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A Silicon Valley North for Hotels

Toronto, my home town, has long held the title ‘Hollywood North’ to express its close relationship with Los Angeles, the film capital of the world. The movie and television industry has been a leading employer and economic boon for the city for decades, but now Toronto appears to be double-dipping in Californian namesakes, all because of its tech sector’s flourishing growth. The city is filled with passionate entrepreneurs who are rapidly developing the mobile and digital utilities of tomorrow, and many of these products have direct applications for the hospitality industry.

Fueled by hearty government grant programs and admirable living conditions (amongst a slew of other factors), Toronto shares many of the characteristics that helped turn the Bay Area into the innovation powerhouse that it is today. This metropolis of nearly six million is now a roaring cluster of highly skilled teams and even bigger dreams. Even in a virtual, globalized office space, the city nonetheless continues to accrue many prominent software and hardware firms with hundreds of startups dotting the landscape. It may well be a ‘Silicon Valley North’, and hoteliers – like any other savvy entrepreneur looking to be an early adapter instead of a late adopter – will benefit from keeping a tab on what this tech hub produces.

With my business firmly planted in central Toronto for the past 22 years, I’ve had the fortune of witnessing this emergence firsthand. However, the purpose of this article is not to acknowledge and verify recent trends, but rather to think broader in terms of how new technologies, wherever they may be incepted, can be used to improve operations. As we gallop ever faster into an era of digital integration, it’s critical that you keep an open mind to how these platforms might be creatively applied towards offering guests a more immersive and memorable hotel experience. And the best way to illustrate this principle is through examples.

To this end, I sought out three local developers – Nadav Elituv of Imagin8, Isaac Strang of shootround and Devon Wright of Turnstyle – to report on the specifics of their raison d’être. All three present fascinating cases to support the notion that the hospitality industry can be a prime benefactor of new innovations. So, let’s review each product individually and see how they might be applied to a hotel space.

Imagin8

Nadav Elituv runs a no frills office / laboratory out of a refurbished warehouse in the gentrifying downtown neighborhood of Liberty Village. His company, Imagin8 (www.imagin8.ca), specializes in hardware and software solutions which turn flat screens or any surface that can absorb a projected image (walls, windows, floors, tables) into a fully interactive experience. Basically, gigantic touch and touch-less screens. For our demo, all of Nadav’s fancy wares were on display, including a glass-top desk fitted with a touch-enabled LCD panel under the surface and a projector beaming a slideshow of advertisements onto a twelve-by-twelve foot white wall – touch the wall and the ads change.

The goal of Imagin8’s contraptions is to engage passersby by creating points of interaction at every available opportunity, thereby maximizing someone’s level of appreciation for the brands on display. This is done using head and body motion-based technologies to capture a person’s interplay with the images on screen in conjunction with multi-touch capabilities so that the images can simultaneously respond to several hands or users (think pinching or expanding a Google map on a smartphone). Additionally, Imagin8 provides back-end software analytics so you can gauge what your audience finds the most entertaining.

As for specificity to the hospitality industry, I foresee Imagin8’s technology as a handy tool to develop better staff-guest relationships. Take a panel-mounted flat screen or an image-projected white wall for instance. Both could be used in the lobby to showcase various features and amenities around the property in big, bright colors, allowing guests to rewind, fast-forward or learn more details with a single touch. In this way, the rolling pictures draw visitors’ eyes while the ability to interact with the screens empowers guests to discover as they see fit, all proactively increasing rapport with the hotel brand. The touch and touch-less screens (that is, the digital experiences) are also quite fun.

Another clear-cut translation is surface table computers for the concierge and front desk staff. To start, imagine the traditional front desk counter – a polished flat countertop is all that stands between you and the clerk, except for a computer monitor facing the staff member. You ask the clerk a question, his or her hands mash a keyboard and, voila, information is relayed on the monitor. But until that staff member flips the monitor around, only he or she is privy to what the computer shows. This forms a psychological barrier, albeit subtle, which might hinder a guest from fully trusting the front desk team.

By using a surface table computer, however, the one-side-only monitor is eliminated. Both parties see the exact same thing at all times which makes it feel more like a collaborative effort, thereby increasing the bond between the guest and the attentive staff member. These contact-enabled embedded systems offer a viable alternative to eliminating the described physical barrier through the use of smaller tablet screens with products like the Apple iPad or the Microsoft Surface. This all may seem a tad futuristic but such table touch screen applications are already being used experimentally for concierge stations at several luxury operators. Companies like Imagin8 can help you build custom-branded solutions to fully explore this exciting new technology niche.

shootround

Photo sharing apps like Instagram have yet to make a substantial dent on demographics outside of the Millennials and tech savvy Gen Xers. Hence, there’s still plenty of room to explore in this social media niche. Piggybacking on the likes of Pinterest, Flickr, Shutterfly, Snapfish and many others is shootround (www.shootround.com), a mobile app with a neat little twist for hotels. Isaac Strang, the lead developer, kicked things off by demonstrating how it works from a consumer’s point of view:

Let’s say you go to a venue to attend an event: a wedding, a conference, a launch party, an awards ceremony, you name it. People will be snapping photos and sharing them online, that’s a given. By using shootround in tandem with the local WiFi network, all pictures taken at such an event can be instantly uploaded to a projector or flat screen, and then put on display as a real-time slideshow for all to enjoy. Additionally, shootround pulls designated activity from Twitter and Instagram to enrich the picture viewing experience.

After the event has ended, attendees can log on to a designated web portal to access all of the images accrued from all the different smartphones using shootround during the event. The collection is automatically assembled into a private, customizable digital photo album, supplanting the need to arduously source from various Facebook albums, Twitter feeds and other user-based networks. It’s also ideal for those who are social media adverse (Grandma!).

For the host – in this case, you, the hotelier – it works a tad differently. To start, you buy a shootround license to enable a proscribed hosting network. Once attendees are prompted to start using shootround on their smartphones, you control how the photos are streamed via a computer-monitoring setup. That is, you approve or deny any shots and decide how long images appear on display in addition to whether the live reel will repeat or shuffle. Isaac also informed me that an automated picture moderation feature is in the pipeline, meaning that within a couple months, hotel staff won’t necessarily have to approve or deny photos in order for appropriate content to be made available.

As the host, you also have the rights to place watermarked advertisements into the photo stream, a great branding opportunity for the venue or corporate client. There’s even automated print fulfillment so guests can get hard copies and you take a share of the print sale revenue. shootround’s revenue flow is based purely off licenses sold and a percentage of the net income from purchased prints.

What I like about shootround is that it’s a good way to tap into the current social sharing craze and enhance the overall event experience. Like adding a comical photo booth to the periphery of an event space, this mobile app is fun and one extra feature to make for a better whole. The software presents an interesting value proposition to hotels as they can then include it as an additional selling point to forthcoming events. Moreover, you almost certainly already have everything you need to showcase this software. And last, it’s a good way to demonstrate that you’re ‘with it’ –intrepid and empathetic to technophiles.

Turnstyle

Devon Wright, cofounder of Turnstyle (www.getturnstyle.com), describes his product as the next step in social monitoring, all based on spatial interactions between smartphones and wireless internet routers. The process starts with the installation of WiFi repeater nodes or access points throughout a space (for instance, a hotel lobby). From there, whoever carries a smartphone will be registered by specific nodes as they move within or out of range.

For those shouting “Big Brother!” rest assured this mobile tracking is purely noninvasive. Unless you disable WiFi, your cellular is preprogrammed to always be on the lookout for proximal networks, and this mutual passive detection (that is, the WiFi hub and the smartphone exchanging a simple greeting and nothing else) is all the data Turnstyle needs for efficacy. In this way, it functions similarly to near field communications, only using WiFi instead of GPS, the latter often being quite slow.

Each smartphone displacement across every access point is collected and aggregated into traffic metrics so managers can better comprehend pedestrian movements throughout their properties. The analytics example Devon showed me looked like an overhead heat map, quantitatively identifying which subsections of a space were most used and which were neglected by running the numbers on over five million data points accumulated over several days.

Aside from answering the obvious question of which areas are most trafficked, there’s also a temporal component to the data. How long did customers stay near a specific WiFi node? Why did certain visitors leave immediately after entering your lobby? How can we optimize a space for more evenly dispersed flow?

Indeed, ‘optimize’ is the key word here as Turnstyle addresses a problem of tomorrow: space as the limiting resource. Devon has already had success in helping cafés and nightclubs. For the former, the owners wanted to know whether most customers were walk-ins who got their coffees and left or patrons who sat down and stayed for hours on end. After an easy WiFi node install, the Turnstyle team monitored the activity from a cloud-managed server and determined that most consumers were sit-downs. Not exactly what the owners wanted, so the solution was presented to remove readily accessible wall plugs so that there would be less support for electronic devices.

The nightclub presented a simpler case. Turnstyle was recruited to decide whether the back bar was being properly utilized or not. The heat map came back negative and additional bright signage was promptly installed so club patrons could more easily catch this drinking alternative amidst the darkness of their immediate surroundings. The analytics were also used to infer which songs attracted the most people to the dance floor and which ones prompted the most people to buy more drinks.

You can see through these two cross-examples that Turnstyle presents a good opportunity for hoteliers to put quantitative data behind what might otherwise be qualitative ‘gut’ feelings, reinforcing expert intuitions. The product can help managers better understand the dynamics of their hotel spaces throughout the course of the day as well as alleviate potential roadblocks during busy periods and deliver a more enriching experience for your guests.

By using Turnstyle to track visitors throughout their time in the hotel, it can help you answer many previously intangible questions. What time are guests most likely to arrive back at the hotel after they leave for the day’s outings? Who is using the fitness facilities and what parts are most popular? Are guests who eat at the lobby restaurant for dinner more likely to go out on the town afterwards or pack it in for the night? Having answers to these and similar queries can guide future marketing strategies to better appeal to different clientele and psycho-graphics. The bottom line: the more data you have, the more you can improve, and the more prevalent smartphones become, the more activity you can capture.

Why Care?

Even though these three emerging technologies are not dedicated the hospitality industry per se, they can all be used to build emotional connections between your brand and your guests. As I consider the development of such relationships as integral for building long-term loyalty and enviously high occupancy percentages, anything towards that end is worth consideration.

What I like about these three new platforms is that they are not attempting to replace human-to-human interactions (which I deem as the core to growing those emotional bonds) but rather augment them. Adjuncts. Whether it’s through a more captivating encounter with a concierge who’s now using a surface table computer, an event displaying a real-time slideshow of candid photos or devices that indicate how to more effectively arrange your hotel spaces, by elevating guests’ moods, you are enhancing their appreciation of your hotel.

Then there’s first mover advantage. To demonstrate this, compare a Facebook hotel fan page launched five years ago versus one launched today. Half a decade ago, fan pages were still relatively novel and thus, a launch would be met with mild fanfare and applause. Nowadays, fan pages are so ubiquitous that a launch means nothing. It’s just white noise. The simple takeaway is that the early bird gets the worm.

Apply this philosophy to the budding technologies that have yet to reach that mainstream fervor and it’s easy to see why taking risks is an essential practice. If such hardware or software is already widely disseminated throughout many different properties and regions, then adding it to your hotel is simply a defensive action to keep up with popular trends. In short, if you aren’t looking for a technological first mover advantage, then you will always be playing catch-up.

Being an innovator allows you to excite your guests with something completely new, thereby bestowing your property with a more exclusive label. Remember that at the end of the day, it’s all about creating an emotional connection to your hotel, which will lead to fonder memories of your property and, further down the line, heightened loyalty. If technology can help accomplish this goal then be bold and go for it!

(Published by Larry Mogelonsky in Hotels Executive July 29, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyA Silicon Valley North for Hotels