Technology and the hospitality industry are an odd couple. An industry heavily reliant on good people and the human touch is also one that must rely on new technology to progress in business. So what does the future hold for technology and the hospitality industry?
Experts believe the next few years will see technological consolidation, taking technologies such as the Internet, and combining them with existing software and hardware products. Dr Dimitrios Buhalis, senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Surrey, expects to see "full integration of all systems" by 2005. For hotels, this will see the merging of back office, administration and accounting data with the front office, customer care and guest histories. All this will link up with reservations, distribution, procurement and supply chain management with the hotel's Internet presence.
As systems between suppliers and buyers become more integrated, ordering will be done automatically. Computers will be able to add items to existing orders about to be made and check prices from different suppliers to ensure the best price. It will also be possible to log on to suppliers' extranet sites to check up on deliveries, special orders and information on new products.
Guest profiling will also become easier. Ben Andradi, chief executive officer of in-room entertainment company Quadriga, says broadband Internet stands to change what hotels can offer in the future significantly. "Better guest profiling will improve guest CRM (customer relationship management), ensuring that guests get what they need or prefer," he says. "This will be helped by the integration of frequent-lodger programs, which will allow guests to take their individual preferences from hotel to hotel with a single guest profile number."
But if guests will be able to move between hotels so easily, how will you keep them loyal to your hotel? Felix Laboy, chief executive officer of E-Site Marketing, has an answer to this problem. "Higher levels of one-to-one marketing will take place because hotels will be able to access more information about a guest and then be able to offer that guest the individual service he or she requires," he says. "This will encourage loyalty, and ultimately produce more revenue."
One of the most exciting developments will come with the accessibility of broadband and wireless networks (see panels). With broadband Internet connections, a hotel will be able to "show" guests round on its Web site using video and 3-D pictures without long download times. Potential guests will be able to check room prices and availability in real time, read a menu, find out about events, check up on last-minute deals and read about specialist services such as weddings or in-house babysitters. Then they'll be able to do their booking and ordering of services online. In turn, guest profiling will become easier.
Internet connection So what will the hotel room look like in 2005? "Hotel guests will be able walk into a hotel room, put their computer on the desk and automatically become part of a wireless network," Andradi believes. "This will allow them to receive all their work e-mails to their own portable IP (Internet protocol) address and link up with the in-room printer/fax machine. The Internet connection in the room will operate at ultrafast broadband speeds, allowing guests to stream detailed video to their laptops in real time."
This is already happening in a small way thanks to BT, which is rolling out wireless Internet "hotspots". These allow the guest to connect to a broadband Internet connection using a suitably equipped laptop and without any cables.
All this is, of course, theory. No one thought the Internet would amount to much, but equally we were all supposed to be using our mobile phones to surf the Internet and… well, we aren't. In reality all this will probably mean a few more technology-related grey hairs for managers before everything does what it should, when it should. And more than a few technology writers having to eat their carefully prepared words.
Wireless networking allows you to connect to a broadband Internet connection without any need for cables. It also allows computers to connect to one another without the need for cables with the right equipment. BT is currently rolling out wireless broadband networking in 22 "hotspots" (areas where you can connect to a wireless Internet service) in buildings such as hotels and shopping centres. Users pay a subscription for the service depending on how much time they want to spend online. Prices for using the service vary from £6 for 60 minutes' access to £85 a month for unlimited access.
Broadband allows users to use the Internet at speeds 10 times faster than with a normal modem. BT and the cable companies (NTL and Telewest) are the main providers of broadband in the UK with more than a million people connected to the service. Future growth will be decided by demand, which is currently 20,000 new connections a week. Some areas will have no access to broadband and BT is currently looking at other ways of providing those people with a connection. It costs about £30 a month.
Into the future…
In 15 to 20 years' time it will be possible to embed the integrated database of hotels into all equipment in the building, from kitchen fridges to the minibar to hand-held consoles. Every aspect of the hotel's business from guests' preferences to ordering and stock systems will be accessible from these points.
In-room entertainment The choice of entertainment in the hotel room of 2005 will also be dramatically increased. Ben Andradi, chief executive officer of in-room entertainment company Quadriga, predicts a future where a guest's profile number will keep a record of preferred films and music, so the choice available in the room will reflect their tastes. "The system may be able to recommend films or music that you'd like and automatically present you with a sampler of music and movie trailers," he says.
Wireless and broadband will aid the development of two types of virtual reality. The first will allow potential guests to "walk" around the room via the broadband Internet, with a virtual concierge and without the delay of download times. "Visual online communication with a hotel or destination representative could be achieved," says Felix Leboy, chief executive officer of E-Site Marketing.
Immersive reality For virtual-reality purists, for whom moving 3-D Web images isn't the real thing, "true" immersive reality could, one day, have an impact on hospitality. At present, it works by entering a "sphere", wearing a helmet, eye goggles and gloves, the cost of which to set up is prohibitive. immersive reality could allow the guest to walk round and interact with the hotel in a computer-controlled environment. This system would allow guests to open doors, look round a room and pick up objects, even open the minibar.
Wireless technology could also play a part. Smart-card technology built into mobile phones and personal digital assistants will allow a hotel guest to check in and out of a hotel simply by being within the hotel's Wireless Wide Area Network. No keys, no check-out, no stopping at the front desk.