MCLEAN, VA—In hospitality, the race to innovate is on.
In recent years, global hotel brands have heralded tech-forward solutions designed to relieve pain points and speak to the evolving needs of travelers. Now, emerging technology such as IoT, artificial intelligence and smart controls have changed the game and set the pace of modernization in the industry.
With a laser focus on delivering a comprehensive and engaging in-room digital experience, Hilton launched its Connected Room in 2017 to allow guests greater control of the guestroom. Through the Hilton Honors App, guests can turn their smartphones into an in-room remote to preset their favorite TV channels and streaming apps; set a preferred temperature; and adjust the lighting. For the first time, Hilton also has partnered with Showtime to offer guests instant access to complimentary TV programming.
With some lessons learned from beta testing and more innovation at the ready, Hilton is ready to share what’s next for the concept and peel back the curtain, if you will, on its development.
“A part of our reason for existence is to push hospitality to the next level,” said Josh Weiss, Hilton’s VP of brand and guest technology. “At the simplest level, we’ve been a leader in this industry for 100 years—our birthday is coming in 2019—and we want to improve that position further for the next 100 years. We’re constantly asking, ‘How do we stay ahead and deliver on guest expectations? How do we make sure our brands are their first choice everywhere they want to go?’”
As a member of the digital group tasked with leading key elements of the brand’s technology advancements, Weiss sought to evolve the entertainment experience to make it relevant, intuitive and controlled by the guest.
“There are expectations for things they have at home,” said Weiss. “In the early days, air conditioning and cable TV at hotels were pioneered by Hilton. The entertainment experience in hotels hasn’t kept up with what guests can enjoy at home. We envision what our guests and hotel operators may want. They’re not telling us in so many words, they’re expressing shortcomings or something they enjoy at home or on mobile that they wish they could have in a hotel. We look at patterns, as well as people out in the world and what they’re starting to engage with; often, those things help to propel us.”
So, what is the hotel guestroom of the future? Weiss suggests it is a study in contrasts.
“On one hand, it’s controlled by the guest and customized to a much greater degree than in the past and today,” said Weiss. “It’s about reconfiguring the ideal temperature and having my TV channel lineup in the order I want it. There’s lots of other customizable solutions controlled by the guest, but it has to be simple and intuitive.”
Guests’ appetite to learn new things in a hotel room where the stay is short term is minimal. There’s a fine balance between designing for the early adopter of technology and making sure other guests aren’t alienated.
“There has to be no learning curve,” he said. “It must be comfortable for guests who don’t engage in digital tools. We want them to download the Hilton Honors app and we want to add value to their lives. Even if they don’t, they should still have an excellent experience.”
Franchise owners and operators have been critical stakeholders in the journey. Through initial usability testing at a top-secret property in Memphis, TN, and a few other properties, Hilton gained valuable insight that helped to inform what the next steps should be for the brand.
“One thing we’ve changed is we’ll continually update our user experience on the hotel room TV and Hilton Honors app, and even the remote control. We’re probably on the fourth or fifth version of the remote control. We want to make it more intuitive and learn from the process as we’re listening to owners, operators and members,” said Weiss. “Sometimes, in the past, it was difficult to change things before getting it out there, and we strove for perfection. It didn’t always help us move quickly.”
Hilton started with just a few hotels to innovate rapidly and iterate through testing, so it could test again and then make another round of quick changes. According to Weiss, it’s vital to be nimble. “We learned the benefits of agility. For one thing, it’s better to move quickly and get things wrong, take a risk or try an innovation,” he said.
Much like an Apple or Android device, Hilton’s Connected Room is a platform where new features can be rolled out quickly without having to deploy new hardware. In the near future, Hilton expects guests to have the ability to upload photos and art to an in-room display and connect to new devices.
Previously, franchise owners may have experienced barriers to implementing new technology due to high costs and operational challenges, but not anymore. The brand’s speed to market is improved and enables owners and operators to seamlessly integrate advances in technology as it evolves.
The owner of one of Hilton’s first Connected Room pilot hotels in an undisclosed location in Memphis, TN, shared that Hilton’s IT and product team have been great partners in the testing of new innovations.
“Hilton recognizes that they need to listen to our input, along with guests’ input, to get a true sense of how things are working, and to be willing to make changes to continuously improve the experience. I really appreciate that the company is very open to this type of feedback and collaboration,” said the owner of the pilot hotel. “Our team members’ ability to prioritize their attention to guest needs is key to our success. We view Connected Room as something that can really help our team do that very well, by alerting them to certain issues before a guest notices. We also see it as being a valuable promotional channel to drive awareness and increase traffic in our restaurant and bar.”
Hilton’s Connected Room has reach, with 500 rooms currently using the features and soliciting guest and employee feedback. The technology will soon be offered across five additional brands—in thousands more rooms—across the country.
“We have a lab-like environment where we can take our first steps, get out there and begin to accelerate in the next couple months. By the end of the year, we’ll likely be in eight or 10 times that many rooms and many additional markets,” he said.
In addition to providing hyper connectivity in the rooms, the concept has put Hilton on track to cut its environmental footprint in half by enabling hotels to “power down” rooms that aren’t occupied to conserve energy and using artificial intelligence and machine learning to close the gap between energy efficiency and guest comfort. More is coming down to support the brand’s sustainability efforts as part of its Travel with Purpose corporate responsibility strategy.
Innovation is part of Hilton’s DNA. Nearing 100 years, it will continue to bring forth new ideas and solutions to improve the guest experience.
“It’s something that everyone in the company, from the people who design the rooms to our frontline teams, plays a part in the innovation. We’re collectively connected in the work that we do,” Weiss said. “It’s the Golden Age of Hilton.” HB