The first GMs Conclave panel discussion at the 37th edition of Express Food & Hospitality Expo in Bengaluru threw light on the opportunities and shortcomings of harnessing technology in hospitality to improve guest experiences. By Akshay Nayak
At the 37th edition of Express Food & Hospitality Expo in Bengaluru, general managers of leading hotels in Bengaluru threw light on the role of technology in hotel operations in India at large and Bengaluru market in particular at the first GM’s Conclave panel discussion held on the sidelines of the expo.
The panel discussion was titled, ‘How technology is enhancing the guest experience in hospitality’. The esteemed panelists were Amaan Kidwai, GM, ITC Gardenia; George Kuruvilla, GM, Radisson Blu Atria Bengaluru; Vinesh Gupta, GM, The Den Bangalore; Srijan Vadhera, GM, Conrad Bengaluru; Subhankar Bose, GM, Renaissance Bengaluru Race Course Hotel; Amit Kumar, GM, La Marvella – A Sarovar Premier Hotel, Bengaluru; Saravanan Dhanabalu, GM, Fortune Select JP Cosmos Bengaluru; Reuben Kataria, GM, JW Marriott Hotel Bengaluru; Varun Sharma, Director Operations, Clarks Exotica – Convention Resort & Spa (a Preferred HotelGroup member) and Dev Mohanty, GM, The Zuri Whitefield, Bengaluru (a Preferred Hotel Group member).
Commenting on the evolution of hospitality technology from self check ins to smartphone driven keyless entry, Gupta kickstarting the panel discussion said, “Experience for guests has become very technology centric now. Technology in Bengaluru is leaning more on the side of disruption. Self check in has become more of a passe. The guest now needs technology in hotels increasingly.”
Vadhera opined that technology will be an assisting driver, but the experience will always be driven by the human interface. “At Hilton, we have keyless check in and you can also select the room you want to stay in. Artificial Intelligence is also going to enhance the experience. We at Hilton believe that technology will assist but human to human interaction will always ensure that hospitality is still alive. Technology is there but it is to assist the experience driven by the human touch,” added Vadhera.
Pointing out that the needs of technology are subject to change as per the brand and location of a hotel, Kataria said, “Marriott now has 30 brands and we are operating in all the segments right from midscale to uber luxury and in every segment there is a different technological input. In a hotel like Fairfield where the manpower ratio is very low, technology is helping us to counter human involvement. And then hotels like Ritz Carlton, JW, Autograph Collection, etc are high scale where the need for human interaction is much higher. So technology is actually adding to the experience rather than taking away the human experience.”
Reiterating Kataria’s views, Mohanty noted, “I have been seeing a lot of progress when it comes to technology. Especially for a brand like ours, we specifically look at the demographics before we include any technology in our system. The technology basically has to be an enabler, how you want to integrate the technology in your system. A lot of things are being discussed over IoT, but what needs to be looked at only instead of the smart rooms is basically a parallel thing that is happening regarding the blockchain technology. But, AI, I think is still at the nascent stage on how it is creating a ‘wow’ factor at this point of time.”
According to Sharma, technology has come a long way in the hospitality industry. “There is a lot of developments that have come into China or USA. But, from Clarks’ point of view, we think it is very important to keep the operations human. It’s good to have keyless entries and new tech and we are yet to explore that part. We are a little away from that, other countries have done that. When it comes to robots, in 2015 the Henn na Hotel came up with a workforce of 253 robots. However, according to recent reports, half of the robots have been laid off, because when it comes to the food, it has to be cooked by humans. When taking care of the guests’ concerns, humans can do it, robots cannot.”
Pointing that La Marvella in Bengaluru was one of the first hotels to introduce technology driven services to their guests, Kumar noted, “Although La Marvella was one of the very first hotels, not only in Bengaluru but in entire India to introduce keyless entry technology in 2009, it did not do well initially, since the guests were not familiar with it. But, the experience was fascinating thereon especially for the millennials who want to try something new.”
At the end of the day, it is the guest’s comfort which is the priority reiterated Kidwai, agreeing to Kumar’s point. He said, “The most precious commodity is time and guest comfort and especially in the luxury segment, we need to customise every experience, as we deal with a diverse demography in our hotels. And looking at that if a loyal guest is comfortable with the keyless technology then it is good. But someone who is not familiar with the technology should be provided with the conventional keycard or key. Technology helps streamline processes, makes operations smoother and more convenient. At the end of the day this should be the objective of any technology. It must be encouraged as a return on investment.”
Dhanabalu put forward an observation that the modern day guest’s tolerance level has gone down significantly. He said, “We are using technology wherein during the booking process online, there is a chatbot which answers the guest’s basic queries. We are still working on it and other technology applications to enhance the guest experience.”
Putting forward Radisson Hotel Group’s perspective Kuruvilla informed that being in the hospitality industry, there is a lot of emphasis on software. “In our case, the emphasis is on the people itself. You cannot replicate that too much with technology. The emphasis is on how much you bring to play when it comes to our business. Last impressions are lasting impressions and you cannot really have technology take over those impressions. We have really embraced solutions like express check in through the help of technology. The guests are well travelled and hence in-room technology too including the tabs and apps provided to the guests adds value to their overall experience.”Alternatively, Bose voiced his opinion, “Technology in hospitality in recent times is used more for the back-end operations which has gradually helped the staff to provide seamless solutions to their guests.”
“In our own hotel group, we have a human interface-free hotel i.e. in Tel Aviv. It is successful there and in the coming years, we will introduce that in India too. We have gone way ahead when it comes to technology and when it comes to disruption in terms of keyless entry or experience or something but to the levels that it is human-interface free. That is where technology is taking us today. AI, robotics and all those stuff will come later. I am sure there is a market for both whether we talk about technology or whether we talk about the human element in hospitality. But specifically technology, it is going places,” added Gupta.
Technology for ease
All the panelists unanimously agreed that technology is useful to add to the experience driven by humans, but the guests should not be compelled to use the technology provided by the hotel.Kataria affirmed, “We are not concerned about how to include more and more tech in the hotel room. Technology in our hotel is more of a personal choice. Suppose a guest is coming to the hotel and does not want to spend time on a laptop or tablet. We are not guiding or pushing the guests to do a certain thing.” Agreeing to his point, Gupta said, “Removal of keys is not possible. We shouldn’t be trying to impose any system on the guests. We use a lot of technology but still, we understand the balance between tech and human touch.”
Likewise, Vadhera felt that the use of technology is for the guests to decide and not for the hotels. “Technology can be used to take feedback when the guest is in house We cannot push people to use phone check in or i-pad check in. By the time the guest gets used to the hotel technology, we must understand what their demand is. Technology is good, it should be used but it cannot be the saviour or decision maker for the guests. Technology should be used only to the extent that the guests want to use it.”
Kidwai also had a similar view. “Technology should be used to make things easier for the guests. Average length of stays are coming down to 1.5 to 1.75 nights, and by the time the guest gets along with the technology, it is time to check out. An example is our hotel, when we opened we had no side switches in the room, which was controlled by a touchscreen panel by the bedside about 10 years ago, which was in fashion then. But, we got feedback especially from the older generation that they prefer the conventional switches so we added switches back to guestrooms. But feedback does bring corrective measures. So now we have introduced anti-stumble lights near the bed which are equipped with motion sensors so that when a guest gets out of bed at night, there is immediate light to guide them.”
Kumar pointed out, “It will take some time for the guests to use the kind of technologies that hotels are providing so frequently, but yes the future can arrive anytime sooner than we are expecting.”
Use of technology has its own shortcomings too, wherein data breach in the recent past was recorded by some hotel companies globally. Citing the reasons, Sharma said, “Considering security challenges, the guest’s data is usually compromised by the staff itself which is not deliberate. It usually starts after receiving a phishing email and by mistake they click on it, which is not anti-virus and firewall protected. And since all the systems are connected to WLAN, through networking a lot of data can be stolen. Many hotels use technology and ipads for controlling the lights and other functions. In this case, if the system of the hotel is hacked, then the lighting can be hacked and other vital information of the hotel too. So you can understand the amount of damage a hacker will do in these cases where the complete electricity supply or water supply of the hotel is shut down. Often we only look at the physical breach of security and not cybersecurity. And most of the hotels in India are not doing much about it.”
Mohanty stated that the security part needs to be looked at with two different viewpoints, of which one from the internal and the other from an external network in terms of cybersecurity. External cybersecurity tends to get compromised more often on account of the network service provider. Most international hotels put three-layered security cover. Most hotels here use Opera or Oracle software which is pretty secure in terms of securing data. There are five to six ways when you can get attacked by a virus which is basically a ransomware, etc. Generally, the IT team is on the top of it to secure the data from a breach.
Bose doesn’t see a big threat when it comes to cybersecurity breach noting that most systems are already in place. “Cyber crimes are being taken care of and that is what will come with years passing, technology will become more and more agile. So we don’t see a big threat on that aspect. Also, we do pilot projects when we are introducing a new technology in the guest’s arena. These projects are done and tested fool-proof and then installed to be accessed by the guests,” he opined. Adding to Varun’s point, Kataria mentioned that an important point to check cybersecurity is training. “The architecture of the software is tested multiple times but it is the human element which is the differentiator. So we have to spend our valuable time training our teams and watching out that they do not access an email unknowingly without realising where it is coming from,” he adds. Vadhera explained that systems are already in place at Hilton that keep their guest’s data out of reach from hackers. “For data security at Hilton, we have our own PMS which is called OnQ. We have all our servers secure; all our PCs are USB blocked, so there is no breach of any data by the staff or guests. To the guest servers, no employee access is allowed, so that is the level where we are going in terms of cybersecurity. Training is important but the task is to teach the staff what not to do,” he stated.
Gupta also spoke about how they prevent a data breach at The Den, Bangalore, “In some instances probably we have stepped back, like for example a lot of mobiles that we use, are without cameras and internet. When it comes to cyber crimes the levels of security, check and data integrity, we actually have international affiliations. GDPR is a big issue today wherein a hotel is not even allowed to store the personal data of the guests after their check out and it gets auto-erased from the systems, which means we have become more or less insulated when it comes to security. ” Dhanabalu informed, “We are moving to cloud-based technogy and are also working on a cloud-based PMS now wherein security is better.”
It is extremely important to ensure adequate protection systems and to educate and train the staff. “The security of crucial information like passport details and training the staff to check breach of the sensitive data of the guests becomes very important,” reiterated Kidwai. Kuruvilla concluded by saying, “As far as the security of guest data is concerned, masking of the data is done before making it available to the team members. In terms of training, there are dos and don’ts and, there are more don’ts than dos, so we do monitor that. Isolating servers from the firewall is important. which reduces the breach of guest’s consolidated data.”