Room service at the Hotel Monville in Montreal starts with a phone call that tells the guest: Your robot delivery is outside.
“It’s room service without the tip,” says Lauren Schechtman, vice-president of marketing and sales at San Jose, Calif.-based Savioke Inc., which makes the Relay delivery robot now used in about 80 hotels in the United States, Canada, France, Japan and Singapore. “Our robot uses the elevator by himself, goes to the guest room’s door and, when he senses that the door has been opened, he will unlock his built-in secure bin so the guest can take out whatever it is they ordered.”
The travel sector is rich with touch points that connect consumers and industry workers with sophisticated technology. Airlines and hotels, for instance, are built on large-scale infrastructures that make it possible to reserve flights and rooms – right down to fine details such as seat numbers and pillow preferences. Most airports around the world now have self-serve passport and biometric scanners that move people in and out faster without compromising security.
But this is all old news for experienced travellers.
Faced with tight competition for traveller dollars and more demanding, better-informed consumers, travel and tourism companies are turning to next-generation technologies such as robots, data analytics, artificial intelligence and augmented reality.
“Travellers have more choices than ever, so we’re seeing more and more travel companies deploying these technologies to elevate the customer experience and set themselves apart from the competition,” says Michael Coletta, manager of research and innovation at Phocuswright Inc., a New York research firm focused on the travel industry.
As examples, he points to robot concierges powered by artificial intelligence (AI) – such as the lederhosen-clad, bilingual model at the Motel One Munich-Parkstadt Schwabing in Munich, Germany – and chat-bots that can triage and answer customers’ requests by text or online.
“There’s also plenty of opportunity to use AI for customer profiling, speeding up and reducing security through better forms of identification, and customizing services,” says Mr. Coletta. “There are a number of startups working now to use AI to predict flight delays and other aberrations in travel.”
At Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International Inc., whose portfolio of hotel brands includes the Ritz-Carlton, Westin and W Hotels, the use of new technologies ranges from mobile keys that lock and unlock rooms with guests’ smartphones, to smart mirrors with touch-screen displays that let guests book dinner reservations, control lighting in the room and watch TV.
Marriott recently rolled out a program that will bring Amazon’s Echo smart devices and Alexa personal-assistant service into hotel rooms.
“Both Amazon and Google are digging deeper into travel technology,” says Mr. Coletta. “Amazon is working closely with hotel brands to automate hotel rooms, while Google now lets you go straight to booking from its platform.”
But does high tech necessarily translate to high times for travellers? For instance, do smart bathroom mirrors that digitize and e-mail guests’ scribblings on fogged-up surfaces actually improve customer experience in a meaningful way?
The best customer-facing technologies in travel are often those that don’t feel like tech at all, says John Padgett, chief experience and innovation officer at the cruise operator Carnival Corp. in Miami. That was part of the thinking behind Carnival’s Internet of Things platform, which uses digital Ocean Medallions to provide keyless access to staterooms, let guests order and pay for food and drinks through smart devices throughout the ship and allow guests to find their way around with navigation based on personal needs and preferences.
“If a guest is in a wheelchair, they’ll be navigated to an accessible route,” says Mr. Padgett. “And with our Ship Mates feature, our guests can easily locate their friends and family on board.”
The medallions – toonie-sized discs that can be worn as pendants or like a watch – don’t need to be configured or recharged. They’re also water- and sun-proof.
Each medallion is connected to an AI-driven platform that contains guest information that’s conveyed in real time to cruise ship staff. This allows, for example, a bartender to know that a particular guest likes two olives in his martini, or a lounge entertainer to shout out a birthday greeting to an audience member.
Other travel companies are using well-entrenched technologies such as mobile phones and social media platforms to up their game. In Europe, hotels such as The Hari in London and Ventana in Prague lend guests a complimentary phone that can be used to navigate the city and make free long-distance calls to a long list of countries.
The Hari also invites guests to bypass their e-mail and phone and, instead, correspond with staff through WhatsApp, a mobile chat platform.
Four Seasons Hotels Ltd. has taken a similar approach. The Toronto-based company recently introduced a mobile platform that allows guests to talk to hotel staff through popular social media platforms such as Facebook, WeChat and WhatsApp. Integrated language software translates conversations between parties in real-time.
“Seventy-five per cent of our messages are responded to in less than 90 seconds,” says Christopher Cocca, global senior director, digital at Four Seasons. “Before this, if you needed something to happen right away your option was to pick up the phone and wait on hold.”
Tourist attractions such as museums and parks are also using technology to deliver better customer experience. George Washington’s Mount Vernon museum in Mount Vernon, Va., uses immersive 4-D technology in its revolutionary war theatre. In Europe, augmented reality glasses, which give wearers additional information and videos of sites they’re visiting, are used by museums and tour companies.
“There’s a lot of technology that’s being implemented and thrown around in the travel industry,” says Mr. Coletta at Phocuswright. “There’s going to be a big shakeout of what really sticks and what doesn’t.”