EVOLUTION OF THE GUEST APP

Spangler said integrating more contactless tech into Charlestowne hotels has resulted in an uptick in guest satisfaction and increased employee happiness.

While every hotel customizes its offerings, one thing is abundantly clear – contactless guest experiences are here to stay. 

Technological advancements were inevitable, and the pandemic gave hoteliers time to analyze and determine how technology could be best incorporated to overcome the challenges. All major hotel brands as well as independents now encourage guests to download their mobile apps which includes several features empowering them to get what they need and manage amenities with minimal human contact. While some features like contactless check-in and check-out, ordering food from the on-site restaurants, communicating with the front desk, or cashless payments are common, many apps have unique, customizable options.  

Alma Resort, the independently owned and operated resort in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh peninsula, has launched the Alma Resort App, which offers menus, promotions and vouchers, as well as live stream broadcasts and information about events and COVID-19-related health and safety tips. Since Cam Ranh gets around 300 sunny days a year and is known for having Vietnam’s best weather, the hotel is planning to add a weather cam in real time that can be accessed on the app. 

The app, which was put forward in a heads-of-department meeting by the resort’s executive chef, was created by the hotel team within two months, said Alma’s Managing Director Herbert Laubichler-Pichler. “Unlike major chains, the independent hotels always have to navigate technological change themselves as they don’t have a head office to develop or recommend the latest equipment and software,” Laubichler-Pichler said. “And this can be difficult for the independent hotels when their staff on the ground such as, for example, the front office managers, are the users of the technology but are preoccupied with the guests and prioritizing their needs.” 

The good news, said Laubichler-Pichler, is that the technologies required to power these apps is not expensive. As an independently owned and operated hotel, Alma Resort had the autonomy to invest in the app and develop it themselves which helped keep costs under control. “The app cost no more than US$5,000 to develop. These technologies are not expensive; you don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. You also need to ensure that the technology is set up in a way so that it is not a money pit; you don’t want to be continually spending a lot of money with a third-party every time you need to make an update to the app. You can realize ROI in many ways quite quickly after launching an app.”  

In spring 2021, Aqua-Aston Hospitality, Honolulu, Hawaii, introduced an app with an intelligent messaging platform in more than 20 of its managed hotels and resorts across Hawaii. It allows guests to communicate with associates in real-time without having to call or visit the front desk. For example, guests can send a message to the front desk about their arrival time and get information about guest amenities. Among other things, they can receive a copy of their folio, get fresh towels or arrange housekeeping service. 

Since Aqua-Aston’s app uses text messaging system as a mode of communication between guests and associates, building the app was “surprisingly affordable and utilizes a mode of communication that we all use in everyday life,” said Mark DeMello, vice president of operations, Aqua-Aston Hospitality. 

Besides providing remote check-in, mobile key, options to order food, temperature control, self-check-in and mobile payment methods, Virgin Hotels’ ‘Lucy’ app also integrates the in-room entertainment system to provide casting, allowing guests to use their smartphones as the TV remote. Launched in 2015, the updated app now offers secure ID verification, cashless tipping facility, in-room lighting controls and access to custom fitness routines.  

While guests at citizenM already had access to digital solutions like a check-in kiosk and an iPad to control their room settings before the pandemic, the introduction of a guest app during the pandemic across all its hotels has been a success and resulted in the highest guest satisfaction and most loyalty among the app users, said citizenM Hotels Chief Digital & Experience Officer Casper Overbeek.  

“Every day we see new opportunities, not because of tech, but because we want to adapt to customer needs,” Overbeek said. “We have launched a new paid subscription service. Our customer research showed that price security and availability are key pain points for the frequent traveler. With our new membership mycitizenM+ we solve those.”  

Charlestowne Hotels, Charleston, South Carolina, which was using contactless technology long before it became such an integral part of the industry, sends out a pre-registration email with an option for guests to add room requests or notes, a follow up email when the room is ready and a text message or email which contains the room key. A similar process takes place at checkout, where a folio can be reviewed electronically, charges confirmed and guest feedback submitted. Elaborating on the Charlestowne’s technological innovations, Director of Technology Max Spangler said in-room IoT devices, like Amazon Echo and Google Nest Hub, double up as virtual concierge as they are enabled to answer questions and streamline guest requests to appropriate departments.  

“The pre-arrival registration process has been the most popular and engaging with our guests. Automated guest communication and reservation management has also been well received,” Spangler said.  

Minimizing labor costs 

Besides fulfilling the new-age travelers’ need for reduced human contact, these apps have helped reduce labor costs, especially at a time when the industry has been grappling with a severe labor crisis. The real benefit of contactless technology, Spangler said, is that it allows them to be more flexible with their staffing model. 

“We can be more agile when it comes to staff placement, hours worked during a shift, and hire a wider range of employees with skills that reach beyond knowledge for a particular method or system,” Spangler explained. “Flexibility for our team members, in a labor market as competitive as this, is paramount.” 

The technology also helps make staffs more productive, improve efficiency, and remove some of the mundane, repetitive tasks. At Charlestowne Hotels, the pre-arrival registration helps reduce phone volume and mobile key and text communication allows them to drastically reduce peak check-in times and corresponding volume. 

“When guests do arrive and decide to check in at the desk, our teams are fresher and more engaging with our guests than had they just managed a long queue of guests,” Spangler added.  

Besides the labor costs, a mobile key solution has also helped reduce other hard costs, like key cards. Spangler said integrating more contactless tech into Charlestowne hotels has resulted in an uptick in guest satisfaction and increased employee happiness. “When we evaluate the contactless technology, the ROI is analyzed from the guest perspective — are guests engaged and loyal, are guest scores up, is staff happier? Those are the items we quantity versus the costs of tech implementation.” 

Remaining challenges 

For smaller and independent hotel brands like Alma Resort, it has been challenging to encourage guests to switch to the apps and use its features as many of them are still not used to the technology. 

“Our staff have spent a lot of time urging guests to download the app and helping to ensure that guests have downloaded it correctly,” Laubichler-Pichler said.  

With reduced travel and on-site presence due to lockdowns and travel restrictions, it has been difficult during the pandemic to implement all the emerging components of guests demands, said Virgin Hotels Vice President of Technology Jason Doebrich. At the same time, due to labor constraints and turnover, training on the new technologies and procedures has also been difficult. “Supply chain issues have led to long lead times and delays on parts and resources,” Doebrich added. 

No more front desk?  

Despite the proliferation of technology, hoteliers feel the hotel lobby can never be rendered redundant. Guests will still need and prefer access to a human and not a robot or an app to ask questions. Hotel apps can be cost-effective and convenient for travelers, but many guests will still want to sit in a restaurant and consult the waiter for the best available options before ordering a dish off the menu. 

A warm greeting and a smile on arrival to a hotel are hallmarks of good old-fashioned hospitality, Laubichler-Pichler said. “I think that the personal touch will further distinguish the high-end hotels from the budget ones in future.”  

Hotel lobbies still serve their purpose for guests who want a personal, high-touch experience. Irrespective of guests seeking a physical presence or a virtual one, Aston-Aqua’s front desk teams assist guests with their needs, DeMello said. “The recently renovated lobby and refreshed arrival experience at our luxury condominium property, Aston Waikiki Beach Tower, provides guests with an enjoyable in-person check-in and check-out process. We installed two-sit down front desks and welcome guests with a sustainable strand shell lei, in addition to a cold Oshibori towel and glass of fresh juice.” 

Terming the apps as “extra tools” provided to team members and guests, Doebrich said the front desk is still widely used by many guests as the technologies are still in their formative years.   

Technology is merely an enabler for creating a greater experience at citizenM hotels, Overbeek said. While the pandemic accelerated the digital innovations, it has also made the hotel industry aware of how much they need human touch. While citizenM guests have been checking in through check-in kiosks from the very first day, there is always an “citizenM ambassador” to welcome and help where needed, he explained. “This will never change as it is key to our brand experience. We do study how we will further optimize the check-in experience through our app, but the welcoming smile will always be there.”

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