Mission Innovation


Every year, Hospitality Technology asks hotels and restaurants to rate themselves in terms of innovation against competitors. Only 19% of restaurants surveyed in the HT’s 2019 Restaurant Technology Study felt they qualify as true leaders in innovation, but 37% identify as “close followers” or early adopters. On the hotel side, 47% of respondents in the 2019 Lodging Technology Study claim to be ahead of the competition in overall technology innovation. The bar for innovation, however, is continually being raised as the pace of change doesn’t slow. Today’s innovators can easily be tomorrow’s followers, without a clear strategy, flexibility, forward-thinking and a dash of risk-taking. In this mega-report, HT checks in with some of the industry’s heavy hitters to see what kept them in the leader category in 2019 and how they plan to stay there in 2020. 



Creator of Hospitality’s Future

RLH Corporation recently launched an AI virtual agent for central reservations that can answer traveler questions autonomously, confirm, modify and even cancel reservations or transfer guests to a live agent. It also announced RLabs, a subsidiary that was formed to be a technology powerhouse; it creates and houses unique technologies in software, robotics and AI. The company also implemented a new Apple TV solution that improves the in-room guest experience, making room service, content streaming and staff interactions easier, and redesigned its website to be so mobile friendly that hotel guests can book a room in just three clicks.

“You can’t wait for the future; you need to create it. We anticipate our focus to remain on automation and machine learning,” RLH CEO Greg Mount told HT. RLH will also continue to build out AI capabilities to support reservations, its loyalty program and telephony solutions. RLH will be unveiling a housekeeping robot developed in partnership with Peanut Robotics. “The bot is designed to supplement, not replace, the work of a human, with the ultimate goal of enhancing the guest experience.”



Delivering ROI through Innovative AI Measures

TGI Fridays has hinged its digital and technology transformation on the extended utilization of AI applications to increase guest engagement, improve internal operations and enhance the capabilities of restaurant team members.

“Enabling team members to better serve guests through AI-suggested actions has increased guest satisfaction scores by 15% and reduced team member turnover by more than 20%,” Sherif Mityas, Chief Experience Officer, told HT in an October 2018 cover story.

Mityas confirms that TGI Fridays continues to utilize AI to create personalized engagement with the guest. Looking ahead, Mityas reveals that the brand’s key focus area in 2020 will be fostering TGI Fridays’ ability to create personalized engagement both inside and outside the restaurants. He cautions against ever thinking that a technology is “future-ready” as the pace of change is so radical, organizations must focus on being flexible.

“[Brands] need to adapt quickly to utilize technologies that are 1) right for the guest, 2) can be operationalized within the organization and 3) can deliver a measurable and meaningful ROI,” Mityas advises. “Don’t get so enamored with the latest and greatest technology that you stop asking and looking for the next opportunity to create a unique difference in the marketplace in the eyes of your guests.”



Making Waves with New Tech

Carnival Corp. introduced OceanMedallion, an IoT wearable device that communicates with thousands of intelligent sensors and devices throughout the ship to improve the guest experience. For instance, guests can use it to pay for products, enter guestrooms, order food and have it delivered to them, wager real money on casino games, intelligently navigate the ship as well as locate services for friends and family, stream content, access their itinerary, and play games. 

Additionally, the company debuted MedallionNet, its new Wi-Fi network which offers guests up to 1.5GB/sec of internet data speeds. Carnival also updated its mobile app to include online check-in functionality and pre-cruise purchasing functionality (excursions, spa treatments, dining reservations, etc.).

“To us, innovation and digital transformation have not been the goals — they’ve been tools we’ve used to deliver on the strategy. That means keeping the guest in the center of all of your strategic business decisions,” John Padgett, chief experience and innovation officer for Carnival Corporation, told HT. “Instead of replacing personal connections between passengers and crew, the [Medallion] technology is being used to turbo charge those connections. Our goal is for technology to disappear from the entire equation and empower next level human interactions.”



Serving Innovation from all Angles

When Panera launched its Panera 2.0 initiative in 2014 it was hailed as an innovator. Since that rollout, Panera has expanded its digital capabilities to create an enhanced experience for “to go” and “eat in” customers. In 2019, the company developed and implemented its own custom POS that is tightly integrated with other parts of its technical ecosystem. The brand has also fostered the rapid development and implementation of a platform that integrates DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats with its iCafe technology creating an overall solution where consumers can order from these sites while Panera provides the delivery service. 

According to Mike Prusaczyk, VP, Enterprise Architecture and IT Strategy, in 2020 Panera plans to continue its migration to the cloud, refactoring some platforms to be cloud native with the intention of making apps more resilient while optimizing total costs. The company will also continue to execute on its continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) strategy by focusing on automating aspects of the integration and deployment of the new POS platform.

“Leveraging the latest technology, we will have superior configuration management capabilities across the 40,000+ devices across all the Panera cafes,” Prusaczyk says. “Innovation will occur from all over so the strategy needs to address the importance of agility enabling businesses to obtain first mover advantages.”



Global Platforms Power Growth with Scalability

In May 2018, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, then Wyndham Hotel Group, a subsidiary of Wyndham Worldwide Corp., completed its acquisition of La Quinta Holdings’ hotel franchising and hotel management business which meant the addition of 900+ franchised hotels. Behind the scenes, Scott Strickland, CIO, and his team had to migrate 908 hotels onto all new systems including PMS, central reservation system, service platform and loyalty in 24 hours, making it one of the largest same-day systems migrations in the history of the hospitality industry. 

Part of this migration entailed working with platform vendors to replicate the attributes that La Quinta was doing well and build out more functionalities. Wyndham was able to minimize a number of integration points, “but is pulling the data from all of these platforms to better analyze and report on them,” Strickland explains. “We won’t have a physical data center anymore in the Wyndham environment; it will be cloud-based which ultimately allows us to focus on the franchisee and the guest experience.”

According to Strickland, the lynchpin of innovation is going to be the consolidation of all the data and then mining it for new ways to better service Wyndham guests and franchisees. Strickland shares that a multi-year data initiative is being launched with a first big “go-live” planned in mid-September. Wyndham is investing in its loyalty and booking app and has made strides to address what Strickland identified as a weak link: Internet at the hotel.

“Through a partnership with Cisco Meraki, we’re providing Hotel Connectivity Service to franchisees so that they don’t have to worry about the internet at their hotels,” Strickland says. “Our goal is that when guests travel to a Wyndham they know they will have a consistently strong Internet experience and we can start to enable cooler things at our hotels.”



Driving Innovation in Delivery

In October, Domino’s Pizza will begin using Nuro’s autonomous delivery vehicles in Houston to deliver online orders. Customers will be able to track the unmanned vehicle from the Domino’s app and will be provided a unique pin code to retrieve their pizza.

CEO Ritch Allison, in an earnings call, said he’s excited about the rollout of GPS tracking technology, which will “put fantastic technology in the hands of our customers to get better transparency into their pizza order, and will give restaurant operators additional information as they manage the efficiency around delivery operations.”



A Pioneering, Ambitious Innovator

IHG recently partnered with tech company Winnow to implement AI technology to help its hotels automatically track, measure and reduce food waste — by up to 30% — for more sustainable and efficient restaurant and bar operations. A partnership with Baidu let IHG launch AI smart guestrooms in some of its hotels in China. To improve the guest experience, it partnered with Healthe by Lighting Science to install circadian lighting to help guests sleep better while traveling. On the backend, IHG recently debuted IHG Concerto — a technology platform, developed with Amadeus, that incorporates a new guest reservation system, revenue management system, as well as other technologies to improve both the guest and the staff experience. 

“To be pioneering and ambitious over many decades requires an ability to capture trends, thoughts and opinions, and to realize ways to bring them to life,” George Turner, chief commercial officer, told HT. According to Turner, IHG will continue to innovate in the coming year by piloting IHG Studio, a seamless direct casting of entertainment from guests’ personal devices to TVs in each room; accepting WeChat pay at hotels in China; and continuing to leverage AI across the enterprise to better assist guests during their travel journey. “Personalization is key to the success of the hotel industry and leveraging tech, digital innovation and information will play an essential role in our future as a cutting-edge business,” Turner added.


Embracing Future-Ready Solutions

About two years ago, BurgerFi rolled out self-ordering kiosks to its corporate stores. Earlier this year, customers were able to opt-in to the kiosks’ facial recognition feature. For quick reorders, customers can have the order “remembered” either by credit card, face or mobile number.

Established in 2011, the “better burger” chain is proud of how its technology has provided the “convenience, accessibility and ease for guests’ ordering,” explains Hannah Keyser, director of digital marketing.

Its mobile app has integrated mobile payment for a frictionless guest experience. Voice-activated rapid reorder lets guests call and re-order favorites quickly. “Our website delivery integration lets guests customize their order through the website or mobile app and have it delivered to their home or office,” Keyser says.

Expect more innovations to keep up with the growing demand of off-premise sales. “We are working on a delivery tracker with built in GPS feature to track delivery orders made through BurgerFi.com in real-time,” explains Keyser. “This will provide guests with transparency and understanding of where and how long until food is delivered. In addition, we are testing virtual drive-thru and curbside tech to continue to provide convenience to guests.”



Maximizing Opportunities

In 2018, Interstate Hotels & Resorts hired Mike Wylie to lead up the eCommerce efforts, driving innovative growth and impacting global distribution. First he built out the eCommerce team by tripling it in size. Since then, it has built and launched a proprietary program to help the sales team discover and find new sales leads via Google.

“Within a couple days after launching, the Cambria Chicago found and contacted a new lead and ended up closing a big piece of new business,” Wylie shares. “This tool is finding millions of dollar’s worth of new leads, so we are excited to track the overall results.”

In 2019, Andrew Arthurs was named CIO. When asked what advancement he thinks will have the most impact on the industry, Arthurs points to AI. “We see this with voice assistance, chat assistants and increased automation during the hotel discovery and booking stage,” he says. “At Interstate, we can also expect to see more use cases with AI-enabled, back-of-house solutions that will enhance productivity.”

He also believes in incubating ideas from all areas of the organization. “Innovation is a collaborative exercise,” Arthurs says. “In order to evolve, it is important to approach technological investments with an agile mindset.”


Master of Digital Reinvention

Chipotle has bounced back from a food safety nightmare to trailblaze in digital innovation. With digital orders soaring to more than 1 million a week to ring up 15.7% of sales, Chipotle is transforming its back- and front-of-house to support digital demand by adding pickup shelves and second make-lines to all locations by the end of the year. The fast-casual brand has been expanding its test of Chipotlanes, drive-thrus exclusively for digital order pickup.

In a recent earnings call, CEO Brian Niccol revealed, “We’re making progress on throughput. So when you think about all the initiatives that are going on, I think we are operating at a higher level than in the past.”

Increasing the number of Chipotlanes and the ranks of its loyalty program, which launched in March and has 5 million members, are among its goals for the next year. “We’re going to continue to build enrollment,” Niccol said. “As you build that enrollment, it gives us a bigger universe to create the right programs to incentivize behaviors.”


A VR, AI Titan

Best Western has not shied away from using AI. For instance, the Best Western Rewards Chat Bot for Facebook Messenger uses AI to help members access their rewards account, receive special offers, check points balance and receive answers to questions about membership perks. A recent ad campaign with IBM Watson and its use of AI resulted in users spending twice as long engaging with the ads compared to the industry average, eight engagements per session, and the campaign generated 1,200 one-on-one branded conversations.

BW has also found effective uses for virtual reality with its I Care Every Guest, Every Time hotel staff training program that uses VR and avatars to design and deliver simulations that mimic real-life customer interactions as a way of training staff. Meanwhile, the Best Western Virtual Reality Experience (BWVRE) allows guests to experience all hotel areas in advance of booking or stay. 

“The ability to integrate with new technologies is critical to the modern hotel company’s success in today’s hyper-competitive environment,” Greg Adams, SVP and CDO, told HT. “Our focus is to continue making it easier for our technology partners to integrate with our various platforms, allowing us to take advantage of new capabilities as they become available.”



Raising the Bar

McDonald’s raised the digital innovator bar when it acquired Dynamic Yield, a personalization and decision logic technology company, earlier this year. At 700 U.S. locations, the global QSR brand rolled out digital menu boards that vary suggested offers by time of day, weather and trending menu items. The duo is working to provide a seamless ordering experience for customers across McDonald’s digital platforms including its self-ordering kiosks and mobile app, CEO Steve Easterbrook said in a recent earnings call with analysts.

Easterbrook is looking to delivery, already a $3 billion business for the company and its franchise locations, to fuel future growth. “Ultimately we really want to be able to offer customers two ways of ordering:” through a third-party delivery service and through McDonald’s global mobile app. “We believe we’re making good progress,” he added. “Obviously there’s a fair bit of technology work that has to go on to integrate it.”


Setting the Pace of Change

In 2017, Marriott announced a partnership with Legrand and Samsung to unveil its IoT Guestroom Lab — where the company can test “smart” technologies before rolling out to all properties. Since then, the company has continued its innovative leadership, announcing important tech initiatives such as providing all housekeepers with panic buttons, a Facebook Messenger chatbot to help future employees find the right job for their talents and location, as well as prototypes such as shower doors that can save steam doodles and send them to guest smartphones. The company has also announced a series of partnerships with tech companies such as Volara, to power its Amazon Alexa guestroom tech, and Alibaba in China, to trial facial recognition technology. It has tested augmented reality applications such as its Portal to Paradise App that allows guests to visit eight resorts with 360-degree views.

“Marriott Hotels promises to embrace the pace of change. We are constantly looking for new ways to use technology to enhance our guest experience,” said Matthew Carroll, vice president and global brand manager, Marriott Hotels in a recent press release. 

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