Whoever wins the current battle for ownership of Starwood Hotels will not only gain access to its eleven brands and 1,300 hotels spread throughout the world but also something rather novel: intelligent floors.
The Intelligent Floor, as it is called, is a concept being developed by Starwood’s innovation people which uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and sensor technology embedded in carpets and triggered by a guest’s movement and weight. When linked to a mobile app, this effectively would allow the guest to be tracked around the hotel.
The aim, as always, is to improve the ‘guest experience’ – such as recognising when the guest exits a lift and then using fibre-optics in the carpet to direct them to their room.
Even without the mobile app being deployed, the Intelligent Floor has its benefits: a middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom, for example, can be made much easier by the carpet sensors not only guiding you in the dark but also automatically (via the RFID) switching on the lights when you get there.
Other potential uses for the Intelligent Floor include alerting housekeeping when a used room service tray has been left outside in the corridor, enabling the sight of half-eaten dinners to be speedily removed from passing guests.
Starwood has a well-deserved reputation for innovation: in 2012 it opened a two-storey creative design laboratory – termed ‘The Starwood Experience’ – at its global HQ in Stamford, Connecticut. A year ago it also opened another ‘innovative ideas studio’, called Starlab, in Manhattan’s trendy Garment District.
But Starwood was not the originator of the Intelligent Floor technology – a US company called Interface, a major designer and maker of carpet tiles, can claim that prize. Back in 2008 Interface, in fact, won an award for the ‘most innovative use of RFID’ by embedding the technology into carpets. Yet it was up to Starwood’s innovation team in Stamford to spot the potential for its use in hotels.
Last year the chain unveiled at the Starwood Experience a mocked-up room for its Element brand which included the Intelligent Floor technology. It also suggested that it could install it in its tech-friendly Aloft brand.
But it has all gone rather quiet since then: “The Intelligent Floor is still in its concept phase and is yet to be rolled out,” a Starwood spokesman told Business Traveller.
Starwood, however, has plenty of other innovations on the cards – ranging from smart mirrors embedded with touchscreens, which display latest news headlines, weather, and email – to a robotic butler called Botir.
And it was the innovation lab that developed Starwood’s SPG Keyless entry system, utilising smartphones as room keys, which bypasses the need to pick up an entry key from the front desk. This has been rolled out to most Aloft, Element and ‘W’ branded hotels (including the Alofts in Liverpool and London’s ExCel and the W in Leicester Square).
But other hotel chains are also in the innovation game, including Marriott International which last November agreed a $12.2bn takeover of Starwood before a rival $13.2bn offer from Chinese financial group Anbang Insurance was unveiled last week. Marriott is now understood to be considering raising its offer (see news 15/3/16).
Marriott’s own Innovation Lab opened in 2013 in a 10,000 sq ft space underneath its Bethesda, Maryland, HQ. While it has some eye-catching developments – last summer, for example, it installed a robot called Mario, which speaks 19 languages and ‘guards the buffet’, at the Marriott hotel in Ghent, Belgium – its innovation team appears to focus largely on making rooms more user-friendly. Better wi-fi, extra outlets for mobile devices, improved soundproofing and redefining bathrooms are high on the list.
Underlying the drive for innovation, however, is the need to differentiate between the ever-growing number of brands offered by the major chains (the top ten global chains have about 130 between them and are adding more) which sometimes makes it difficult for even the seasoned Road Warrior to tell them apart.
This is especially important for hoteliers who are increasingly wooing the Millennial traveller – Marriott, for example, expects up to half its guests by 2020 to be from that generation. And Millennials are said to be particularly attracted by new technology and innovative ideas.
But the drawback to such innovation is the cost. Most of the major chains now are brand managers/operators rather than owning the bricks and mortar of the hotels themselves. Yet while property investors are increasingly keen to finance hotels because of the potential strong returns, they are naturally wary of being asked to fund new innovations unless they can see a payback. Adding smart carpets to their hotels may not be their first priority.
And this may be the reason why Starwood is perhaps holding back on deploying the Intelligent Floor, especially given the uncertainty over the chain’s future ownership. As ever, it all comes down to the money.