Faced with an increasingly demanding customer, in an increasingly crowded marketplace, it can be difficult for hotels to set themselves apart. That's essentially why Marriott Hotels launched what's known as the TestBed initiative in 2016.
A 10-week accelerator programme, it gives start-ups the opportunity to test their products and ideas in real working conditions, within a busy hotel in a major city. The initiative, which has nothing to do with mattress reviews, was rolled out in Europe in 2016, and was unveiled in the Middle East and Africa last year.
Last summer, Marriott announced that the search was on for entrepreneurs and start-up businesses that had products and services ready to be tested in the high-pressure world of a busy hotel. Nearly 200 submissions were received from across the region and these were analysed by a panel of experts.
Guy Kedar is one of the founders of the programme, and serves as a judge. He says that, to be considered, a start-up must "have developed a product that has the potential to transform the guest experience, and that is in a stage that is ready to be piloted."
The winners are mentored by the group long-term – for any start-up, that's a definite win-win, especially when you consider that the intellectual property rights remain with the candidates. As it turns out, three winners were selected: Twistar, Unified Inbox and Beachill. They were enrolled in a week-long boot camp – an intensive workshop where they developed strategies for their individual test programmes, each in a different hotel, and each with their own particular set of challenges and potential nightmares. For the three finalists, this isn't just a big deal – it's potentially life-changing. But what, exactly, are they bringing to the table?
Let’s start with the one that’s easiest to understand: Beachill offers an eco-friendly, solar-powered beach mattress. The most dramatic inventions are often the simplest, and this is a solution to a problem many hotel guests have experienced.
After some pool- or beachside Tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming, what do you do once your device's battery is on the wane? Allow Beachill's solar panel, incorporated into the removable headrest, to charge it. The interior of said headrest is entirely waterproof and houses a two-litre capacity thermal storage space, so you can keep your cold drinks cold and your caramel latte hot. It also provides safe haven for your valuables while you head to the water to cool down.
The product is the brainchild of 25-year-old Antoine Sayah from Lebanon. Beachill was tested poolside at Abu Dhabi's Marriott Al Forsan – a 400-room hotel not far from the airport. The weather during the test phase, with cloudy skies and cool winds, kept guests away from the main pool area. Nevertheless, those who did venture down and use the Beachills, which, coincidentally, are the same dimensions as the hotel's loungers, were extremely enthusiastic about them. Sayah could not be happier and, during the month, discovered only one feature that needed improvement: the plastic zipper on the pocket has a tendency to fade in sunlight.
As for the benefits to the hotel, there’s still some research to be done. How much longer do visitors hang out by the pool if they’re using one? Will there be a quantifiable increase in F&B spend because people are spending more time there? Only several more weeks of customer research and feedback will provide accurate data, but it’s safe to say that an ecstatic Sayah has a winner on his hands.
The other two start-ups are highly tech-focused. Dubai-based Twistar’s offering is a new Android IoT mobile device that uses AI for market intelligence by analysing a guest’s actions and voice. “Using animated customer surveys,” says its maker, “Twistar allows businesses to ask the questions to help further business needs, while creating a deeper and more meaningful connection with their customers. What this device is able to do, is interpret what a customer actually means through the way they speak, rather than just by what they’re saying.”
A diminutive, very cool-looking, rounded piece of tech, Twistar is placed in strategic locations at the hotel, in this case the Marriott Harbour in Dubai Marina. During one of the year’s busiest periods, it was put to use in The Croft, one of the hotel’s restaurants, where customer feedback is obviously of paramount importance. Twistar’s Nick Marshall, who has been leading the project, says there were teething problems with voltage supply and other software issues that quickly surfaced, which his team moved to solve as soon as they became apparent. “We found that users were cool with being recorded while they were speaking,” he says, “just so long as there’s a visual indicator to show that it was happening.”
So they came up with a reactive display that jumps around as a user's voice raises and lowers in tone and volume – a relatively simple fix for an issue that might not have come to light were it not for this in situ testing. As for the benefit to Marriott Hotels as a whole, the ability to farm swathes of feedback data that its rivals cannot yet take advantage of, is a big plus. Marshall says he recognises the disruption this could cause to the industry, with staff perhaps feeling like their jobs are under threat because customer service is their domain. But this is the way things are heading with AI and, over the next few years, it will change many aspects of all our lives.
And then there’s Unified Inbox, a chat app that allows guests to communicate with smart devices using text and voice. In layman’s terms, guests will be able to use it on their own phones to “control” their rooms – effectively allowing them to open and close their curtains, as well as operate room lights, air conditioning and other facilities using simple text or voice commands through their phones.
Dean Sackett is UIB’s chief operating officer and, as he addresses the judges, it’s obvious there have been several issues with implementation while testing at the Marriott Al Jaddaf, not far from Dubai’s Healthcare City. It is, by his own admission, a lot to ask for rooms to be converted to incorporate this technology. It’s not as easy as converting somebody’s home or office – there are 352 bedrooms in this place, and it’s almost always at full capacity.
The app also allows guests to check-in on arrival without filling in paperwork, but not without first registering to use the app and downloading it – something Sackett says weary travellers won't be keen on after a long-haul flight, when all they want to do is get to their room and get into bed.
There’s much work to do, and he hints that his team had barely scratched the surface during the test phase. But the panellists agree that potentially this is something that could be rolled out across the company, especially at the design stage of new-build hotels.
There’s no overall winner here. But who knows how long it will be before these products become fundamental features of all the hotels we use?