Ralf Bruegger is the General Manager of InterContinental Sydney Double Bay Hotel. We sat down with him virtually from his hotel’s wonderfully well-equipped library to chat about his perspective on leveraging technology to improve his guests’ experience. As a child of the late 60s, he spoke about how anyone can embrace technology, even if they were not born into the digital world we know today.
What is your view on technology?
As my father was the general manager of Hitachi in Germany for 27 years, my relationship with technology started early, when I was the only kid in school carrying a Discman while all my friends were listening to their Sony Walkman. This continues today. I always embrace technology as something that makes life more comfortable, so my whole house is automated and can be controlled from my phone. Why do I need to run around and pull blinds down if I can press a button and have them all go down simultaneously? That’s also how I treat my hotels.
How does technology play a part in enhancing the guest experience?
In my first role as GM at a hotel in Australia, I recognized that more could be done in the guestrooms. We engaged a company to provide automation to blinds and air conditioning, enhancing comfort and convenience while also saving energy. The goal was not only to save money for the hotel but also to do something green and try what others may have been too scared to implement. I have consistently endeavored to adopt new product prototypes at my hotels by providing a live environment for tests, in the spirit of advancing technology.
This is how I, from a GM’s perspective, see technology: you have to embrace it. The people who tell me that we should not use iPads to take orders at a restaurant are fossils in my eyes, they’re so far behind. If they still want that piece of paper, they’re not interested in the guest experience. Technology helps us provide a great customer experience and fast service, which is something our guests today want and expect. Plus, we don’t want to damage the environment by wasting unnecessary paper that will only take up space when filed away somewhere.
“I prioritize [CAPEX expenses] 70% for furnishings and 30% for technology, but this is shifting towards a 50-50 split as technology moves fast and investments are needed to keep up.”
Currently, I’m working with a door lock company to use phones to open room doors and, naturally, we hit hurdles; however, when you have a good relationship with providers by keeping an open mind to tests, they will work with you on solutions and this might even translate to better prices and business opportunities. IHG is a company that constantly wants to evolve and be different, and that’s why I believe we have been so successful.
As a manager, how do you find a balance between tech and other CAPEX-intensive expenditures that traditionally would take priority, like replacing beds?
I think it’s essential to have a balance, of course, but our CAPEX budgets have risen in the last couple of years, so I don’t see a big problem. I prioritize 70% for furnishings and 30% for technology, but this is shifting towards a 50-50 split as technology moves fast and investments are needed to keep up. For tech items, I prefer to pay a bit more for the latest models available and enjoy a longer useful life, rather than constantly replacing them and contributing to environmental issues like overflowing landfills. The same goes for furniture: when you spend more on quality, you get what you paid for in terms of comfort and durability. In the luxury segment, guests expect at least the same level of comfort they have in their own homes and we need to provide it. In the long run, we save both money and time by not needing to replace or refurbish so often.
The pace of new technology is continuously increasing and consumers, too, have higher expectations as to what is available. How do you keep up with that as a business?
A major concern is interfacing issues. A hotel can adopt many new technologies that may not talk to each other, creating an absolute nightmare. It is also possible that something you made an investment in becomes unavailable, perhaps because the provider was a small company that didn’t survive. To avoid that, I try to work with larger or global business partners when there is a cost involved and patronize startups with great ideas by providing a test bed for their products. If they work and a larger company acquires the startup and technology, even better, but we do not take on every product. Instead, it is crucial to listen to what is important to our customers.
We considered service robots a couple of years ago but the cost of mapping the hotel and upgrading lifts and other facilities to interface with this new technology was too high, it didn’t make sense. It is true that something like that can be a talking point and a photo opportunity, and with everything geared towards social media these days, it could have been a way to generate some buzz. We sometimes keep social media posts in mind, but mostly we choose tech that will make a guest’s stay more convenient, make them feel special, or enhance the services we offer. It’s equally important to consider tech that will help your staff deliver the experience.
What is it like adopting new technology while being part of a large group like IHG?
We’re quite fortunate to have an IT department with whom I have a very close relationship. They generally come to me when approached by this or that tech company asking to test new technology, and they know I always say yes.
I love company guidelines and brand standards, but at the same time, I firmly believe you need to challenge them. It doesn’t mean overstepping the mark, but this way you can point out the company areas we’re falling behind on and suggest things to implement that will make it better, be it about technology or otherwise.
Sometimes you just need to think outside the box and not let the fact that something is against brand standards keep you from the opportunity of generating revenue, sparking conversations, and creating interest. And I think that’s why we’re very successful in IHG as a company because we are giving new things a go.
Where do you think hotels can improve the guest experience the most and what would your advice be on how to achieve that with the help of technology?
It’s all about the guest’s journey, from booking right through to the checkout. At IHG, for instance, we are investing in booking platforms and testing out selling rooms by attributes, with a highly personalized experience that shows available rooms based on a guest’s preferences, even down to the location of the room within the hotel. There’s also the convenience of ordering from the television screen or your own mobile device during the stay, as well as checking in and out from your phone.
It’s all about personalization, a guest still has the luxury of getting service from actual humans, because we’re still a people industry, but the choice is theirs. Some people love staying at hotels and receiving housekeeping service, having their slippers lined up and a chocolate placed on the bed, while some people prefer to simply request for items to be replenished when they need them, and technology enables us to cater to both of these guests via an app or other devices. I think we’re moving towards that direction and we’re slowly getting there. The bottom line is making it personal.