Robots. Facial recognition technology. Virtual and augmented reality. There's a seemingly unending stream of cool tech tools flowing out of research-and-development centers and into all corners of the meeting and hospitality industries. It's influencing hotel and event check-in processes, adding bells and whistles to guest rooms, and innovating meeting spaces. To borrow from Thomas Dolby, they're blinding us with science.
Before delving into the latest tech trends, it's worthwhile to hear the consensus view from meeting planners, hoteliers, and futurists who focus on the hospitality industry: Technology will enhance but never replace the way hotels cater to guests.
As someone who helps people understand and cope with the implications of new technology and ways of working, Jim Carroll often finds himself thinking that many of the predictions made about tech products are way off base.
"I shudder every time I hear one of the 'experts' suggest we are about to see a lot less human contact in the way we work, and the way we get together, particularly when it comes to meetings and conferences," says Carroll, a speaker and author who focuses on global trends and innovations.
Carroll made that very same observation in print way back in February 2002. He wrote an essay that appeared in the pages of Successful Meetings, in the wake of America's 9/11 tragedy. "What I wrote back then, the same thing is true today," he says.
It bears repeating: Technology will enhance, not replace.
While acknowledging that the rate of new technology is speeding up, Carroll points to a telling correlation on how the public views change. "People tend to overestimate how much change will occur over the next two years, and underestimate change that will actually occur over 10 years," he says.
Carroll points to the Gartner Hype Cycle, a theory that attempts to differentiate a technology's bold promises from its commercial viability. That cycle typically includes: an innovation trigger, a peak of inflated expectations, and a trough of disillusionment. That's sometimes followed by a slope of enlightenment involving the product and, hopefully, a plateau of productivity.
Take, for example, something as basic as Wi-Fi in hotels. Remember when it was a novelty?
"There's nothing as irritating as substandard bandwidth," says Dr. James Canton, a futurist, author, and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures. "Yet, it's still a problem at some hotels. Not every chain has figured it out that guests expect fast Wi-Fi and expect it to be free."
Some companies get it. "We realize guests bring multiple mobile devices and need to stay productive," says Gary Murakami, director of global sales for MGM Resorts International and member of the board of directors for the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). "In Las Vegas, we offer high-speed, seamless connectivity over all our properties. And if you're using multiple properties, it spans to wherever you are."
Wi-Fi may be experiencing a plateau of productivity in Vegas. But in Sin City and all over the country, tech gadgets exist in all stages of the Gartner Hype Cycle. How the toys and tools are integrated into traditional hospitality will be the measure of success.
"It's all about the customization and curation of the experience," says Murakami. "Whether you're holding a meeting for 10 or 10,000 people, technology is now at the center of what we're focusing on."
Here are some examples of technology that's hacking its way into your next event and hotel stay:
Amazon's Alexa and Echo, and Google Home, are residence-based examples of chatbots that employ artificial intelligence (AI) to receive and respond to questions with audible, humanlike capabilities.
First, a definition: AI is a broad term that is applied to a machine that mimics cognitive functions we associate with the human mind, such as "learning" and "problem solving." Technology labeled as AI tends to change from year to year, and yes, it's been a scientific vocabulary word since the 1950s.
Corbin Ball points out that the Wynn Las Vegas is putting the Amazon Echo in every one of its upscale hotel suites. The Echo can be used to control the TV and thermostat, raise and lower the blinds, and contact the concierge desk to make requests.
"It's great, though there is some concern that the chatbot is always on and listening to you," says Ball, a meetings industry speaker and technology expert.
He adds that the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Vegas offers a text-based chatbot concierge -- named Rose -- that's programmed with a little … attitude. At check-in, guests receive a card that says, "I am the answer to the question you never asked; know my secrets. Text me."
Guests at the Westin Buffalo who call the front desk for extra towels or toiletries may have them delivered to their rooms by R2D2. Okay, not the actual Star Wars metal droid, but the toothpaste or deodorant you forgot will arrive via a silver robot on wheels that was first put to work in late 2017.
The Relay robot is loaded with your requested items by a human, then it rolls into the elevator and right up to your hotel room door, where it calls you on the phone. You open the door and unload the robot's storage compartment. No tipping necessary.
But here's a suggestion: Keep an eye on Ava Robotics (a spin-off from iRobot). The company is preparing a robot that will offer a new level of telepresence for events. The self-driven robot will allow people to use video to see and be seen while collaborating in a variety of environments -- from meeting rooms to hallways, manufacturing floors to convention halls.
Virtual reality (VR)
These computer-generated scenarios that simulate a real-life experience are relatively well-immersed in society; VR technology allows a user to look around in an artificially recreated world.
A few years ago, Marriott introduced Vroom Service in conjunction with Samsung Electronics America. Hotel guests can request a Samsung Gear VR headset that's delivered to the room. The device is preloaded with videos called VR postcards that allow viewers to go on a series of mini-vacations around the world.
More and more, hotels (and other companies) are creating promotional VR displays that can be viewed at meetings and events.
Augmented reality (AR)
AR is often mentioned in the same breath as VR but differs in that AR doesn't recreate real-world scenarios. Rather, it allows you to add virtual components to real-life environments. Think Pokémon GO.
At London's compact hotel, hub by Premier Inn, for example, you can open the camera on your smartphone and point it at a city map on the wall inside a guest room. The Explore app on your phone shows pop-up bubbles that contain details about local bars, restaurants, and attractions.
Similarly, meeting and event planners can use AR to give attendees more information about schedules and agendas at on-site venues.
Face it, waiting in line sucks. Technology for skipping lines -- in hotel lobbies and at event registration desks -- is ramping up.
MGM's Murakami says the new Park MGM (which is replacing the Monte Carlo Hotel and Casino) is phasing in self-check-in. It's a program Caesars Entertainment also has implemented. The process allows you to go online to find out if your room is ready. If it is, you have the option of checking yourself in at a kiosk than can generate a room key.
Self-service kiosks are also gaining popularity for onsite event registration, notes meetings tech expert Ball.
The ability to unlock a device by verifying a person's ID from a digital image or video frame was rolled out to the public on Apple's iPhone X. How about using that technology for event-registration or hotel check-in, or in lieu of a key at your guest room door?
Facial recognition has gained a level of acceptance in China, according to futurist, speaker, and author Jack Uldrich. "It does have a level of 'Big Brother' concern attached to it, though," he says. "But if you think about the Las Vegas shooting situation, it can recognize and alert security officials on who's coming and going at hotels."
A definition of the term "Internet of Things" (IoT) is inherent to a discussion of smart rooms. The IoT is the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.
Both the Hilton and Marriott hotel chains are experimenting with in-room technology that connects to an individual guest's needs and preferences. In a Hilton "Connected Room" being beta tested through 2018, imagine walking in and the TV greets you by name. Marriott is also testing rooms that will be able to anticipate guest needs.
MGM is revisiting its event spaces to look for new and creative ways to make them "high touch and high tech," says Murakami.
"Making use of the Internet of Things means placing sensor technology chips all over buildings and rooms," Uldrich says. "In smart buildings you will quickly be able to lower the air conditioning, change the lighting, and aim to lower energy consumption via the sensors."
At the moment, smart guest rooms and smart meeting rooms/function space are definitely on the innovation end of the Gartner Hype Cycle. It will make sense to circle back in two years to see where the technology has advanced. And 10 years from now, look forward to the possibility of smart rooms entering a plateau of productivity.
This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Successful Meetings.