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Clock Software is all-in-one hotel solution. Key features are Cloud-based Hotel PMS, Zero-Click Sync Channel Mannager, Booking Engine for your Hotel's Website and the perfect Self Service portal for superior guest engagement.

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Everything hoteliers need to know about APIs in plain english

by
Hotel Tech Report

The acronym API stands for application programming interface although for most hoteliers it might as well be gibberish. Don’t stress though, because the concept is actually quite system. In the early days of software, systems were server based which meant that they rarely (if ever) spoke with each other.  Think about that first Mac in your house before the internet - it was very much a lonely island. As processing power advanced and internet speeds increased exponentially software became easier to develop and more accessible.  As the world shifted from a myriad of lonely server based systems to an ecosystem of hyper connected platforms there grew a need to enable seamless communications amongst those systems - enter the API. Ok, let’s use a hotel analogy to better understand the concept.  Imagine you’re sitting at a table in your hotel’s restaurant. The kitchen is the part of the “system” that will prepare your order. What’s missing is the critical link to communicate your order to the kitchen and deliver your food back to your table. That’s where the waiter (or API) comes in. The waiter is the messenger – or API – that takes your request and tells the kitchen – the system – what to do. Then the waiter delivers the response back to you; in this case, it’s your food. APIs are effectively messengers of data between applications.  Every time you book a flight on Expedia you are using an API that delivers pricing and availability from the respective airline’s database onto Expedia’s website.  That same dynamic now happens between hotel software and hardware systems. Hotel Tech Report recently published a story about Volara’s Alexa for hotels voice activated tech and its ability to turn off room lights via Honeywell Inncom control systems and control guest entertainment solutions on platforms like Sonifi - that all happens via API. Given the widespread use of APIs in almost every industry one would think that hotels can easily connect software systems like business intelligence software, revenue management systems and staff task management software to any property management system - but in reality that’s far from the truth. Major property management system companies like Oracle Micros and Agilysys have literally hundreds of integration requests each month from software companies.  Each of those integrations must be vetted for security and reliability which takes time and resources.  Those same PMS companies have hundreds of feature requests from enterprise clients that are prioritized ahead of those integrations partners.  Adding to the headache, when an integration breaks down (which they inevitably do) the PMS companies are generally held responsible for client support.  Further, when one of those PMS companies updates a feature that impacts their APIs - they need each and every integration partner to make necessary adjustments to the connection. This integrations dilemma is a messy problem and London based Impala has come up with a simple and elegant solution - a universal hotel PMS API. Impala has built a universal API that both property management system providers and their software partners can build onto which saves the PMS companies time and money while allowing their partners to scale more quickly.   Hoteliers benefit by being able to connect their systems and from the ability to try more technology products that optimize their businesses - often products that wouldn’t have already been connected to their property management system and therefore would have been unusable.  Last year Impala raised $1.75M to serve more vendors and continue executing on its vision for a more innovative hospitality industry. We sat down with Impala co-founder Ben Stephenson to chat about the future of the hotel industry with a specific focus on how connected systems can turn the industry from a laggard into a technology pioneer. What was your background prior to starting Impala? Prior to starting Impala I was a Software Engineer working on a number of really interesting projects. One of the later projects that I worked on was managing a team responsible for delivering integration with GDS web-services. Impala initially came about as I met people when working in travel technology and started to understand how out-dated and ill-fitting the technology stack in travel was from almost every angle. I met my Co-Founder Charlie Cowley through a very old friend and since we have very complementary skill sets (myself in engineering, Charlie in sales) and Charlie being one of the few people that can put up with me for more than a few hours, we decided to start Impala. Who was your first customer? This is actually a really fantastic story. In the very, very early days before we really dug into building a secure integration platform, we were building a Property Management System. I was glued to a laptop for days on end building the thing (literally a never-ending job) and Charlie's job was to go out and drum up some pilots. We were based in London and the first guy that Charlie even managed to get on the phone is a chap called John who runs a 10 bedroom guest-house in West Wales. He somehow convinces him to take a look at the software - but it has to be in person. For anyone unfamiliar with the UK, West Wales might be one of the most painful places to get to from London. All you can really do is drive and if you catch the traffic on a bad day it can take about seven hours. Neither of us have a car because we're Londoners and so Charlie hops in some Zipcar and sets off to Wales. He gets there and gives me a call to say that he has no reception on his phone and he'll call me in an hour when he's done. Anyway, fast forward four hours and absolute radio silence. I try to call Charlie. Nothing. I try a few more times. Zip. At this point I'm pretty sure that Charlie has been lured across country to be murdered in a 10 bedroom dungeon and I'm trying to figure out how to call the Welsh police. Finally, I get a call from Charlie to say that he'd been grilled for the entire afternoon about a product he - to be honest - didn't really at the time completely understand but he'd somehow got them signed up. That’s incredible and I didn’t even realize Impala started as a PMS.  You guys have come a long way since then - tell us about the business today. With every interface, you're currently paying your PMS an extraordinary amount for insecure, slow access for data *that you own*. Impala is an extremely secure, rapid data layer that sits on top of your PMS and lets you work with great software and hardware ten times faster and cheaper. Who is one mentor that has really helped you scale the business? There are so many people that have helped us get to where we are so I'm going to have to pick out two. Adriaan Coppens, the ex-CEO of OTA Insight has been exceptionally helpful. He's always one or two steps ahead of where my thinking is and it really pushes me to be better. I'm almost certain every time we've disagreed, he's ended up being correct eventually. Jens Lapinski, the CEO of Angel Invest Ventures as well has been massively influential. He's completely no-nonsense and happily contrarian. I once wrote Jens a wonderfully lengthy strategy email about where we should go that spanned about four pages of A4 and I just got a single line reply that dismantled my entire argument. What's the biggest mistake that you see hoteliers making on a day-to-day basis? Hoteliers think that getting access to your own data has to take months. One of the golden rules we have when we consider whether to work with PMS or whether to implement our secure reader is "Can this PMS switch on an interface in less than 24 hours". If the answer is no then we use the reader rather than web-services. Our goal is to get Impala switched on in a hotel inside 24 hours. What's the most surprising thing you've learned about scaling technology into hotels? How unique every hotel is. We work with hotels in California, Kazakhstan and the Caribbean and every single one has different needs, processes and requirements. Luckily these days Impala is a very flexible product but I do feel for anyone coming into this industry thinking every hotel is entirely homogeneous because it's a tough learning curve. Are there 1 or 2 companies that have been a particularly good partners for Impala? We work with so many companies that I can't possibly shout out all of the great partners that we have. I love companies that move quickly however, people like Triptease and Customer Alliance that have really big visions and executive teams that are willing to really push the boat out to achieve them. If you could partner with any vendor in hotel tech, who would it be and why? I'm really excited at the moment about a lot of the work we're doing with hardware vendors. The demands are very different, a lot smaller data footprint but very low latency requirements in how fast they need data. Other than that, we'll be launching the Impala Distribution API later on in the year which will allow us to work with some very innovative companies in the distribution space. Where do you see Impala in 5-years? If you look at most hotels, because of integrations and interface problems and the fact they have a very specific domain that mass market tools don't cater for, they're comparatively very light users of technology. I hope that with tools like Impala we can change that and that in five years, hotels are going to see healthier margins because of it. In five years Impala will be the default way that hoteliers manage and share their data with partners, whether that be distributors, software or hardware vendors or governments. Hoteliers will have super fine-grained control and auditing of exactly who has access to what data and how frequently. What's one piece of advice that you have for any entrepreneurs looking to get into the hotel tech space? Hire well. Technology is hard, hospitality is hard. We wouldn't be anywhere near where we are right now if Charlie and I didn't have a genuinely incredible team of hospitality professionals and technologists. It's so easy to hire badly and hotel tech is quite an unsexy space so you have to be very careful and do it very well. What is the best book you've read lately and why? The Fortune Cookie Principle by Bernadette Jiwa. Brand is so important to any business and it should inform absolutely everything you do. Jiwa demonstrates this through some great case studies. What is your favorite podcast Business - 20 Minute VC. Comedy - The Worst Idea of All Time. What is one thing that most people don't know about you? I'm a huge fan of cricket. Every few months I start to try and organise a charity cricket match for the hospitality industry. I just have to nail down Erik Muñoz on his availability this summer since he's the Australian Captain.

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Here's why alternative lodging valuations are skyrocketing

by
Hotel Tech Report

There’s a lot of talk in the hotel industry about massive growth from homeshare players like AirBnB but relatively little talk about the immense growth of franchise brands. For years now, major brands like Marriott have growth hacked their way to scale by going asset light.  By relieving themselves of physical assets and focusing on a franchise business model, Marriott projects 1,700 new hotel openings between now and 2021. This growth may seem surprising given all the buzz around travelers wanting unique and local experiences but there’s also been a ton of growth amongst incredible boutique hotel concepts.  Think about brands like Two Roads (Thompson, JDV), Bunkhouse, Nomad, Freehand, Standard Hotels, Public Hotels, Bunkhouse, 25H Bikini - the list goes on and on. All of the “independent brands” mentioned above (several have been acquired by chains) have found ways to create incredible (and unique) travel experiences for guests but there is one thing holding them back - scalability.  Even the best (and most capitalized) management teams have barriers to scale like identifying unique real estate, negotiating large scale transactions, securing financing and building out properties. AirBnB took a different approach to rapid scaling by leveraging the power of an unregulated marketplace model.  As a result of this strategy, just 9 years after its founding, AirBnB already had more rooms online than the top 5 brands combined. AirBnB passed the top 5 chains by # of listings (CB Insights) You’d be hard pressed to find a friend who hasn’t had a crappy experience on AirBnB but they’ve probably also had some great ones.  Where the franchises found a good balance between scalability and quality control, AirBnB and the homeshare economy sought rapid scale in unregulated markets. More recently a new category of hotel management company has popped up.  Some call these players hometels (home+hotel) and they’re more generally referred to as alternative lodging.  Brands in the alternative lodging sector include Stay Alfred, Sonder, The Guild Hotels and to some extent groups such as Selina and OYO.  The alternative lodging sector brings similar scalability to homeshare companies with similar quality control to brands. Sonder, for example, was founded by college students in 2012 and just 5 years later hit $100M in revenue with it’s rapid venture capital fueled growth. The alternative lodging sector brings the consistency of a hotel without the overhead and therefore often charges cheaper rates relative to comparable properties.  While attending the Triptease Direct Booking Summit in Dallas last year I slept at Sonder competitor Stay Alfred and the experience was remarkable. Stay Alfred had leased a floor of apartments next to the Statler Hotel (Hilton Curio Collection) and converted the apartment units into hotel rooms.  These rooms were larger than the rooms at the Statler next door and one third the price. Upon arrival I headed to a Key Cafe kiosk in the lobby of the building to get my key - the process was completely seamless and I never interacted with a single person.  The room came outfitted with DirectTV and high speed WiFi as well as HDMI cables to plug in my devices. The alternative lodging experience is undeniably something that the hotel industry needs to keep careful tabs on as it scales quickly and will be highly disruptive to certain segments of the market - perhaps even more so than AirBnB.   Companies like Stay Alfred and Sonder have used distribution channels like Booking.com to kickstart their growth and have augmented digital advertising efforts by offering unbeatable (sometimes even unprofitable) prices to bring customers in the door via 3rd party distribution channels.  Once customers like me are in the door and have a great experience - we then tend to look for those properties for similar use cases in the future. As an example, I recently went straight to Stay Alfred’s website to book my hotel for an upcoming conference. It’s not all fun and games though in the alternative lodging sector as the excitement has pushed valuations into what many believe is bubble territory. Alternative lodging player Selina which is often referred to as a “co-living hospitality brand” (aka glorified luxe hostel with good WiFi and coffee) recently raised $100M at an $850M valuation for it’s portfolio of 22,000 hostel beds.   To put the Selina valuation in perspective, John Pritzker’s Geolo Capital sold Two Roads Hospitality to Hyatt for $430M last year. At the time Two Roads managed 17,000 hotel rooms with a significant development pipeline and iconic brands such as Thompson and Joie De Vivre.  Two Roads was producing approximately $40M of EBITDA at the time of the sale while Selina is likely to see losses for many years to come. The alternative accommodation market is undeniably frothy with prices driven up by venture capitalists who have AirBnB fomo and are paying technology multiples for real estate companies.  Today’s TechCrunch article fires a warning shot to investors: "...one focus will be to improve the booking process and algorithmic recommendations that people use both to figure out where to travel next, as well as what they want to do when they get there." ~TechCrunch comments on Selina’s use of $100M The question to ask is whether these are real estate companies fronting as tech companies or whether they’re the real deal.  Do we actually need algorithms to tell us where to travel next? If so, is that technology actually valuable? One of the major proponents of the alternative lodging sector has been Thayer Ventures, a travel tech focused venture capital firm with deep ties to the hotel industry. Thayer’s focus on travel and hospitality gives the firm a unique perspective so we sat down with Venture Partner Katherine Grass to discuss hotel tech, the rise of alternative lodging and more.  Katherine previously founded Amadeus Ventures and has met with literally thousands of startups in the space over the years - she’s seen it all and has unparalleled insight into the alternative accomodation trend.     How did you get into travel tech venture investing? I started my venture career at Amadeus IT Group where I founded Amadeus Ventures and went on to build out an entire ecosystem of programs working with external players and created their global Innovation & Venturing unit. Ventures had always been my first passion - aiding startups to be successful. Therefore, when the opportunity arose to join Thayer Ventures, Thayer being the leading travel-technology fund globally, I naturally jumped at the idea! Thayer Ventures is unique because we are not only one of the few travel-technology focused funds globally, but all partners come with a very deep expertise and network in this space. Therefore, we are not only able to make solid investment decisions based on our industry expertise, but we are able to truly help our portfolio companies, whether that be with industry contacts, strategic direction or business development. What hotel and hospitality tech companies have you invested in? Being travel-technology focused, we have many hospitality tech investments in our portfolio. Mews Systems, Optii Solutions, HYP3R, Sonder, BookingPal, Duetto, Groupize and Social Tables are examples of hospitality tech investments. Social Tables recently being sold to Cvent. While Dishcraft Robotics and xx are additional investments that apply to the hotel sector. How do you usually come across hotel tech investment opportunities? Because we are one of the leading funds in travel technology, we have a combination of companies reaching out to us, referrals from other generalist funds looking for a travel-tech expert as well as directly discovering startups at major events. Most of our investments tend to be Series A and we will absolutely lead rounds where it makes sense. What’s one piece of advice you have for hotel tech entrepreneurs when raising capital? Hard to pick one piece of advice! My advice would be to ensure you are addressing a real business problem in the industry. You would be surprised by how many startups develop ideas for concepts that aren’t seen as real pain point opportunities by the hotels. Additionally, ensure your opportunity has a big enough addressable market. This means there is enough profit to be made by your idea if you’re successful. Small opportunity means small profits, and you won’t get investors attention with this. How do you think the hotel technology space will change over the next 5 years? We will definitely see the hospitality tech stack open up and be more interactive. This means open APIs and the ability for various pieces to interact with each other and not necessarily all be from the same vendor. On alternative lodging, we still have massive growth in this sector and we will see this continue over the next 5 years. People often say that the hotel industry is slow to adopt technology. Do you agree? I don’t agree. We have seen hotels becoming increasingly open to quick experimentation and pilots, and as solutions become more cloud-based and API-led, it will only increase. Some legacy systems made this testing more difficult in the past due to the integration effort required for experimentation, but we are definitely seeing this change. What is the most interesting or surprising thing that you’ve learned from investing in hotel tech? An interesting trend we are seeing in the hospitality tech space has been the continued growth and strength of what we call alternative accommodations. For all of the startups that might want to pitch in your office, what can you tell them about your investment criteria, etc. to help them decide if they are a good fit for your portfolio? We are looking for stellar teams. Most all of our investments are Series A, meaning the startup already has some initial traction and customers with strong growth potential. Are investments are global but must be in the space of travel-technology. For us this means hospitality tech stack, alternative lodging, tours & activities, corporates & meetings, smart cities and mobility & transportation.

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6 ways to make the most out of the INTELITY platform

by
Hotel Tech Report

The INTELITY platform is an extensive enterprise guest experience engagement and staff management platform for hotels, casinos, cruises, and luxury residential brands. It’s especially powerful for multi-property brands with complex operations. The platform empowers both guests and staff to manage the guest experience efficiently, accurately, and across devices. In recent “client wins,” tech-focused micro-luxury hotel brand YOTEL selected INTELITY’s as its “brand standard.” This is a testament to the strength of the INTELITY platform, as Yotel sets the bar high for providing a tech-enabled guest experience that relies on digital efficiency to keep a lid on room rates. YOTEL CEO Hubert Viriot elaborated further, highlighting the role technology plays in today’s finely-tuned and highly-optimized hotel: “At YOTEL, it is important to us to make the customer journey as seamless as possible, saving our guests and staff valuable time so that they can get on with what is important to them. It is for that reason that we will be introducing INTELITY as a brand standard across all YOTEL properties." Why did a company known for its “pioneering use of technology" in the hotel industry” choose INTELITY as it’s guest experience technology provider? Let’s answer this question by looking at the ways hotels make the most out of INTELITY’s multi-faceted guest engagement platform.     #1: Improve the guest experience by leveraging staff productivity tools Hotels must have a reliable, consistent process for managing tasks, such as housekeeping and maintenance, as well as handling incoming guest requests. Sticky notes and spreadsheets lead to confusion, double-work, and mishandled requests. One of the top ways that hotels benefit from INTELITY is by compiling back-of-the-house tasks into one single system. This unified dashboard provides a quick view into a task or request’s history, so everyone can see who’s responsible and what’s been done.   INTELITY’s staff management platform offers a cross-device dashboard that includes work order and task management, as well as real-time data analytics to monitor for bottlenecks. With this functionality available on both desktop and mobile, staff are untethered from the desktop and can roam freely as situations arise.   Do this: Work with each department head to create a new operations manual that defines new processes, and includes staff training. Also, set your benchmarks and assign accountability to meet (or exceed!) those targets.   #2: Empower guests with self-service to reduce wait times and boost satisfaction A full-featured mobile app centralizes a guest’s digital experience. It gives them a place to turn to for information and requests and it facilitates mobile check-in. According to mobile key provider OpenKey, the ability to skip the front desk reduces wait times and lobby traffic by 20%, which makes guests happier and frees up staff. This is why the brand chose INTELITY, elaborates YOTEL CEO Hubert Viriot:   “An app gives guests the ability to not only skip the front desk but have ready access to hotel services, facilities and information as and when they need it.” To make the most of the platform, put INTELITY’s capabilities in the hands of guests. A mobile and web app allows guests can focus on enjoying their time on-property and in-destination. Guests enjoy easy and convenient access to staff via mobile messaging, and staff are more readily available to assist via the back-end dashboard. Some hotels, such as boutique hotel brand Lifehouse’s Miami location have even gone as far as replacing in-room guest phones with its app that allows guests to communicate with staff via voice and messaging. Do this: To encourage usage, promote the app across all guest touchpoints: social media, on-property, and especially in pre-arrival emails. And then make the app relevant and useful to guests by keeping your mobile app’s content updated and ensure rapid response times for in-app communications.   #3: Use guest messaging to eliminate barriers between staff and guests Rather than forcing guests to visit the front desk, or call housekeeping, it’s all about simple, straightforward guest messaging. INTELITY guest messaging puts guest requests right in front of relevant staff so that problems can be solved and requests answered quickly.     To fully eliminate these barriers, guests communicate in real-time with staff via the messaging solution. This portion of the platform directly connects operations teams and guests through SMS, as well as in-app messaging services, like Facebook Messenger. Guests communicate on whichever channel they prefer, and then all these channels are combined into a single interface. All guest communications route to the appropriate channel on the INTELITY platform, connecting the guest-facing elements to the relevant staff dashboard. Streamlined guest communications boosts productivity and accuracy when handling incoming guest requests. No more missing a guest request, or dropping the ball on responding. All of this is cross-channel and cross-device. Do this: To make the best use of the messaging solution, combine it with the back-of-office platform, which creates tickets for guest requests. Reward staff for prompt responses and celebrate wins by praising exemplary interactions.  Lastly, make sure to receive opt-in prior to messaging guests.   #4: Digitize room service and concierge to increase non-room revenue Guest expectations around technology have evolved. The INTELITY platform offers three components of a tech-enabled in-room experience: voice, personal device support (guest mobile), and guest tablets. When combined, guests have full control over how they personalize their rooms: whether via tablet, voice, or analog dials, guests can adjust temperature, open blinds and interact with the TV. Tablets can also be additive as a concierge touchpoint, empowering guests to craft an in-destination experience that suits them. Tablets can be a value-add for boutique and luxury properties. It’s the details that make experiences in the higher-end categories stand out -- the ability to drop blinds or pick specific channels from the tablet makes it much simpler to engage with the room. A digitized room service menu also makes it much easier to order food and beverages. Guest can avoid a phone conversation and ensure accuracy of the order, all from the in-room tablet. At the Boston Harbor Hotel, 80-90% of guests use the in-room tablets, which led to 16.4% more in-room dining revenue, as well as a 90% drop in costs for providing in-room newspapers. Do this: Room casting, tablets, and voice technology need strong Wi-Fi, so be sure that your hotel’s infrastructure is capable and flexible to support peak demand.   #5: Give guests instant answers with voice technology -- and encourage more incremental spend Guests prefer engagement tools that don’t require making a call to the front desk. Voice-activated technology, such as Alexa and Google Assistant, have introduced a new interface for hotel rooms. Using voice technology, guests can access instant information about your hotel and the surrounding area, as well as control the lights and temperature. Voice can also be a “butler on a budget.” Brands like St. Regis, for example, use butler service as a luxury differentiator. As you give guests more control over their experience, voice can deliver more bespoke service, such as calling up a car from the valet, promoting upcoming events, and encouraging incremental spending through dining, spa, and activity reservations. With multilingual capability, voice assistants can also help international guests feel more comfortable with personalizing their own stay. For hotels with significant global business, this is a major value add to welcoming those guests. Do this: The technology is still relatively new, and each hotel has its own voice commands. Promote your voice assistant to guests, so they understand its capabilities and benefits.   #6: Update menus and other content quickly to eliminate poor service and reduce printing costs Running low on a few items in the kitchen? Need to adjust menu pricing and description to reflect an ingredient change? INTELITY’s content management solution means that availability across food and beverage operations can be updated on-the-fly. From a single dashboard, management can sync changes immediately across all channels: web app, in-room tablet, and mobile app. Instantly, there will be no more ordering out-of-stock menu items, preventing disappointment and awkward service moments. The beauty of this solution is that you don't need to reprint menus for each guestroom or proof-read many revisions of a printed menu. Typos can be fixed right away, and F&B staff can be more creative with specials and other promotions that would have required costly printed collateral updates. Do this: Review content across all customer touchpoints regularly. Even if it seems like nothing has changed, a regular review process (quarterly or monthly) may reveal new opportunities to market the hotel’s amenities better.   #7: Invest in digital keys to give guests flexibility and reduce frustration Upgrading your properties infrastructure to handle digital keys isn’t cheap. Yet many guests -- especially those loyal to the major brands -- are beginning to expect digital key locks. Combined with the mobile app, digital keys give guests more control and flexibility. The ability to access a room without a magstripe key means that hotels can offer remote check-in, so guests can skip the front desk. Digital keys also reduce the common frustration of having a magnetic key stop working after accidentally placing it near a credit card. When a guest returns to the front desk to reactivate a key, hotel staff must take the time to fix the issue -- and defuse a potential confrontation. It’s an unpleasant experience for everyone involved; integrating INTELITY’s digital key into the guest experience saves hotels money and gives guests the control they expect. On the operations side, there’s a predictive analytics upside to digital keys. Hotels can learn about guest behavior to better match staff resources to demand. Mobile check-ins and check-outs mean that housekeeping can reduce turnaround time, and close the gap between hotel systems that don’t communicate with each other in real-time. Do this: Train front desk to mention the digital key capability. Not all guests want to download an app for every hotel, so it takes intelligent on-property messaging to highlight this convenient feature.      #8: Get automated reports so you know what’s happening -- even if you’re not on property There's already plenty to do when it comes to running a hospitality business. Running reports and customizing Excel spreadsheets is not always the best use of time. With its platform focus, INTELITY provides a real-time pulse of the business. Set reports to run automatically and receive up-to-date information on your computer or mobile so you can act on that information, Whether you are on property or not. Do this: Share the reports with the right people. Set the right permissions to allow key staff leads to learn and improve operations based on these reports.

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“Alexa, make me a better hotelier”

by
Hotel Tech Report

Most of the ‘artificial intelligence’ being sold to hotels isn’t actually artificial intelligence.  The drones used to deliver room service champagne to the ultra elite back in 2014 was just a PR stunt.  Don’t even get us started on Google’s attempt to outfit hotel staff with Google Glass lenses.  The list goes on and on. While we’ve been bullish on the use of voice activated technology for business use such as IDeaS Revenue Solutions’ smart revenue assistant we have historically taken a more bearish stance on voice technology for guest use until recently. Admittedly, we first thought that Alexa for hotel rooms was just another PR stunt but after meeting Dave Berger and trying Volara's technology for ourselves - our skepticism quickly became enthusiasm for Volara's impact on hotel operations and the overall guest experience. Back in 2015 Dave Berger was a lawyer and AirBnB super host.  As his vacation rental business grew it began to interfere with his day job due to an increasing volume of text messages from guests asking lots of similar questions.   Berger was an avid user of Amazon Alexa’s smart assistant in his personal life and decided to hack together a solution that could help answer lots of these questions for guests.  Doing so instantly made managing his budding vacation rental business significantly easier.   That’s when he had his “ah-ha moment”. Berger knew that if he could solve this much friction in his startup vacation rental business with Alexa that hotels would benefit from the use of this new technology due to the massive amount of complexity involved in their operations. Berger didn’t just jump in and start selling his device to hotels.  He spent 2016 identifying the areas where voice technology could make a meaningful impact on the guest experience.  During this research phase, he developed a partner strategy and built a platform that could easily connect with other software solutions. To this day, one of the biggest pain points for guests in a hotel room is waiting on hold when calling guest services. Volara integrates with all the leading work order management systems - like Alice, Amadeus HotSOS, SynergyMMS, Knowcross, and HMobile - so guests can can make requests and get instant confirmation that the item or service they need is being delivered Another massive pain point for hotel guests lies around the fact that hotel room TV remotes are ridden with germs and bacteria.  Volara integrates with in room entertainment systems like Sonifi, BeyondTV and Innspire so that guests never have to pick up that filthy remote control ever again. One by one Berger has identified areas where voice can help other tech products perform better and faster.  Volara has racked up dozens of these technology partnerships to date and its platform approach has paid off in spades for Berger resulting in an exclusive partnership to provide voice technology for Marriott franchisees and even securing a nod straight from Amazon CTO Werner Vogels - no small feat.   Amazon CTO Werner Vogels talks about Volara at Reinvent 2017  While we were tempted to speak with Alexa for this interview, we felt like sitting down for a chat with Berger might be a bit more productive. Dave, what was your background before starting Volara? After five years practicing law at a big law firm, I ran like hell.  I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur and have been following my entrepreneurial passions since 2008.   I had been an AirBnB Superhost for three years and one day in January 2016 a particularly needy guest began peppering me the most mundane questions in rapid succession.  "Where are extra towels?" "How do I use the dishwasher?" "Where can I park?" Alexa was one year old at the time and I decided that she could help me serve my guests in a fun and more efficient way. After receiving great feedback from my own guests and measurably reducing the number of guests messaging me, I saw the opportunity for a business venture and began to consider suitable markets.  I spent 2016 speaking with hoteliers and learning everything I could about technology in hotels. Thanks to some great mentors early on, we were able to identify specifically what it would take to turn a consumer smart speaker and natural language processing platform into an enterprise grade solution that's suitable for the most complex hotel environments. Today, Volara's software addresses the most common concerns about consumer smart speakers deployed in hotels - guest privacy, data security, reply accuracy, and seamless integration into existing hotel technologies.  While others are charging for a "skill", Volara gives its conversation models away for free to its clients and enables others to build creatively atop of those conversation models. Who was Volara’s first customer? The Acme Hotel in Chicago was the first hotel to deploy our solution in every room.  This solution is live and loved by guests today. The ownership group has since deployed our solution in another one of their hotels as well.   If I recall correctly, the Acme Hotel found us.  It's an incredibly tech forward property with management and ownership that immediately saw the value in our solution. Why do hotels need voice activated technology? Voice technology enables hotels to engage their guests in a fun and scalable way. Volara turns leading consumer voice technologies that your guests will know from home into a compliant, flexible, and accurate fully integrated hotel business tool that will yield measurable results. Who is one mentor that has really helped you scale Volara? Armand Rabinowitz.  Armand is currently the Senior Director of Strategy and Workgroups at HTNG, but at the time we met he was Director of Innovation at Hyatt.  Armand was the very first hotelier to contact us through our website and helped us understand the intricacies of working with large hotel brands.  Thanks to the insight he shared early on, we have managed to develop successful relationships with four of the largest hotel brands in the world. What's the most common misconception that hoteliers have about voice technology? Some hoteliers believe Amazon's Alexa is a hotel product.  We've seen this mistake lead to disastrous outcomes at The Wynn Las Vegas and Best Western.  In the same way that Google Chromecast needs a hotel technology overlay, so does Amazon's Alexa.  Volara has built this software overlay and I'm proud to say it is being used by every successful deployment of Amazon's Alexa in hotels today. What's the most surprising thing you've learned about scaling technology into hotels since founding the business? Hoteliers don't like to take risks on startups.  Its sad and holds back innovation in an industry that is in dire need of new ways of doing business.  Three years on, Volara is now well established in the industry, but we didn't reach the success we have today without a fight.   Volara has built deep technical integrations for 30 plus hotel technologies - from work order management systems to guest engagement platforms to IPTV solutions to room controls to valet and safety products.  Our vision has been to be the voice interface for everything in the hotel and that helped us bring credibility in those early days by associating with partners who the hotels were already working with. If you could partner with any vendor in hotel tech, who would it be and why? Hotel Tech Report, because they are trying to bring transparency and efficiency to an old fashion marketplace.  Hoteliers should consider vendors based on the quality of their reviews on Hotel Tech Report, rather than by the size of their booth at HITEC. How will voice technology for hotels change in the next 5-years? Hoteliers will become more educated on voice technologies and value the solutions that provide guest privacy protections, data security, improved interaction accuracy, flexible management tools, and seamless integrations. Volara will continue to lead the pack and will be voice enabling 80 hotel technologies across 8 natural language processing platforms in 26 languages on 60 different pieces of hardware in hotels across the globe. Do you have any new products or feature launches to share? While our Alexa based solution continues to scale rapidly, we are committed to providing platform agnostic conversation management for our clients.  I think most folks are aware of our joint solutions with Google and IBM Watson by now, but there is more to come. Stop by to meet us at HITEC or reach out for a confidential preview. Is there anything that the community can do to be helpful for you? Keep collaborating in the best interests of our clients.  I love working with partners to achieve truly remarkable outcomes. What's one piece of advice that you have for any entrepreneurs in the hotel tech space? Focus on measuring the ROI for the hotels immediately.  Nice to have solutions inevitably fail. What is the best book you've read lately and why? It’s not a book but I’ve been really passionately reading the At War section of the New York Times for quite some time and I think it’s critical reading for anyone in global business.  It chronicles the experience and costs of war across the globe. The impact of war - whether on combatants, civilians, the environment, lost innovation or other aspects of our world - is something we all need to try to understand better. What is your favorite podcast I enjoy listening to the investigative reports by 60 Minutes - yes, the same 60 minutes that my grandparents watched on their black and white TV.  Sometimes complex stories take time to investigate, unwind and convey in a thoughtful way. What is one thing that most people don't know about you? I lived atop a butcher shop in Hong Kong.  Each morning a noisy truck would drop a pig in front of our door and my wife would say "Breakfast is here."

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Hotel brands are exploding but are they adding value?

by
Hotel Tech Report

The Independent Lodging Congress has announced an exciting new pitch event geared at hospitality startups serving independents (find out whether your startup is eligible for INDIE Cultivate here).  The ILC has long been a champion of progress in the hotel industry and fundamentally believes that technology has leveled the playing field between independents and brands. Marriott recently announced that it will add 1,700 new hotels by 2021 meaning that branded properties will be taking an even bigger chunk out of the development pipeline moving forward.   “Don’t expect these properties to be anything like a St. Regis or JW Marriott, though, but more cookie-cutter properties.” ~The Points Guy Despite the aggressive growth in branded hospitality, Independent Lodging Congress is unsurprisingly bullish on independents. Many of the core brand value propositions have already been recreated by technology.  For example, a core value proposition that sways owners to go with a brand is getting access the brand’s distribution network.  The question is: as 5, 10 or 15 properties pop up near your hotel targeting the same customer under the same brand umbrella - is that distribution really more valuable than what you get on Expedia? I was recently researching hotels for a trip down to Miami next month and I decided to check out which Marriott properties I could stay at with the goal of racking up some loyalty points.  While researching I couldn’t help but notice a big CTA on the booking engine “Select from 30 unique brands”.   Dozens of Marriott franchisees compete with each other in a small Miami corridor While that variety gives nice value to me as a booker, I couldn’t help but think about the owners of those properties.  There were even a handful of category 6 and 7 properties within just a square mile of each other and each of those owners was competing for the same exact business. In other words, Marriott wins no matter which hotel gets booked but only one franchisee will end up winning my business.  I later realized that my Chase credit card gives me the same benefits as Marriott Bonvoy (6x points on travel) but also gives me the flexibility to stay wherever I’d like - further obfuscating the value of the brand beyond the quality and vibe of each individual property. This isn’t to say that brands don’t have value because they certainly do; however, the value of being in a branded franchise has definitely changed for hotel owners and developers of late and that change continues to accelerate.   From the consumer perspective we know that travellers want unique (non-cookie cutter) experiences as reflected in STR stats around independent ADR matching branded rates.  The explosion of “cookie-cutter” properties (i.e. Fairfield Inn types, not St. Regis and JW Marriott) resembles the explosion of cookie-cutter retail chains like Abercrombie & Fitch and Aeropostale which experienced rapid growth for many years before hitting a brick wall and needing to close thousands of locations in short order. Further, independent hoteliers are no longer on their own according to ILC Chairman Andrew Benioff: “All of the technology that has contributed to the leveling of the playing field vis a vis the big brands. There are so many technology solutions available today at reasonable pricing that almost any owner or investor in the space can reproduce the results of having a brand and also have the flexibility to make their property unique.” The Independent Lodging Congress fundamentally believes that big hospitality’s old boys club lead by middle aged white men has left the industry vulnerable to disruption and that progress is coming from the outside and with upstart independent boutique hotel developers such as Bunkhouse and Sydell Group.   "If you look at the largest hotel firms out there, both public and private, they are run primarily by middle aged caucasian men. Only in the last 5-10 years has this begun to change. I think that this is why we have been really slow to change. If you look at the rest of society here in the US, most of the population doesn't look or act like this group of leaders. We are slowly evolving to bring in new leaders which include more women, minorities and LGBT members. This will greatly assist with the appetite for change." ILC is a champion of diversity, both diversity of thought and culture.  ILC’s programming is unique in that many of the speakers are from outside the industry.  Between the diversity of programming and content, it’s safe to say that ILC isn’t your grandfather’s hotel investment conference and is definitely worth checking out. We sat down with ILC Chairman Andrew Benioff to talk about his vision for the future of hospitality and what the industry can achieve by thinking outside the box and bringing new ideas from the outside to disrupt from the inside. What was your background prior to starting ILC? I began my hospitality career as  formal apprentice in a traditional Japanese Ryokan in Atami Japan. I then continued with my career with a number of luxury hotel brands in the states including The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Nikko Hotels International among others. After attending conferences for years in both the hospitality and real estate finance industries I felt like there was a real dearth of interesting content. Most people attended simply to network and book meetings with others. I really felt like this was a shame and that these gatherings should of course be about connecting with others and transacting but also be  a place of discovery, learning and hopefully lead to "ah-hah!" moments as well. A travel tech startup founder is reading this article and you have 3-5 sentences to convince them that ILC is a great place to network with top independent hoteliers. I'd actually prefer to flip this around and try and convince people NOT to join us if they want: 1-the same old canned content, 2-are content in what they know and don't need/want to learn, 3-aren't ready to be challenged and 4-don't believe that people outside of our industry have anything to teach us. Why is ILC starting to become interested in tech startups? Why did you decide to create the startup pitch event? We are not only interested in technology, and don't believe that all successful travel/hospitality start-ups have to be tech focused. We do believe though that all industries need to evolve and hospitality is no different. These new companies are discovering areas of improvement for the industry and as provocateurs for the hospitality and travel industry, it's part of our mandate to highlight these efforts. ILC features a lot of non-hotelier programming, what are some of the biggest lessons that hoteliers should be taking from other industries today? What are those industries that are innovating ahead of hotels? One of the reasons that hospitality has been so slow to evolve is its focus on doing the same old thing year after year with a spotlight on the same old industry "leaders". In actuality these "leaders" are uninspiring and do the same old song and dance continuously without any evolution. Looking outside of our industry to the disruptors in society, art and culture allows us to see where there is room for improvement and where our guests are focusing their energy so that we can then serve them better. What are the biggest changes that are happening right now specifically within the independent hotel market? I think that one of the biggest changes is that more and more developers and investors are realizing that with the advent of many new technology platforms, the big brands have less leverage with the customer and more and more travelers are looking for original hospitality experiences. I see more high quality Indie Hotels arriving in the market in the coming years and those that finance and invest in them becoming more comfortable in including them in their portfolios.   Chip Conley (Joie de Vivre) and Liz Lampert (Bunkhouse) speak at ILC 2016 What is the most interesting or innovative technology that you've seen in hospitality over the last couple of years? All of the technology that has contributed to the leveling of the playing field vis a vis the big brands. There are so many technology solutions available today at reasonable pricing that almost any owner or investor in the space can  reproduce the results of having a brand and also have the flexibility to make their property unique. What's one commonly held belief that most independent hoteliers believe to be true about technology that actually is false? Please explain your reasoning. As I mentioned above I think that there is a long held belief that you can only be successful if you have one of the big brand flags on your property and all of the technology and booking engines that they provide. I think that today most, if not all, of those benefits can be reproduced for Indie properties without the massive fees that the brands charge. What's one piece of advice that you have for any entrepreneurs looking to get into the hotel tech space given your understanding of the independent lodging market and buyer behavior? I think people should ask themselves carefully if there truly is a market for whatever they want to build and if any of behemoth tech companies started to look at this space. I have seen many companies come up with wonderful ideas only to be blown out of the water by the giants. I've also seen many who think there idea is great but there isn't as much of a need for their product as they think. Perhaps spend a bit more time speaking with consumers before going to far so that you can verify demand. Hoteliers historically have the stigma of being somewhat tech averse and slow to adapt, do you see that mentality changing? If you look at the largest hotel firms out there, both public and private, they are run primarily by middle aged caucasian men. Only in the last 5-10 years has this begun to change. I think that this is why we have been really slow to change. If you look at the rest of society here in the US, most of the population doesn't look or act like this group of leaders. We are slowly evolving to bring in new leaders which include more women, minorities and LGBT members. This will greatly assist with the appetite for change. Is technology more or less important for independent hotels (vs. branded)? Equally as important I think. No matter what type of property you are running exploiting any advantage is paramount and technology tops that list.