It’s holiday time. You’ve got the choice of booking an entire chateau, or a room in an ultra-swanky Riviera hotel. Which do you go for?
If you’re one of those oft-feared “millennials”, your go-to is likely Airbnb, and you’ll choose the chateau over the Four Seasons for your French escape. It’s the convenience, the cost-effectiveness, the all-round experience; Airbnb makes it easy to find, easy to book and easy to navigate. It gives you bragging rights, too: imagine the Insta-jealousy from that holiday hashtag. In contrast, hotels have a reputation as expensive and stuck in a lost time.
Way back in 2014, Airbnb passed the likes of IHG, Marriott and Hilton when it came to number of rooms on offer. Following its latest round of funding in March 2017, it’s now nearly as valuable as the Marriott group, and almost twice as valuable as Hilton. And Airbnb knows where the future’s at: it recently bought high-end rental start-up Luxury Retreats as part of a move into the wider tourism market.
But luxury hotels recognise the end is far from nigh: 2016 earnings for both Hilton and Marriott showed a surge in profits. Luxury hotels around the world are stepping up, looking for ways to improve that overall experience – from search and book to after-stay care – and make their guests feel superior.
Unique, connected, informed
Luxury hotels know affluent travellers want to feel as though they are part of the conversation. Boutique Hotels like the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens designate the best rooftop view as a “selfie spot”; the Mandarin Oriental Paris offers a “Selfies in Paris” package that comes complete with a Mercedes Classe E and a personal driver. “Unique, connected, informed are just three watchwords that define the hotel guest, both today and in the future,” says tech firm Amadeus in its Hotels 2020 report. While technologies such as augmented reality and mind control headsets are already with us and are set to spread, “developments such as gesture interfaces and 3D mobile phone displays could also be common by 2020”.
We have it already: the in-room touch screen mirror, built by Panasonic and powered by IBM’s Watson technology. “IBM Watson gets to truly know the individual and provides highly personalised experiences and recommendations,” says IBM, hardly the first brand thought of when it comes to digital innovation. “We are bringing the power of cognitive to the hospitality industry to introduce a new level of customer service and further brand loyalty.” Hilton is using Watson, too, to pilot a robot concierge. She’s named Connie: “We operate in a very crowded industry, so innovation is key. It’s an opportunity to really delight customers,” says Jim Holthouser, EVP, Global Brands, Hilton Worldwide.
There’s one thing these hotel groups have in common: large R&D innovation teams, scanning the horizon and looking for the next big thing. Starwood (now part of Marriott) is trialling a robotic bellhop across its Aloft hotels in Cupertino and Silicon Valley. It allows guests to request items from their smartphone, which will then be delivered by an R2D2-style robot named Botlr within a few minutes – the robot will even buzz you to let you know it’s ready. So retro-futuristic chic.
It’s experience that counts
Not everyone can afford big R&D teams working on the weird and wonderful, but no one can afford to not innovate. When it comes to digital, you need to create a sense of exclusivity. And the biggest luxury today is time; you want a service that saves it. You want it with you, where you are, making your life easier.
It’s all part of the experience. And that experience must turn evermore to digital innovation, lest it gets left behind by centuries-old chateaus from a digital disruptor.