One of the highlights of day one was the presentation of the 2015 Hotel Visionary Awards which are given to hotels for outstanding achievement, vision and leadership in technological innovation. This year’s winners were: Fontainebleau Hotel; SilverBirch Hotels & Resorts and Hilton Worldwide (see this month’s cover story for profiles on the winning initiatives).

Attendees found particular value in the hotelier-only workshops which offered an opportunity to address core business challenges in a candid, peer-to-peer, small group format. Kristin Harwell, corporate director of IT, Commune Hotels, and Chuck Marratt, regional director, IT, Benchmark Hospitality International, co-facilitated a workshop on guestroom technology covering such topics as locking, mobile devices, wearables and the need for bring your own content strategies for guests. A concurrent workshop focused on property wide technology and was led by Diane Estner, president of DANNI Enterprises and Ron Hardin, vice president, technology for Davidson Hotels & Resorts.

Asif Khan, founder & president of the Location-Based Marketing Association, gave an eye-opening session on where location-based technology is currently, plus insights into its potential. Khan revealed that 85% of data has a location-based element and offered the comparison that “location is the new cookie” for tracking activity. Addressing the prevalent theme of HTF, Khan also admitted that while beaconing and location technologies are evolving, customer engagement is driven by the emotional side of people and the uniqueness of an experience. “Location has that capability,” he says.

The closing day of the conference was rounded out with two panel discussions, one focusing on “Can Customer Loyalty Be Saved?” and the other on “Innovating Mobility.” The loyalty panel was comprised of Kim Matlock, senior director digital marketing, Hard Rock CafÉ International, Praveen Sharma, vice president, loyalty and business development, United Airlines, and Jason Shorb, global CRM manager, IHG. The session revealed insights into loyalty and rewards including how to offer customized rewards that would appeal to loyalty guests. Shorb revealed that IHG had changed its loyalty program from a “points to perks” structure in order to give benefits that have meaning. Another issue for the group was integration and standardization of systems. “We have to make sure all of our organizations talk together so that we can recognize our fans across locations,” Matlock expressed.

The mobility panel was led by Vivek Shaiva, CIO, LQ Management, and he was joined on stage by Eben Hewitt, CTO, Choice Hotels, and Amy Labroo, senior director of innovation, Wyndham Hotel Group. The trio shared views on how to incorporate mobility into operations without sacrificing the all-important human component and interaction. “A warm welcome at the front desk after a long day of travel is something that you might not want your guests to bypass,” warns Hewitt. Labroo agreed saying that the benefits of mobile functions that allow guests to skip the front desk need to be coupled with other abilities such as room selection. “A lot has to be packaged with it,” she says.

The 2016 Hotel Technology Forum will be held April 20-22, 2016 at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, California. Information will be available at

Attendee Viewpoints
LennyJ.jpg“This event has been a validation that what we’re working on is what everyone else is working on as well. I’m walking away feeling really good about the direction Marriott is heading and where we are now. The peer-to-peer networking is invaluable. I’ve made some new acquaintances and for me, I’m an operations guy, but it’s kind of interesting that I now have IT responsibilities under me, particularly on the guest experience side. It’s an exciting time in the industry. My job keeps changing so it is important to keep reinventing yourself.”
Lenny Jachimowicz, VP, Global Operations, Engineering & Guest Experience, Marriott International

ToddWood.jpg“The best part of HTF is the networking and meeting with vendors. I like the sessions too, particularly the workshops with just hoteliers. You’re able to brainstorm with peers to see where others are focusing. MOHG is working on many things right now, including moving to fully integrated systems. We do a pretty good job interfacing between systems, but we want to move to where we are looking at one version of a guest, inventory and rates. HTNG has helped [with integration], but it’s just a step. We are looking for simplification even from a vendor standpoint.  Industry consolidation helps and the more that happens it will naturally integrate for us.”
Todd Wood, VP Technology, Americas & Global Apps, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group

DonnaHale.jpg“I like the intimacy of HTF. I’ve been able to talk to individuals and have had nice moments to talk to hoteliers to find out what they are doing. Mostly I just wanted to get feedback on EMV and the liability shift; where they’re going, their thoughts on it, and how they think it will affect business. I recently switched out our systems and devices and now here it is two years later and I’m going to have to change again and replace them. Many say that until it’s mandatory and you will be fined, they aren’t going to do anything. I’m more proactive. I may not be ready to implement in October, but I want to be prepared and put in my budget to get the devices that I need because I know eventually I’m going to have to get them.”
Donna Hale, VP Technology, Evans Hotels

Exclusive Hotel Tech Forum Videos: One-on-One Interviews
If you missed out on this year’s Hotel Technology Forum, listen to executives from Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Choice Hotels, Hard Rock International and others share insights from educational sessions, and discuss the top tech priorities they are rolling out in their companies. Watch online at
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