The Smart Hotel Room: The (Still) Unfulfilled Promise

Smart Hotel Phone SystemsWe all have heard about “smart” technology, especially “smart” phones and the like.  And we may have heard as well of “smart” buildings. All of this technology is quickly becoming a reality. You know new technology is about to enter the mainstream when Time Magazine devotes its middle page section to it.  Granted, the recent issue touted the coming revolution for smart buildings was more or less devoted to the residential silo, quite often what starts to happen in the home starts to migrate into hospitality, and vice versa. 

But is the concept of a smart building, and more specifically, the smart hotel room, really so new?  Read the following excerpt from the New York Times:

“When regulars like Laurence Wiener check into the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York, they get more than a smile from the concierge and a mint on their pillow. Wiener’s hotel room “knows” exactly how warm he likes it. It welcomes him with a personal message on his television. It even loads his most frequently dialed numbers onto the phone.

And the bellhop did not have to do a thing.

At the Mandarin and other high-end hotels, new computer systems which connect individual rooms to network servers can now keep track of guests’ preferences and change the room conditions automatically.

These “smart” systems can learn whether a frequent guest likes the lights dimmed, the curtains closed or the room toasty warm. They can also personalize the electronics in the room so that the music of John Coltrane, for instance, greets jazz buffs when they enter their rooms. Meanwhile, sensors in refrigerators alert maids when the minibar is running low on Coca-Cola.

While much of the underlying technology is not new, it is still rare in private homes because the cost of the equipment is relatively expensive. As a consequence, luxury hotels are the first to embrace it.

But by incorporating such technology into their guest rooms, these hotels are starting to provide a glimpse of the networked homes of the future.

The backbones of these smart rooms are the data networks that hotels are installing to carry phone calls, video and Internet connections…”

Sounds innovative and exciting, right?  Are we finally about to live like George Jetson?  Funny thing, though, the above article was written (Wait for it) …in 2005!  That’s practically geologic in tech time!  So what happened?

Probably nothing more sinister than the usual hype exceeding the reality.  The Times article attributes the lag to “clunky tech and consumer wariness,” the latter perhaps being code for HAL9000-aphobia.  But is the unfulfilled promise of GRMS (Guest Room Management Systems) finally ready to emerge from its cocoon?  A number of providers seem to think so, from new tech startups to the usual gang of titans poised to leap into the breach.  These include Smart Things (est. 2012) and Revolv in the home automation realm, and SystemTeq (the grandpappy est. in 1988.) and Smart Hotel (not to be confused with the Smart Hotel chain) in the hospitality realm.  What has really enabled this long-promised revolution has been the proliferation  and the concomitant drop in prices, of devices and sensors that can “smartify”  objects, enabling the “Internet of Things” (Io T,) AKA “Cloud of Things” (Co T.).

Initially this “educating” of rooms and structures grew out of the GRMS goal of greater energy efficiency, that is, being able to control room thermostats remotely and/or automatically.  While that’s still a laudable app, there’s much more to be accomplished.  Low-power, low bandwidth, and low-frequency wireless technologies like Zigbee and Z-wave have made retrofitting existing domiciles a cinch.  Smart Hotel, for example, offers a line of smart hotel interconnectivity devices called Smart Bus, which includes a 9-in-1 multifunction sensor, a Hotel bedside/tableside panel, a card holder, and a hotel door access bell panel.   Typical GRMS functions now fall into two basic categories, room status: Do Not Disturb, Occupancy, Laundry, Make-up Room, Room Service etc;  or environmental: A/C, window blind control, security, telephony, and PMS interfacing, etc.  So at this point, it’s obvious the hardware “clunkiness” issue is all but resolved.  For the hotelier, though, his/her resistance to the “new” thing will only crumble to the extent that the new thing blackens the bottom line.  And it’s in the attracting and keeping repeat guests that the real promise of the smart hotel room lies.  Advertising and marketing creates shadows in the lobby.  But making that first visit special and memorable keeps ‘em coming back.  Granted, that first stay is crucial, yet armed with a database of guest preferences that “smart hospitality” provides, the hotelier can make the second visit even grander. 

And that is what cements customers for life.   For the guest, it’s all about the hospitality, whether he or she is made to feel somehow special and welcome. And that is exactly what the “smart” hotelier will provide.  

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