From robot receptionists to complimentary mobile phones, Clement Huang delves into the futuristic trends being adopted by hotels around the world

It wasn’t so long ago that hotel guests marvelled at being able to use pocket-sized plastic cards to access their rooms. Today, such technology is so commonplace, it’s more likely to raise eyebrows when one is handed a “novelty” normal key. Driven forward by the advent of  “millennials” and the continual battle to stay ahead of the competition, hotels are rapidly adopting innovative new technologies that help improve the customer experience, from expediting the check-in process to adding character to an otherwise cookie-cutter experience.

Business Traveller Asia-Pacific looks at some interesting new technologies that are taking the hotel industry by storm.

Smart Communication

Modern travellers live in a fast-paced world with a need to have everything at their fingertips. Hotels have responded to this, literally, with the growing presence of in-room tablets. These one-stop command centres allow guests to perform a range of functions, from ordering in-room dining to scheduling a pick-up or having their suit pressed – all at the touch of a button. Not only does this appeal to millennials’ tech-savvy preferences, a streamlined ordering system can help travellers stay organised, eliminate language barriers and reduce mistakes. Such technology has already been adopted by major chains such as Hyatt Hotels and even smaller independent hotels like the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou.

Arguably one of the biggest game changers in the industry is the Handy smartphone. Launched in Hong Kong, the nifty service is rapidly being adopted throughout Asia and Europe, providing foreign travellers with a ready-to-use mobile phone during their visit at no extra cost. Handy offers hotel guests unlimited local calls, complimentary roaming service to a number of international countries (including the US, UK and China) and full 3G/4G data connectivity throughout their stay. The device is also loaded with valuable city guides – great for those new to a city – plus interactive apps such as Press Reader that delivers access to over 2,000 newspapers and magazines. Handy expects to have 18.1 million users in Singapore and Hong Kong alone by the end of this year.

Green growth

Growing awareness of environmental issues has seen a number of hotels switch their attention to green practices. In Hong Kong, where pollution is a notorious issue, it came as a breath of fresh air when Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong became Asia’s first hotel to introduce electric cars back in 2011 for a green shuttle service. Grand Hyatt Hong Kong and Kowloon Shangri-La, Hong Kong followed suit in 2012 and 2014 respectively, using their growing fleet of Nissan- and Mercedes-branded electric cars to offer guests complimentary airport transfer services, and Hotel Icon made its full fleet electric earlier this year, including Hong Kong’s first electric shuttle bus. The practice of installing electric car charging points in car parks has also become increasingly commonplace; Marriott has listed 238 electric charging stations across its properties so far.

Many hotels are also moving toward paperless systems in a bid to become more environmentally friendly and more efficient – Hong Kong’s The Upper House is an example. Paperless check-in is becoming a more common benefit touted at high-end properties, with self-service kiosks, tablets (as previously mentioned) and online check-in systems replacing traditional forms and receipts. The trend is particularly prevalent at millennial-targeted brands such as CitizenM hotels, where guests can skip the front desk, pick up their key and sweep up to their room – no queues, no fuss.

Artificial intelligence

Humanoid machines serving you breakfast might sound like something out of a Steven Spielberg sci-fi flick, but android helpers are crossing over into real life at a handful of futuristic hotels. At Aloft Cupertino, California, charming bow tie-clad robots roam the halls delivering amenities to guests. Need an extra towel? Just call for your mechanical butler and it will whizz its way to you in under three minutes. The Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan takes artificial intelligence to the next level, from female automaton receptionists to multilingual porter robots that help carry luggage to your room. These cyber associates not only add a quirky level of excitement but are able to make guests’ stays even more efficient.

That’s Entertainment

The quest to deliver more personalised experiences to guests has seen hotels invest in entertainment technology. Something that has become a regular feature in guestrooms is the iPod docking station. Allowing guests to sync and play their own entertainment content during their stay helps hotels to create a “home-away-from-home” experience.

Then there’s the emerging trend of in-built TVs in bathroom mirrors – available in newer properties like the Langham Place Fifth Avenue. These hidden entertainment units enable guests to enjoy long, lazy baths while watching their favourite films and programmes, then disappear like magic when the mirror function is needed again.

Other innovations include the use of ambient lighting to help create different mood environments. The W Singapore Sentosa Cove, for example, offers four different mood lighting configurations in guestrooms – Hello, Runaway, Escape and Flirt – so guests have more control over creating a harmonious environment. The hotel’s use of sensory stimuli extends to its WET outdoor swimming pool, which features underwater speakers that emanate a soothing series of sonic waves as guests do their laps.

Adding a retro touch, the aptly named Arcade Hotel in Amsterdam has fitted each of its guestrooms with consoles and old-school video games. The hotel also has hand-held consoles available in the lobby bar for multiplayer gaming.

Entertainment technology is not limited to a hotel’s premises; The Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo for example allows guests to borrow iPods that come pre-loaded with digital audio-guided tours of the surrounding neighbourhood.

Security is key

Starwood was the pioneer of keyless technology, which has since been picked up by the likes of Marriott and Hilton. The idea is to transform guests’ smartphones into their hotel room keys using Bluetooth technology, enabling guests to skip check-in queues and enhance overall security. By storing a “digital key” within smartphones, guests are no longer required to carry physical key cards.

Moving forward, Starwood has already started taking things to the next level by unveiling the next generation of its SPG Keyless service, which enables multiple guests sharing a room to use the same digital key as well as access the technology even while offline.

An innovation that may seem rather “Big Brother” to some is the use of facial recognition technology. The 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston hotel installed a digital video system back in 2014 that utilised the technology to help employees recognise VIP guests and locate missing suitcases.

Meanwhile, at Hotel 1000, Seattle, technology is used to maintain the personal privacy of guests. All guestrooms are equipped with infrared detectors to alert housekeeping staff of occupancy, thus helping to avoid embarrassing post-shower encounters.

Added Comfort
One of the key parts of a guest’s stay is overall comfort and relaxation, so naturally, hotels are utilising technology to offer the best possible experience, from smart toilets to under-floor heating. At the Imperial Hotel Tokyo a smart bathtub fills itself up with hot water in minutes – no need to fiddle with temperature or watch the water levels rise.

Another welcome trend that seems to be
developing is the presence of massage chairs, available at the Dorsett Mongkok in Hong Kong, Le Meridien Dubai Hotel & Conference Centre and the Wanda Reign brand, to name a few. Guests arriving from a lengthy flight will no doubt appreciate the chance to sink into luxurious leather and have their muscle aches soothed away.

Virtual reality

The last two years has seen an explosion in virtual reality (VR) technology, with products such as Google Glass and Playstation VR enthralling audiences around the world. The feeling of “being there” is something that many hotels are also experimenting with.

Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, for example, offers immersive 360-degree videos on its website, where visitors can take virtual tours of the destinations and hotels, all from the comfort of their own home.

Adapting this technology, the newly opened St Regis Kuala Lumpur introduced an LED video wall projection system in its grand ballroom. The projector delivers a virtual reality panoramic simulation, supported by a superlative light and sound structure, to create immersive events and presentations for guests.

Food tech

Technological innovation also extends to the hotel kitchen, where chefs are using modern techniques to create dishes with a twist.

For example, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin at the Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok uses liquid nitrogen to create its signature Maine lobster salad with frozen red curry, while the highly technical “sous vide” method – in which food is sealed in airtight bags before being placed in water baths – is used at the Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London to create the quirky “meat fruit” appetiser.

It’s not just through their dishes that chefs are using technology to elevate the dining environment; Raffles Hainan hosted a Dinner in the Sky event earlier this year, which saw diners hoisted 50 metres into the air by a crane for a heightened experience.