There have been many advances in technology over the past several years that have helped enhance safety and security within hotels, but perhaps none greater than guest safety buttons, the evolution of which was part of the focus of a recent BITAC Operations panel.
Entitled “Ensuring The Safety And Security Of Staff, Guests Through Technology,” the panel also detailed the potential impact of a number of evolving guest-facing solutions, including AI, texting platforms and the in-room television. The discussion was moderated by Larry Birnbaum, principal, XENIOS Group.
Barry Phillips, senior director, IT strategic systems, Loews Hotels & Company, pointed out that safety buttons have been deployed as a brand standard in all of the company’s 27 hotels. In addition, Phillips was also intimately involved in the evolution of the safety button as part of the AHLA’s 5-star Promise—a voluntary commitment by AHLA members to enhance policies, trainings, and resources, including employee safety devices.
“When we started the journey it really was how do we make one platform that will solve everyone? So we looked at all local ordinances, we looked at all unionized environments and said what is consistent and what is required? That was our standard, our minimum coverage was built of what the entire asset set was required to do. That is out there today consistently across all hotels,” he said, adding that the “single-use platform” is not designed to track hotel associates.
Phillips further noted, “we actually went out and looked for a platform that had no dependency on our infrastructure. So if the power went out in the building it would still work or if the Internet wasn’t working it still worked.”
Scott Hansen, sr. director, guest technology, Marriott International, acknowledged that safety buttons have now been mandated throughout the company’s 30 brands in all of its North American hotels by the end of 2023.
He further touted the benefits. “You’re giving the comfort back to our guests and we keep talking about [the importance of] associate retention. This is really something that gives them a little bit of additional comfort,” said Hansen.
However, there are still challenges for the entire industry with safety or panic buttons, particularly as it relates to limited staffing, according to Hansen.
“We’re having difficulties managing the back end. Of course, you have to have somebody monitoring the dashboard to know that somebody activated the button so there’s an additional staff component,” he said.
“I personally find operationalizing technology is always the key,” added Birnbaum.
For his part, Phillips added, “we do have an issue with room attendants putting it down on their cart or leaving the doors open. Those are basic safety things that we look at,” he said.
Meanwhile, Marriott is looking to take advantage of its proprietary in-room TV system to further connect and communicate with guests.
“When you talk about 9,000 hotels globally we are a top three channel from a viewership perspective. So we have enough power and reach to be able to really leverage that communication and that turns into dollars,” he said, noting as an example that the company was able to provide educational cleanliness videos for guests immediately following the outbreak of COVID.
Hansen further described the in-room TV platform as “a gateway to the mobile app” utilizing QR codes and other innovative features.
“One of our objectives is to [get guests to] download the mobile app. You want to encourage as much functionality initiated by the TV. You drive that download and then you have the engagement, then you have the loyalty. There are many ways to accomplish that, but get that [content] on the TV and have that relationship so that you can actually have more loyal customers outside of the property when they leave,” he said.
Meanwhile, guests continue to show a strong preference for texting platforms as a means of communicating with hotel staff for their daily needs. Phillips explained that “we had texting before the pandemic” but illustrated that usage has increased exponentially. For example, he noted that in 2019 Loews had some 600,000 text messages across its portfolio of 27 hotels and that number jumped to 2.8 million in 2021.
“The focus has really shifted. Those are the things we’ve looked at, what tools are guests using today and how do we make them easier for team members to utilize and service the guest?” he said.
Phillips further explained the company’s overall approach to technology as it relates to luxury guest service.
“One big focus at Loews has always been how do we give you an option? You can have the human or you can take the digital route, but never replace the human with technology completely,” said Phillips.
When it comes to artificial intelligence, Hansen maintained that will eventually be commonplace throughout the industry in a variety of different forms.
“Automated voice in the room, conversational AI, natural language processing, 100 percent will be in all hotels. Maybe it will take 10 years, but that will be a staple. There’s no easier acclimation opportunity than to engage with something like an AI-driven product,” he said.
Nevertheless, there are still some challenges with implementation and the sharing of data, particularly when it comes to some of the larger providers and the shifting competitive landscape.
“I’ll just say bluntly there’s no way I’m going to give Marriott data to Amazon or Google, unless they want to pay me a significant amount of money to put one of those things in all of our rooms, then we can have a discussion. But I think we all understand the industry well enough to know that Google and Amazon will supercede Expedia and other known OTAs as competitors in this industry. So to feed information back to the ‘big dogs’ makes absolutely no strategic sense, for us anyway,” he said.