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tablet front deskYou might think from the title that I’m going to talk about the fight for market share among Apple, Android and Windows tablets. But this article has little to do with specific brands. Instead I’m going to explore the different directions that tablet usage in hotels is heading.

More and more hotel guests own their own tablets. I could quote some statistics, but they will likely be out of date by the time you finish this post. Let’s just say that we’re talking about a ton of guests.

Considering the time spent staring at tablets and convenience that tablets offer, there’s no surprise that hotels are looking at ways to gain the attention of guests, improve the guest stay and offer useful services via tablets. But which services, which apps, and who’s going to control it all?

Let’s look at a few scenarios.

Hotel-branded apps

The hotel or chain builds or brands a tablet app, possibly including features such as reservation, check-in, in-room hotel-info, room service and housekeeping. So a guest, prior to their stay, can go to the appropriate app store, download the brand’s app and start to use it. The hotel can generate incremental revenue through selling upgrades, pre-paid meals, spa treatments, restaurant reservations and other incidental items.

It sounds good, and indeed, several chains are moving in this direction. But there are challenges with this scenario.  First of all, developing and maintaining separate apps as well as content for the different platforms is an expensive and time-consuming proposition.  After all, hotel chains already struggle to keep their guest-facing websites up-to-date. Will they attempt to keep multiple apps up-to-date as well? Keep in mind the various interfaces required: to the PMS, SPA, housekeeping, room service and others.

Second, in order for the app to work in-room after check-in, there needs to be a check-in process on the app to create a clear link between the tablet and the registered guest. Otherwise, the guest could – in theory – turn up the air conditioner and order room service days before arriving in the hotel.

Finally – and this is a recurring theme – how many apps can hotels expect guests to download? Just because guests own a tablet does not mean that they will take the time to download the hotel brand’s app and use it. So the tablet app has to remain an optional way – but not the only way – of getting service. Hotels can provide it, but will still need to provide services to guests without the app. As such, there are no cost-saving benefits of this approach.

Third-party Apps

Third parties provide apps. Such third parties can include booking sites (expedia.com, booking.com), internet booking engine sites (Travelclick, Fastbooker, Synxis) or specialized services, such as access technology (Openways) or in-room video (Swisscom). The idea is that if one of these apps establishes itself as a standard, guests need only one app with which they can access various hotel brands, rather than download a separate app for each brand.

It rarely pays to underestimate the power of the large travel portals and their marketing power. If a consumer can use one single app to book their flight and their hotel, choose their seat on the plane, select their room at the hotel, check-in to the hotel and review their hotel stay and perhaps get some special discounts as well – then it’s quite a powerful app indeed. Expedia, booking.com and the others are not quite there yet, but they’re trying.

These apps may one day allow basic features such as check-in and check-out as well as concierge services. But chances are they will never offer in-room features such as room service, spa bookings and temperature control.

Also, generic third party apps will not meet hotel marketer’s dream goals because the apps are not hotel branded. But they are clearly a force to reckon with. Working with them may be a better choice than working against them.

Tablet in every hotel room

The hotel puts tablets in every hotel room with a pre-installed app. This scenario means that the hotel doesn’t have to worry about what type of tablet the guest uses or whether the guest has downloaded an app or not.  When the guest checks into the hotel and enters the room, an app is waiting there to be used. The app already “knows” what room it’s in and can replace a number of devices commonly found in guest rooms from simple items such as clock-radio, information binder and do-not-disturb sign to items such as TV remote control, thermostat, telephone and lighting control. With a few additional interfaces, the tablets can enable check-out, ordering of room service, SPA bookings, table reservations or other services normally provided by concierges. At the very least, guests could use the tablets to surf the Internet. Whether the tablets are tethered or free so that guests can carry them throughout the hotel or the city is up to hotel policy.

The main advantage to this scenario is that hotels can save money by eliminating various other devices in the room. A drawback is that the guest obviously can’t use the tablet prior to their arrival. So any pre-check-in services need to be handled in the traditional approach, unless the hotel provides an app for download prior to check-in as well as the in-room tablet.

In recent years, a number of ventures have been founded to fulfill this need, including Suitepad and Iris Software.

Summary

Will this be a war with only one winner? Probably not. In fact, it is likely that multiple scenarios will work in parallel. In fact, it could be years before a winner – if any – emerges. There are technical possibilities that we haven’t even covered, such as the growth of pre-installed apps like Apple’s Passbook (not yet available on iPad) or Samsung Wallet.

But one thing is clear, nearly every hotel brand is currently thinking about their tablet strategy. The marriage of hotels and tablets is here to stay.

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