Is your connected hotel smart enough?

Tim Drake
Tim Drake
Visual Design Lead 17 Mar 202024 minutes read

In our latest podcast, Etch Pulse dives into the impact and the value exchange the IoT and smart connected technology can bring to the hotel industry and the customer itself.

With the increasing interest in connected smart hotels and spaces such as the proclaimed world’s first all-digital hotel in Fort Worth Texas, delivering the “next-generation connected guest experience” through to location-based analytics and the latest offerings from digital vendors such as IBM’s trailblazing IBM Tririga. Visual Design Lead, Tim Drake and Senior Developer, Adam Burt, uncover how technology enables hoteliers and spaces to be better.

In this podcast you will discover:

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Podcast transcript

Tim Drake: So I've worked with Adam for a number of years now, he's one of our resident tech experts. Whenever anything new is going on in the tech world Adam is one of these people that you can sort of ask the questions of and usually you get a good answer from him. He seems to have his finger quite firmly on the pulse.

So this podcast is centred around IoT and smart technology in the hospitality and hotel industry.

Tim Drake: Adam and myself have done a little bit of reading in terms of what's out there in the news at the moment and what certain companies and organisations are saying around the future of IoT and smart hotels and the impact this technology is having. Companies like IBM or trailblazing this technology as they are in lots of different areas and 
those of you that are aware of Watson will know it is being utilised to a large extent in helping develop hotels and spaces to be smarter and we'll dig deeper into what smart means.

Tim Drake: IoT world today published an article recently about a tech-enabled building in Fort Worth America which reflects the growing interest in smart hotels. And what was interesting about the article was that it might be wrong to assume that the hotels and the buildings that are going to be the smartest in the future are currently the ones that have been built from scratch. This is an art deco building from 1929 which they have managed to successfully turn into an up to date and smart operational building. And some of the points that they talked about in the article are that as consumers continue to raise the bar and expectations for service, smart hotels will strive to fulfil those needs with a myriad of conveniences like key less entry, connected lobbies, and meeting spaces.

Smart app guest experiences, back end management, and energy efficiency are what they're proclaiming as the three big important drivers behind smart technology. Things that minimise wasted energy and also unoccupied hotel rooms is a really interesting thing that they go into there as well, which I'd like to touch on.

Adam Burt: When we think about the Internet of Things I guess in a cynical way I feel like it's all been a lot slower than everyone was really expecting it to be like, you know, people started talking about connecting everything to the Internet, which is a great idea in a lot of cases and a not so good idea in other cases, and I think we all thought that by the year 2020 maybe everything would be connected.

That's not necessarily materialised in the form of smart cities or even necessarily homes, although that's the area where probably most of the growth has been in the meantime and I think in the short term, at least, what that means is that IoT still offers an experience. It's not actually something that we have become blasé about or become used to yet.

In the hospitality industry, in particular, that's really key, especially when you think about, you know, the way that people are trying to market hotels today going kind of beyond just oh it's a room to sleep in it's more about the experience and people want something that's energy-conscious something that's very modern. Something that they can you know, talk about and share with their friends. I think that's why, you know, hotels, like this one at Fort Worth are able to, I guess, go all-in on the concept and spend a lot of money upgrading an old building, because yeah, because it pays for itself and energy savings and probably pays for itself in terms of the improved marketing potential ultimately of the hotel as an experience, as an internet-connected hotel.

Tim Drake: Definitely, I think I've got some opinions about that as well in terms of the USP of the connected hotel. I think there are some important things to consider around that. Another reference point for us has been IBM as well, which we mentioned earlier, and they've got a technology that they're calling IBM Tririga. This technology is a lot about space optimisation and building maintenance and energy management like you were saying.

Adam Burt: Yeah, I mean the building maintenance is really good angle because actually the Fort Worth hotel does this from reading the previous article, they have the concept of just this incident reporting of hotel maintenance issues because everything is connected. You can see the status of every light bulb of every mini-fridge of every shower, every everything basically and we've all been in hotels that maybe you've had to go down and complain about something and say, "actually this isn't working the air cons not working" 

Tim Drake: Yeah.

Adam Burt: To be able to, from a customer experience point of view, be on the front foot with that and actually preemptively solve things before customers even notice them is so valuable in a competitive market to be able to be like, yeah, when you come to a hotel it's going to work, everything there we will be monitoring it', it's definitely going to be, you know, to our standards, though, obviously, you're also making a rod for your own back a little bit, because with that comes higher expectation but I think it's an expectation you can live up to you, investing in the right systems.

Time Drake: Definitely. And I think there's a point where smart connectivity in our homes is growing exponentially as well as hotels, right, there's going to be a point where the hotels can't necessarily use the smart technology in their hotels as they're selling point because they will be at the same sort of level.

Adam Burt: I think it's all about how those technologies enable them to be better hoteliers so it's not just that those technologies exist and they're implemented. It's actually these systems exist to make your stay more convenient more environmentally friendly, easier for you to book and check-in and check-out at the right times and all those different things that you could do with technology, of which there are infinite possibilities. I think that the smart thing to do is not just to you know put loads of things in there, not just say, oh, we've just put an Alexa in every room.

Tim Drake: Yeah.

Adam Burt: That's not really making the most of what you could do with that system. I think you have to use those technologies as opportunities to really be introspective about what it is your hotel service is going to be like, and how these technologies could help improve that.

Tim Drake: Yeah, I'm not sure how many hotels are trying to use IoT as the USP because it could be quite dangerous and hard to maintain that. I mean you could take the angle and push yourself to be at the forefront of technology year on year on year but the cost in doing that and keeping that as the USP is probably a mistake for anybody thinking about, you know, transitioning fully into it you know it's a tool, not the USP.

Adam Burt: Yeah, yeah. The unique selling point isn't necessarily you know that your phone can control the lights, the unique selling point is that you can warm up a hotel room before you get there, or they can warm it up before you get there before having to go in the room. They can tell when things are broken. They can fix them before you even notice they're broken, all those sorts of things that may be sour a traditional hotel experience you can kind of tackle those through monitoring and reporting and that's where a lot of the IBM stuff comes in because obviously, with their focus on AI, I guess for the lack of a better term it's they're looking for almost predictive insights into the ways the hotel could be improved which is, yeah, an interesting space to be in.

Tim Drake: You know, there's probably a fork in the road here, there are different angles that it could take as well. What I'm really interested in, specifically in all of this, because there's a lot of different impact areas that this technology has but I'm specifically interested in the energy efficiency and the eco-friendly angle of it and how that's going to continue to get better and what it's doing in order to help not just the companies or hotels themselves reduce their carbon footprint but how it's making them save money, you know, certain tasks you alluded to earlier about, you know, the automation of, maintenance, an example would be from a podcast I listened to recently where a chap who is installing these smart systems and the interfaces that the workers at the hotel use in order to talk to the technology, but there was this whole sort of process of monitoring the light bulbs and then the system behind it sort of knows that it needs to be updated, but it will go online and it will order the parts and bring them in so that whole process of purchasing all the way up until installation, it's being taken care of, maybe the future is the installation as well.

Adam Burt: Like a robot drives to your room and puts the plug in for you, haha. Yeah, I think that's mostly about the power over ethernet stuff, which is obviously a really costly thing to implement in an old building but yeah, the idea that you can get power and internet over the same cable means that anything that you're powering you can also be monitoring and you can build systems around that to enable you to see when you need to order more of a certain thing but there is still a physical element. Some hotels in Japan are probably trying but most hotels still have to have staff to some degree. So you do get like pod hotels in Japan and other places that have been influenced by Japan that have very Spartan rooms and those tend to be relatively well connected and when compared to an art deco room they're relatively easy to you know, upgrade, to move around.

Tim Drake: And I think that's the thing, you could create the most efficient system in the most modern building for the sake of automating all of these types of tasks, you know, hidden within the walls themselves at least things happen, but with an older building is going to be extremely hard to do that but I reckon we'll probably see that in the future, you know, and maybe even Japan will blaze the trail with that kind of technology, you know, to a certain extent, I think you are saying that they are.

Adam Burt: Yeah, I think it's the stuff that we all had to go through. Well, not all of us, but a lot of us have to go through some process where fibre internet cables were installed in our neighbourhood or into our actual building and nowadays when you build a new building you just put that in, usually as standard, but if this stuff is popular, which we anticipate that it will continue to be then yeah, those sorts of investments become sensible at a certain point just to keep up with the industry and they do happen across the board, even if they require significant upfront investment.

Tim Drake: Hmm. So I'm hearing a lot when I'm reading about the energy efficiency side of it. You know, it's always big buildings and businesses or hotels that have the biggest impact. So it feels like naturally, the drive for the technology to develop is going to be in that sort of realm. Do you think that hotels amongst that group are going to be trailblazing that which will be then eventually scaled back into the home?

Adam Burt: Yeah because I think just from a scale point of view, the amount that a hotel stands to save on energy bills from installing, you know, really high tech occupancy sensors that enable you to, you know, turn off lights and heating systems and stuff when someone's not in the room. Yeah, like they have so much more to gain financially. Just from a pure economic standpoint, it makes sense for hotels and other large public buildings that have a lot of people in them, you know, the larger your building is the more you stand to save from the kind of operation. 

People's homes, I could see it happening that you might have an occupancy sensor. So people do already have their thermostat set to turn on when they come home and turn off when they leave. It's not necessarily outside the realms of possibility. Although, yeah, it tends to be those occupancy sensors in the context of home automation are relatively simple. You just basically draw a virtual wall or gate around your property and then you leave just from like a pure GPS standpoint, when you leave a Bluetooth signal area, those sorts of things could trigger it. Whereas hotel wise I think because they don't necessarily rely on people interacting with their phones, it's an option they don't force you to do it through your phone in a lot of cases, they tend to be a little bit more, you know we're talking optical sensors in the room, things like that which obviously there are privacy concerns around that sort of stuff as well, which is a whole other kettle of fish to think about which is something that the industry is going to have to reckon with every year, you know, there are already concerns around home automation like smart speakers listening into things but if increasingly that technology is embedded in daily life, embedded in street lamps in cities, in bus stops and then in hotel rooms then it becomes a bigger conversation the more we do of it and people will have to make their own minds up about where their government should draw the lines around privacy.

Tim Drake: It's interesting because you can imagine the benefits of that kind of technology if there is no taboo around it, or if people are generally okay with it. I mean as that technology is being developed there needs to be safeguards in terms of, well, it's not being recorded, and it's read in such a way that is not read the same way as a human being would read it. So one example is like, you know, loads of hotels at the moment are creating concierge type apps where it's like, oh, you know, what do you like? Then they're pushing notifications to you that certain things are available for you now or like check in now, you know, the next step with that are things like swimming pools and saunas we're your using that technology to go, well, it's actually empty now and it's at like 70% or 50% occupancy so that they can push it to you at certain times of the day so that you can go and experience the things that you've come for. Obviously those are going to be like more taboo type areas in terms of, you know, is that technology watching us and who's looking at it.

Adam Burt: Yeah, I think what it really needs and this solves a few problems where I think the future of the internet of things is going, hopefully long term is there needs to be... similar to the way you know we work on websites and the web is a relatively open platform and there are standards around it which is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I think the internet of things at the minute has got a real almost wild west you know everyone's got their own app for your light bulb maybe at home you've combined a few into one app but imagine if these things continue to increase the rate that we expect them to you will be able to have hundreds of apps on your phone to control them all. And I think what's more likely is that over time, a standard is going to emerge and something that Google were looking at a little while ago, a project called The Physical Web, which is basically a standardised system for browsing your local internet connected devices, based on your location and surfacing the controls you have around them in a standardised kind of way. So I don't know if that specifically will be the way that everything goes, whether it will be Google's implementation, but I do think that at some point you're gonna have to get to a space where everything or at least most things that people use are coalescing around some kind of standard.

Tim Drake: Yeah, yeah.

Adam Burt: Hopefully that standard would include these privacy measures, you know where there is some governance around encryption.

Tim Drake: I mean, how does smart A.I. work at the moment because that's in the open domain and open source and Elon Musk who is behind it is just like, he doesn't want to patent anything, he put it out there in the open and let it be improved. With IoT and the amount of people developing it and getting into it is it the same sort of scenario. Is there a similar problem in both worlds do you think?

Adam Burt: Ultimately, yeah. I mean, at some point, somebody has to build trust in these things and here are companies that we as consumers trust and companies that we don't and I think that's maybe part of the reason that the physical web from Google isn't necessarily going to be the front runner, it may well be, they have a lot of clout and a lot of people do still trust Google, whether they're right or not is another matter, but I do think that when that standard emerges, it will be backed by probably a variety of companies and they'll be companies that we have a high level of consumer trust in and as increasingly more and more people become digitally native and understand their privacy and their rights. Hopefully, that's something we can all get behind and that those companies will respect.

Tim Drake: What kinds of things are involved do you think in transitioning a building into a more energy-efficient one using smart tech, the building in this example lets say is a hotel?

Adam Burt: I mean, we've talked before in the podcast about the need for relatively significant investment and I think at this point it is relatively cost-prohibitive to go all-in on IoT, and probably will continue to be for a little while, I think, in the short term though every hotel could start, you know, it's the idea that any kind of thing that's coming over the horizon, you as a business owner should be thinking about like how can we potentially leverage that. And I think if you take that view on it and if you think strategically about what you're offering is, I think there are ways that you can identify the first step, the first stepping stone that eventually takes us to a more connected future, but it could be something pretty simple especially if it's around with energy saving, there are a lot of ways to save energy.

Tim Drake: I think there's two categories there, the customer experience side of it which alludes to the personalisation and to a certain extent your energy consumption, your eco-friendliness because that obviously is what people are more and more concerned about but the other flip to that is like there's an operational side to it too. So even if you're not outwardly saying or doing something that's to attract customers, from an operations point of view there are other smaller things that can be implemented there?

Adam Burt: The energy-saving is important in and of itself, it's an important thing to do. But ultimately from a business point of view, you do it in service of the customer experience. We do it because it's something that customers are increasingly valuing, so if the experience you put together isn't convenient, but it is energy-saving it's probably not necessarily going to work. And we've all been in a bathroom where the light turns off before you finished or whatever. 
So really, you need to focus on the experience and think about how you can leverage energy-saving, leverage connected devices, leverage all these things to create a better overall consumer experience and that's the way to win.

Tim Drake: Thanks very much for joining me today I really enjoy your energy and your knowledge on subjects like this. I hope you will join me again and we'll discuss maybe something similar or something completely different. Thank you for joining me.

Adam Burt: Thanks, having me. Cheers.