Roundtable Recap: Technology Is Changing the Future of Hotel Operations

Hotel Operations Technology

This fall, hospitality communication solution provider Beekeeper hosted high-level executives from major hospitality companies for a roundtable entitled, “Efficiency, Connectivity, and the Future of the Hotel Operations,” which was attended by Tom Corcoran, CEO of FelCor Lodging Trust; Mary Beth Cutshall, EVP and CMO of HVMG; David Hale, EVP of Paramount Hotel Groups; Flo Lugli, principal of Navisenk Advisory Group; Kerry Ranson, CDO of HP Hotels; Aik Hong Tan, CEO of Greenwood Hospitality; and Jeff Wagoner, CEO of Outrigger Hospitality Group. Kathy Enz, a professor of competitive strategy and innovation at the SC Johnson School of Business at Cornell, moderated. Attendees also included Corey Lewis, director of sales at Beekeeper, and Daniel Sztutwojner, chief customer officer at Beekeeper.

The intimate nature of the roundtable allowed attendees to discuss in detail how the ways they do business have changed, and what innovations on the horizon they think will disrupt the hotel industry even further.

Hotels & Technology

The roundtable attendees jumped right in, talking at length about how technology is impacting the way that they do business. Wagoner noted that innovation is playing a bigger and bigger role in the industry, and that hoteliers have had to adjust their approach to almost everything they do. “Not only do I think that we’ll continue to see more innovative products, but I think the industry will get better at incorporating them. Schools are teaching innovation and are more focused on it. It used to be just real estate and operations, but now there’s also technology thought leadership happening [in hotel schools]. This will continue to evolve and impact the industry,” he said.

Advertisement

Speaking from the technology perspective, Sztutwojner said that the speed at which technology is moving means that hoteliers are being forced to innovate at a rapid pace. “We see technologies evolving way faster than every before,” he described. “The way we work compared to just 15 years ago is completely different.”

Cutshall noted that hotel companies are seemingly transforming into tech companies, and that many of the major franchise companies are recruiting from the technology industry to push their solutions even further. “A lot of the brands are bringing people in from outside the industry to take leadership roles because they bring a fresh perspective. All they have to do is bring a few folks to understand that world and have those relationships and help bridge that learning curve.”

Ranson said technology has certainly presented opportunities for HP Hotels as an operator, but hasn’t solved some of the more basic issues surrounding guest service. “We can make a housekeeper more efficient, but we haven’t been able to connect that housekeeper with a specific guest’s needs,” he said. “We aren’t able to relay that Julie is coming and she has three kids, so we should put more towels in the room. By the time we get that information from the booking system, it’s too late to pre-empt Julie’s needs. I think that customers are looking for this type of personalized service and we have to figure out a better way to ensure they get it.”

Ranson added, “Right now, we have the financial side of the business under control, so we have to focus on making the guest stay better and provide service that makes them want to come back to us. That’s where I’m seeing the most breakdown right now.”

Back to Basics

Many of the attendees shared Ranson’s concerns surrounding providing even better guest service. The general consensus was that since technology, globalization, and other innovations are changing the way people are experiencing the world, hoteliers would do well to get back to basics to ensure that their guests are having the best possible stay.

“[Hospitality is] still about getting basics right. Technology should be an enabler, it shouldn’t be the end-game,” Lugli said.

Hale agreed, and relayed a personal story. “Years ago, I stayed at a Ramada in New Jersey for a year. I’d stay for two weeks at a time, and every other weekend I’d fly home to Dallas. Back then, in the mid-90s, at that hotel, the room attendants actually owned their rooms. When I stayed there, the room attendant got to know me as a guest, and when I’d come back from visiting my family, my refrigerator would be stocked with my favorite beer or wine. I still remember that, 25 years later.”

Cutshall said that guest interfacing should be at the forefront of everyone’s hospitality efforts, and that in some cases, new technology is preventing this all-important part of hoteliers’ jobs. “At the end of the day, we want our front-facing associates and our leaders to be able to connect with the guest. More often than not, right now, they’re getting mired in their offices trying to manage the technology that just keeps coming. That’s not why they’re in this business; they want to connect with the guest. Whatever we can do to bridge the technology and keep it simple and get these folks out front, facing the guest and interacting with the guest is so important toward building a relationship.”

Integration

One of the biggest challenges that attendees cited regarding technology was around integration. “Interface integration seems to be the story we’ve been telling forever about technology. For years and years and years,” Enz said.

“You have a lot of different companies providing different components to hotels’ technology journey and they’re not integrated. You can’t yet bring them together in a way that’s easily digestible and consumable by employees,” Lugli said. “At least not today. I think technology companies will likely go down that path, but it requires investment. Many of these companies are still startups themselves, and are out there trying to establish a presence and build up their own stack.”

Corcoran noted that creating an integrated system is pretty much out of the hands of the average hotelier—it requires the resources and scale of a major brand to accomplish that. “None of us in this room have the capital resources or the brainpower to do what we’re relying on the brands to do. At the end of the day, we’re at the mercy of their ability to roll it out… Millions of millions of dollars are being invested at the brand level, and many brands are in the process of rolling out systems that will communicate with each other. But, the final system is still three, five, maybe even 10 years away.”

Ranson added that even though franchises are working to integrate new technology, their size has slowed them down. This means that technology moves on to a new innovation before they’re able to implement a solution. “We have thrived over the years because we’re all entrepreneurs and have to make things happen. We can’t wait for the Titanic to turn; we just get it done. But that’s part of the reason, too, that the industry is so far behind from a technology perspective. The franchises can’t move fast enough to keep up and they get in their own way.”

Rethinking Staffing

The staffing struggle facing many hotels was also a hot topic of conversation, with many of the attendees discussing possible solutions to the lack of available labor in the industry. Enz even noted that she’s done repeat studies on the biggest issues keeping hoteliers up at night, and at the top of every list is staffing.

Ranson said that the industry has to move away from eight-hour shifts, which limit who can work and when. “We’re stuck in these eight-hour shift lives and need to learn how to staff differently,” he expressed.

Looking for inspiration from the gig economy, the idea of more stuff, but two- to three-hour shifts was floated, with attendees acknowledging that such a schedule would be more accommodating for people like college students or the parents of young children.

Tan said that perhaps the answer lies in readjusting the industry’s expectations for team members, and providing potential employees with a workplace that meets their needs. “High schoolers are looking for something different than college students, who are looking for something different than mothers of young children,” he noted. “You can’t just have one answer for everyone.”

Cocoran added that hoteliers need to do a better job speaking up about the opportunities in the industry. “We should all be evangelists for our industry. I don’t know any other industry today where so many of our CEOs came from being busboys or lifeguards—they all started out at the bottom. You can’t find any industries where that’s the case. It’s the greatest industry in the world to work for.”