UAE hoteliers embrace region’s love of gadgets

The hotel sector is investing in training and partnerships, using smartphone innovation to maintain customer loyalty and encourage new bookings in a personalised way.

Zhang Rujin is a student at the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management, which plans to open an innovation hub. Satish Kumar / The National

PARIS // Among the things found in abundance in the GCC are hotels and smartphones.

The region’s love of the latest gadgets is pushing innovation in the hospitality sector and now the Emirates Academy Hospitality Management (EAHM), an institution set up by the Jumeirah Group, is planning to open an innovation hub to help nurture the next generation of hospitality workers.

The academy, which offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses in hospitality management to about 300 students, is looking to open the hub by the end of this year. It has partnered with Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise (Ale) to offer new technologies to enable students stay ahead of the latest trends in the sector.

“The academy is now pushing towards innovation and in particular digital innovation,” says Sanjay Nadkarni, the director of research and innovation at EAHM. “Students get exposure to cutting-edge technology that is not yet in the market and they get to work with something live and modern, beyond textbooks.”

Such training is vital for the region’s hotel sector if it is to remain competitive, according to Mr Nadkarni, and increasingly, much of the innovation is happening on smartphones.

“Everything is moving to mobility,” says Thierry Bonnin, a unit solutions leader at Ale. “Whether that is the guest experience or the back office experience to decrease costs and increase productivity.”


At a glance

What: The hospitality sector is turning to smartphone apps to enhance the guest experience

Why: The GCC's guests need broadband but also want practicality and personal service


The GCC’s robust broadband infrastructure and competitive hotel market is pushing operators to introduce new technologies and innovations at a faster pace than the global market in a bid to attract customer loyalty and encourage new bookings.

“Technology in the industry has allowed hotels to come full circle and deliver personalised, one-to-one relationships with guests,” says Stephan Croix, the vice president and head of marketing at Starwood Hotels Europe Middle East Africa. “The internet and mobile achieves that on a massive scale and the opportunity is big in the industry.”

Starwood, which owns several chains of hotel brands including the W, Sheraton and St Regis, is pushing innovation on smartphones and was one of the first companies to introduce “keyless check-in”, whereby customers use their mobile phones to access their room via Starwood’s app rather than use a physical card or key.

“Guest feedback is very positive. there’s a lot of magic attached to it, you swipe your phone in the elevator or to open the door to the gym, it has a little bit of a James Bond feeling,” says Mr Croix.

As well as the novelty, there are practical advantages: guests do not have to worry about misplacing their card keys and there is none of the hassle of renewing deactivated keys. A deactivated key is when the card key stops working, perhaps because it has come into contact with a mobile phone that wipes the data from the magnetic strip.

And it is not just keys that smartphones are replacing, they can act like the remote control for other aspects of the room. According to Ale, 25 per cent of hotel the world’s operators will implement room automation this year. This means curtains, lights, minibar and room temperature will all be automated and some hotels will enable a guest to use their smartphone as the remote control to adjust them. Others, such as Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, have opted for one main device, a control panel in the room to control everything.

But before hotels begin automating all aspects of the room, it is worth bearing in mind that they also need to cater to guests who prefer a more traditional approach.

“It is a learning curve,” says Mr Nadkarni. “They have to look at their demographic, see if the technology will appeal to them and draw up a plan B [if not]. Hotels must make sure the guest is not intimidated by technology.”

There is, however, one crucial technology that supersedes all others – high-speed Wi-Fi, especially for GCC travellers and guests.

“That is more important than the bed,” says Mr Nadkarni. “Poor internet connectivity or expensive access to getting online can deter younger guests from booking the property again.”

Enabling guests to stay connected requires heavy investment in network infrastructure but it is today a crucial component of guest experience. Moreover, hotels are now incorporating messaging platforms into their apps and enabling guests to communicate directly with room service and concierge via services such as WhatsApp rather than having to speak with an operator.

“One trend is the rise of the e-concierge and selling additional services via smartphones,” says Mr Bonnin. While much of this is aimed at the millennial traveller, e-concierge services have proven to be a boon for deaf and hard of hearing travellers.

Mobile applications, when they are designed well, can offer guests a more tailored experience. They can also be used to maintain contact with a guest when they are not in the room, whether it is to communicate important information, or push the hotel’s restaurant offerings and spa deals.

“We always look at guests at the starting point,” says Mr Croix. “We follow their journey in a way, whether they are in the process of discovering a brand or enjoying their stay or after their stay and potentially recommending services.”

For many hotels, a dedicated app is not required to gather this data. Many have taken to social media to attract customers and follow their journey during and after their stay.

“It’s an age of full transparency and consumer empowerment,” says Mr Croix. “It’s a good platform to achieve customer service and brand discovery. We see an increase in loyalty in our branding and guests sharing their experiences, which results in increased booking.”

Reviews are especially important. “There are authoritative studies that suggest strong correlation between social media reviews and a hotel’s ability to price the rooms,” says Mr Nadkarni.

The GCC’s social media platform of choice is the photo-sharing tool Instagram, according to Mr Croix, which helps to overcome the diversity of languages in the region.

Combining all this information from both social media, a hotel’s app and in-room devices gathers huge amounts of data for the hotel such as guests’ food preferences, wake-up call times, the amount of time they spend outside of the hotel, the type of pillows they like or even the number of shampoos they use during their stay. All of this can be logged and the data gathered can provide valuable insight for hotel operators that can gain a better understanding of guest expectations and market trends.

But all of this data can be vulnerable. In 2015, Hilton Worldwide, Starwood, Mandarin Oriental, The Trump Hotel Collection and White Lodging Properties were subject to data breaches and cyber security attacks, which affected some of the properties in the region. There are also issues with user privacy, most guests might be alarmed with the amount of information that a property will hold on them and their habits. A balance therefore needs to be struck.

For now, however, the sector is keen on innovating and reinventing guest experience, with focus on emotional responses from experimenting with mood lighting to pumping the smell of fresh coffee into the room as a wake-up call.

“There is always the danger of running after tech and innovation and forgetting the guest [but] I see the smartphone being at the heart of a lot of things, this goes with the society trend,” says Mr Croix.

“In the future it will be the hub, the remote control of your hotel experience and stay.”