How the hospitality industry will profit from the IoT

by Dave Michels

Connecting the world changes everything. That’s what businesses and consumers are learning as they embrace the Internet of Things (IoT) for everything from household garage door openers to smart-city applications that solve traffic congestion and reduce crime.

But IoT is more significant than just adding connectivity to existing products or services. In fact, it is about changing the way products and services deliver value. In the process, products are becoming services, and services are becoming more intelligent.

+ Also on Network World: IoT devices or humans?

The hospitality industry is not immune to this evolution, and, in fact, it is well positioned to benefit from IoT. That’s because the industry is poised to improve the customer experience while simultaneously reducing costs.

The modern hotel room is far from modern in that it is mostly disconnected. Hotel operations rely on property management systems that require mostly manual entries to track resources. Much of this work centers around the front desk — a once-critical part of the hotel stay that is on the verge of obsolescence.

IoT: Taking the Temperature

Many hotels already use IoT to control in-room thermostats. By switching to a connected thermostat, hotels can adjust room temperatures at check-in and checkout. The connected thermostat eliminates the cost of cooling or heating vacant rooms. It also reduces the likelihood of marring the first impression of a room with an uninviting, uninhabitable temperature.

Taking heating and cooling a bit further, when hotels combine the thermostat with other sensors, the air conditioning can turn off automatically when a guest opens a window or balcony door. Another opportunity is to tie in automated window coverings that can mitigate temperature swings due to afternoon sunshine. Time of day or temperature sensors could activate these environmental adjustments.

Too much automation can make guests uncomfortable, however, so algorithms could differ depending on whether or not the guest is in the room. This development requires occupancy detection, which could provide several additional benefits.

IoT beyond the thermostat

Today, hotels really don’t know when a guest room is empty. Knocking is not the ideal solution. Knocking can wake or interrupt a guest, and the lack of a response to a knock is not conclusive. Intelligent sensors, though, can help detect occupancy. If the last detected motion was near the door, combined with an opening of the door, it may be reasonable to assume the room is empty.

Just a little bit newer than the knock is the in-room alarm clock. These disconnected devices invariably display the wrong time and sometimes come pre-programmed with the last guest’s alarm setting. A connected clock could be centrally or automatically adjusted (and corrected for daylight savings time). Then, when a guest checks out, the system could clear prior alarm settings, as current telecom systems clear voicemails.

IoT calling

The phone, too, is ripe for replacement. One big opportunity: using the phone’s speaker for paging. For example, if the fire alarm sounds, the hotel could provide instructions or information via a paging system. Also, and this sounds a bit invasive, a tone-first, hands-free intercom could also be useful and helpful. For example, it would enable hotel staff to check in on a guest to see if assistance is needed. It’s a better first option than breaking down a door.

One more proposed change to in-room phones: one-way video. High-end hotels should embrace one-way video on their internal phone system. When a guest calls for service, they should see the hotel employee on the other end. If you truly want to create rapport and personalized service, a smile goes a long way. It’s a cost-effective way to differentiate in a service business.

In-room entertainment also gets better with connectivity. Hotels understand that guests value entertainment options, but premises-based movie systems are expensive and complex. Premium movie channels are a common alternative, but they offer a limited selection at fixed times.

Marriott has gone further with a Netflix option. The hotel provides televisions equipped for Netflix, and the guest just needs to enter their personal Netflix account information. It’s an interesting compromise, as the guests provide their own account but Marriott provides the premium internet service. (Often, the same experience on a personal computer would require the guest to purchase premium internet.) Upon the guest’s checkout, Marriott automatically erases the guest’s account information.

Assuming the guest has a Netflix subscription, it’s a nice win for both parties. Guests get a large catalog of on-demand entertainment, and the hotel gets out of the movie business. Marriott includes premium movie channels as an alternative for those who don’t subscribe to Netflix. I’m hopeful that in the future, Marriott will auto-load my credentials using information that I store in my Marriott profile.

Automating the right touch

Some hotels, such as Hilton, are experimenting with connected, Bluetooth door locks so that a guest can use their smartphone as a key. I’m not a fan of this approach because travel is already tough on my smartphone battery. I use it for my boarding pass, ride-hailing apps, online reading, and navigation, so I feel lucky to arrive at my hotel with a working phone.

A better approach is a kiosk for self check-in, similar to what the airlines do. The smartphone app may play a role, but I’d prefer to get a separate card key from the kiosk. The modern card key is small, is waterproof, is disposable, and doesn’t require batteries. Plus they are already installed and even provide the hotel advertising revenue — so why replace a good thing?  

Too much automation can be detrimental. For example, high-end restaurants are unlikely to move to automated server-bots anytime soon. However, people do value and appreciate efficiency. When hospitality more closely embraces IoT, hotels can improve the guest experience and lower costs, and when done right, they can avoid interfering negatively in a guest’s stay.

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