As we explore the different ways guest experience and technology are integrated through design, we connected with Ron Swidler, the Chief Innovation Officer at The Gettys Group Companies, a design agency serving the Hospitality Industry. We talked to him about their Hotel Of Tomorrow Project, which, partnered with a number of impressive technology and hospitality firms, explores what the future holds for hotels. We also discussed the digital guest experiences, technology, and how companies can use it to their advantage.
Tell us about the origins of the Hotel Of Tomorrow Project.
We founded the Hotel of Tomorrow® Project in 2004 and we ran successive annual workshop meetings and presentations in 2004, 2005, and 2006. I think it’s important to understand the why, how, and what of this project, so I’ll take you through them.
In 2004, the why was the belief that the Hospitality Industry overall wasn’t adopting new thinking and new technology. We realized how guest experiences could evolve and how expectations were already changing regarding issues such as sustainability, health and wellness, and technology integration. Many people weren’t carrying mobile devices around back then, but we were seeing that technology could change some of the ways guests interacted with one another, and more importantly, how hotels could have more of a digital presence and personality. As a hotel design firm, we believed that answers couldn’t come just from our agency– and this is the how: We brought together around 50 people in a collaborative day-and-a-half workshop-based forum to discuss the future of the industry. Early participants included Joie de Vivre Hospitality, Starwood Hotels, WATG Architects, Hospitality Design Magazine, Phillips & Company, as well as other designers and manufacturers who generated hundreds of ideas, with some of them showcased at a futuristic exhibit booth at HD Expo in Las Vegas that attracted significant media coverage. The exhibit leaned into the early days of solar and alternative energy sources, new material technologies, projection instead of flat-screen televisions, different forms of health and wellness, and sleep enhancement.
We repeated the project in 2005 with the same purpose but with increased scale. There were more people and hotel brands engaging in facilitated conceptualization, especially with manufacturers who were at the table to discuss the integration of products and technologies so that these were viable to be placed within hotels. As the industry was rapidly changing, we held another round in 2006 to continue the conversation and creation of new ideas, both for the participants and for our own projects. This enabled us to continue enhancing our differentiation between ourselves and our competitors as we ramped up growth, even as we brought in more and more of our clients who benefited from the thinking of many different professionals. A lot of innovation came out of these sessions, and everyone involved had the right to take ideas and productize them if they wished.
What was the post-Pandemic return of the Project like?
It came back in 2020 in a more meaningful way, with over 300 participants, including universities, students, and professors. The reach was also more global, gathering minds from different industries to look at the biggest issues facing hospitality, especially in light of the pandemic, and conceptualize solutions. One of the main ideas to emerge focused on a platform to optimize and gamify the sleep experience by choosing firmness of mattress, lighting programming and levels, soundscape, the temperature in the bed and the room, as well as monitoring quality and duration of sleep via brain activity and more. We essentially looked at indicators of what was already being used and took them beyond simple pillow menus, in-room noise cancellation, and blackout shades.
We also tested the main ideas with over 70,000 travelers to determine what would be most valuable for them, their willingness to pay, and at what range, and it helped ascertain who would benefit the most from integrating such ideas into future hospitality experiences.
Last year, the project moved into more ambitious arenas and took a deep dive into the future impact of technology in design and construction. We built an airship – a floating ballroom in a zeppelin – inside the Metaverse and hosted six events as avatars in Microsoft’s AltspaceVR for over 200 participants. We attracted many sponsors like Meta’s Oculus, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and Nvidia. As participants, we had the likes of Marriott, IHG, and Hilton, as well as six universities from around the world and other technology companies, industry suppliers, and consultants.
Discussions centered on technology as a production tool and a way to enhance the design process of hotels, with the use of 3D and CAD models for visualization and the process of production by manufacturers. This led to the realization that 3D models can live on as a digital twin of the actual structure and serve as monitoring devices for solutions like motion, energy usage, and security sensors, while also speeding up production lead times and reducing costs by up to a third.
Solutions that integrated technology into the guest experience, the future of fitness, workspaces, modular construction, on-site fabrication, and reuse of recycled and building materials were also products of the latest session of the project.
What are some examples of advances developed in the program?
We developed a robot butler and a rover that could bring the experience outside the hotel, Hilton Hotels conceptualized their “Choose Your Room” feature, and a precursor to the iPhone as a communication device between guests and hotel was sketched in the first edition of the Project.
There is an experiment that uses a hologram as an interface between a guest and the hotel so that they know their request is acknowledged. It provides status reports and serves as a visual cue, but above all adds a humanizing aspect to an interaction that could have felt impersonal before, in addition to minimizing concerns of security breaches – which can be more common with voice-activated assistants, for example.
There are also many motion detection and automation elements of hospitality being integrated by Philips Electronics, which will allow for interaction forms that we didn’t have before, as well as more devices incorporating IoT being developed by Kohler and other companies.
We need to change and improve not just the reliability, but also the interface between us and the environment and between guests and the team. It needs to be seamless, feel private and secure, be reliable, and feel more human.Ron Swindler
What issues do hotels face when integrating technology into seamless experiences?
There’s a lot we can learn from other industries. The Hospitality Industry has historically been funded by conservative capital and has been generally slow to change, despite the pandemic having accelerated the acceptance rate of technology adoption to replace some human interactions. Having members of other industries join the conversation helps us to tackle issues according to the expertise of different stakeholders and opens relationship avenues for technology companies or other providers who want to play bigger parts in supplying hospitality operations.
There are usually indicators that technology that has been around for some time keeps evolving and it changes the way we interact with and use it. As the very definition of hospitality is humans providing service and care for other humans, what we need to keep in mind is that we must create solutions that eliminate friction in the guest stay, provide security, and are as good, or better, than what human interaction can provide in taking care of guests’ needs.
Sure, some brands have their own apps where you can request services from your smartphone, or devices to be used on property that can do the same. Even some solutions like Alexa For Hospitality are available to do so by voice command, and the adoption of all such technologies is going up. However, ultimately the cost of all this technology has to somehow be passed along to the guest and it is not cheap. We need to change and improve not just the reliability, but also the interface between us and the environment and between guests and the team. It needs to be seamless, feel private and secure, be reliable, and feel more human. Until then, guests will look at the value equation and opt for taking care of their needs in a less technological way, like heading down to the front desk for a request.
Are there other considerations when integrating technology into design and processes?
Absolutely. The interfacing humans have with technology also applies to the operator side. The solutions aren’t always intuitive for our teams to use, and friction must equally be reduced for them too if we want to increase adoption rates.
Think of the talent crunch we are experiencing right now, and how difficult it is to attract and retain people. With new technology tools, we can run training simulations on VR headsets to teach new hires certain tasks, making it more fun and interesting. We can also use the simulations to cross-train employees and foster a sense of appreciation between teams, creating empathy for what it takes a colleague in another department to do their job.
So let’s not just think about technology in its role of attracting guests and improving their service experience, but let’s think about how we would actually retain talent and use technology as a way to simplify their lives and training.
Lastly, I believe hotel designers today and going forward will need UX training in order to adequately address needs and explore possibilities and solutions. Integrating technology into all aspects of the industry, be it ideation, conceptualization, design, construction, interaction, training, and service delivery needs to take a seamless and thoughtful approach.