Room for Upgrades
As New Customer Demands Force Hotels to Transform, Project Teams Must Accelerate the Pace to Deliver Five-Star Advantages
BY MATT ALDERTON
Today's hotels are overbooked with change.
Whether it's delivering next-gen tech or creating personalized experiences, global chains and boutique brands are working hard to meet the demands of discerning, hyper-connected guests—and to differentiate their new and renovated properties from sharing-economy upstarts.
The opportunity to gain more loyal customers is certainly present. Global international tourism arrivals are expected to reach 1.8 billion by 2030, up from 1.2 billion in 2016. The global hotel market will be worth US$703 billion by 2021, up nearly 32 percent from US$534 billion in 2014, predicts Transparency Market Research.
“The average consumer is incredibly well traveled. They're very tuned in to what is new and fresh,” says Aliya Khan, vice president, global design strategies, Marriott International, Washington, D.C., USA. “That means we have to continuously innovate to stay ahead of guest expectations.”
This year, Wynn Resorts installed an Amazon Echo in each guest room at Wynn Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Guests can use the devices to open curtains, control lights, adjust the temperature and change TV channels—all via voice commands. With an eye on flexible design, InterContinental Hotels Group unveiled a guest room prototype at a Holiday Inn in Bellingham, Washington, USA in April. The room includes more charging options for personal devices, a movable desk and a king bed with pullout trundle sections that can double as a sofa or as two twin beds for kids.
But project managers must transform as well. Adopting agile approaches helps hasten delivery of bleeding-edge advances, while more careful management of requirements and stakeholders ensures that pilot projects can more quickly and more securely be scaled across hotel chains’ global brands.
“We have to continuously innovate to stay ahead of guest expectations.”
—Aliya Khan, Marriott International, Washington, D.C., USA
Keeping up with the pace of innovation means hotel project teams must execute quickly or risk losing first-mover advantage. This rings especially true for technology projects, says Mamie Peers, vice president of digital marketing, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Her organization takes a lean and agile approach.
“We've adopted a minimum viable product [MVP] mentality as a means to test spaces that are more innovative and rapidly changing,” she says.
“We've adopted a minimum viable product mentality as a means to test spaces that are more innovative and rapidly changing.”
—Mamie Peers, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
The Chandelier bar at The Cosmopolitan Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
PHOTO BY YAACOV DAGAN / ALAMY STOCK
Before The Cosmopolitan introduced a chatbot concierge called Rose in January, the launch version was tested for eight weeks by employees and technology experts from a local university—all of whom stayed overnight in the hotel to replicate how actual guests would use the chatbot. The team also applied iterative design to adjust and improve the digital concierge while collecting user feedback. That feedback helped the team decide to scale back information the chatbot provides on fitness centers to just operation hours and location, while adding answers to questions the team didn't anticipate, such as how to find the nearest pharmacy, Ms. Peers says.
“The MVP process enabled us to quickly spin up an environment that helps us determine the future of Rose,” she says. “In our next iteration, we're looking at how to get more of the hotel's departments online so they can provide more immediate service delivery, and we have prioritized which ones to bring online.”
Another key to speed is standardization, says Krishol Poudel, PMP, assistant manager of IT, Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. When organizations provide their project teams with a proven set of standard operating procedures (SOPs), properties can execute projects faster, easier and with fewer risks, he says.
Last year, Mr. Poudel relied on SOPs to complete a yearlong project to implement new high-speed internet access. This was rolled out successfully across the company's Minor Hotels in a series of pilots. “For the project, which is to be rolled out globally, doing a pilot in each region is the key to mitigating risk,” he says. “If one property can run with an SOP, it will be mostly compatible with other properties in the same brand and region.”
Constant change also can place hotels in unfamiliar territory, where unforeseen risks can snowball into costly delays or bad decisions. Whether it's rushing implementation of voice-command room controls across the enterprise before the technology is properly vetted or scaling hotel services that don't match every market's need, it's imperative for project teams to develop in-house specialists or bring aboard outside subject matter experts at every phase.
During planning meetings, experts can help identify and mitigate risks based on lessons learned from projects that have had similar objectives or characteristics, Ms. Khan says. For instance, experts can help a development team study a particular location and identify what type of room best fills a market gap—boosting ROI and avoiding the risk that the project oversaturates the market.
“We have 30 brands at Marriott, so there's a lot of expertise,” Ms. Khan says. “There are people here who can look at certain markets and tell you historically what has worked very well and what has not.”
For IT projects, Ms. Peers consults a specialized team to mitigate risks and to meet security requirements, which is a must-have as hotels ramp up guests’ digital experience.
“I will not sign a contract or even consider a technology that isn't approved by our IT security team,” Ms. Peers says. “If I need to move really fast on a piece of technology, I'll make sure they're on my first call. When we were looking at launching live chat on our website, for example, they were on all of the calls as we vetted vendors.”
More Than a Bed
Some hotels are leveraging next-gen technologies to change the way they interact with guests.
Singapore's M Social uses robots to deliver meals and fresh towels to rooms. The robot even sends notifications to guests’ smartphones when it's about to arrive.
Wynn Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA installed Amazon Echo devices in each of the hotel's 4,748 rooms. The device allows guests to control lights, room temperature and the TV by voice command.
INTERNET OF THINGS
India startup hotel chain Treebo plans to install connected appliances such as air conditioners that can be remotely monitored by hotel staff. It would allow the hotel to anticipate—and repair—any issues before a breakdown causes problems for guests.
An Amazon Echo at the Wynn Las Vegas
Last year, the Best Western hotel chain leveraged virtual reality technology for an online video program that allows guests to take a 360-degree sneak peek of a hotel before they book. The virtual reality tours are available for the company's nearly 2,000 properties in North America.
Whether for new construction or renovations, project teams are going to extremes to deliver unique hotel experiences.
Location: London, England
Budget: £200 million
Status: Completed in 2017
The four-year project creatively converted a 93-year-old bank in the heart of the city's financial district into an upscale hotel, complete with 252 vintage rooms. The original banking counters were repurposed as dividers between the hotel's seven restaurants.
Location: Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Budget: US$3.5 billion
Status: In limbo
It will be the world's largest hotel—if it's built. Originally scheduled to open this year, the future of the 10,000-room, 70-restaurant megaproject is in doubt. It's been slowed by design disagreements, and the project's primary construction contractor, Saudi BinLaden Group, was prohibited from starting any new projects and forced to halt work on Abraj Kudai in the wake of a deadly crane accident at one of the company's other projects in 2015.
Alila Fort Bishangarh
Location: Bishangarh, India
Budget: Not disclosed
Status: Completed in 2017
Transforming a 230-year-old fortress into a 69-room luxury hotel wasn't easy. During the nine-year project, the team had to remove bats and monkeys from the project site, take steps to ensure the granite hill could support a renovated structure and determine how to efficiently transport materials up a hill that had no road.
The pool area at Anantara The Palm Dubai Resort, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
THE NED PHOTO BY VIEW PICTURES LTD / ALAMY STOCK. TOP PHOTO COURTESY OF ANANTARA THE PALM DUBAI RESORT
Security risks were front of mind when Grupo Posadas launched a US$700,000, eight-month project to implement a data management system for its 110 hotels across Latin America. In particular, the new system would provide more information about guests to help accelerate the check-in process and customize experiences, says Rodrigo Loya Sanroman, PMP, a project manager formerly with Grupo Posadas, Mexico City, Mexico. He oversaw the data system project through its completion in April.
Mr. Sanroman's team consulted with specialists to ensure the project met all security requirements so guest information was protected from privacy threats. For instance, the team encrypted all data and restricted access only to company data stewards, he says.
“Increasing data is one of the biggest risks, because in most cases the business does not calculate the increased demand or the lack of server capacity,” he says. “Hotels manage a lot of information, so it's very important to mitigate risks so you have an effective and secure data management system.”
The best outcomes aren't possible unless impact is measured for the ultimate stakeholders—hotel employees and guests. Getting frequent feedback from them helps to refine design approaches or tackle technical issues—and ensures a more polished rollout if changes are scaled across the entire hotel fleet.
But collecting such feedback isn't easy. Employees work varied shifts and have diverse positions, which means face-to-face meetings or even email communications can sometimes be impractical. The Cosmopolitan solved this problem by establishing a company intranet that staff members can access from their mobile devices when it's most convenient for them to provide feedback.
“Employees can comment on, edit and add information to any document or webpage they see within the intranet, which allows us to get feedback on projects. That's invaluable,” Ms. Peers says.
For instance, when her team launched a project to build a seasonal ice rink, employees submitted questions such as how old kids had to be to skate and how many guests families were allowed to bring. The feedback helped the team anticipate questions from guests and became the foundation for a public website with all essential information.
“If one property can run with [standard operating procedures], it will be mostly compatible with other properties in the same brand and region.”
—Krishol Poudel, PMP, Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Guest feedback that's collected from online surveys and travel websites helped Mr. Poudel's team identify a service lag for guests sunbathing at Anantara The Palm Dubai Resort beach. That led Mr. Poudel's team to launch a project this year to install a new paging system so guests could reduce the wait time for food and beverage delivery to the beach. When guests press a button, a device mounted on their beach umbrella sends a signal to a wearable device on their server's wrist, which vibrates and displays a number that corresponds with the guest's location. If the server doesn't respond in a given time period, the request escalates to the server's supervisor and then to a venue manager.
“When you engage the main stakeholder—especially the team member from a particular department who has their hands on the problem you're trying to solve—you're able to teach them the correct way to approach an issue and implement a solution,” he says. “That makes it easy for hotels to transform.” PM