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Too much hotel technology?

Alighting system so complicated you need a manual just to figure out how to keep every light in the room from turning on at once; a preprogrammed iPod on the fritz; walkie-talkies for keeping track of children that produce only static. These are just a few of the problems detailed by unhappy hotel guests in a Wall Street Journal piece titled "The Heartbreak of High-Tech Hotels" (May 3, 2007).

The article posits that hotels, flush with cash from record consumer spending, are engaged in a "technological arms race" that is leaving frustrated guests in its wake. Smith Travel Research, in fact, indicates that 2006 saw the third-highest increase in revenue per available room in 20 years.

From a passing glance at the article, it would seem that the lodging industry is haphazardly implementing the latest technological advances in a dangerous game of one-upsmanship, without consideration of guests' needs and abilities to cope with such technology. However, as the article continues, discussion turns from these more interesting and peculiar instances of consumer dissatisfaction, to focus on trouble with Internet access and the age-old problems of poor television picture quality and false room charges.

The diagnosis

On the one hand, it seems there is a need for the lodging industry to address the phenomenon of implementing technology for technology's sake. On the other hand there are the age-old problems that guests and hoteliers alike have dealt with for years. So, in the end, just how big of a problem is hyper-techuality? Actually, not very.

"Think about your last twelve months of travel. Have you run into problems with a preprogrammed iPod in your guest room? I'm willing to bet you probably haven't," says Dr. Dan Connolly, assistant professor of information technology and electronic commerce at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business. "I know cases such as these exist but they're a small percentage of the total market."

Indeed, the cases of the complicated lighting system, broken iPod and staticprone walkie-talkies took place at two boutique hotels and a Mexican resort, not exactly a representation of the average hotel stay. In fact, many of the examples offered of new high-tech implementations by various hotels are atypical.

The article also cites Hilton Hotels' Sight+Sound Room pilots in 55 guest rooms in Chicago and San Francisco and the fogless bathroom mirrors with embedded 13-inch flat screen televisions at Marriott International's Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center in Schaumburg, Illinois.

Even if one were to give as much consideration to these examples as more common problems like poor television picture quality, the issue at heart is a very simple one: hotels need not worry as much about technology as the customer service that supports it.

While the article does finish with a bit of discussion about the role that customer service plays in mediating the problems guests have with hotel technology, the overall tone of the piece suggests that the technology itself is primarily to blame, rather than hotel management for not ensuring that a technology is running properly and efficiently.

The cure

Connolly believes the latter is the true culprit. "Oftentimes I think there are issues not because a user doesn't know how to do something, but because the technology doesn't work as promised," he explains, citing the familiarity of Generation Xers and Yers with new technology. "Hotels need to make sure that a technology is working."

In the Wall Street Journal article, Bjorn Hanson, lodging analyst for Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, indicates that "Generation Xers are now traveling at a higher per capita rate than baby boomers" and that their techsavvyness is why the U.S. lodging industry is expected to invest $5.5 billion in capital spending in 2007.

This lends credence to Connolly's assertions about the need for hotels to have a firm focus on customer service; however, he acknowledges that there will always be a segment of travelers who won't understand how to use certain hotel technologies. For Connolly, this is not an occasion to say that hotels should dumb down technology to make it accessible to all, but to emphasize that the service structure be oriented in a way that allows guests to choose whether they will use a particular technology rather than be forced into an encounter.

"Offer choices for those that feel comfortable with a technology and want to use it, and choices for those that don't feel comfortable and don't want to use it or don't have the knowledge," states Connolly. "That provides the best of both worlds because it allows the individuals at the front desk to help the people that actually need more personalized service."

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