The Hotel Industry's Race To Escape The Dinosaur Age

Keyless check-in, mobile booking, and entire boutique brands dedicated to luring technology-minded globetrotters illustrate how far the world's biggest hotel chains are going to move beyond the archaic status quo. But is it far enough?

How many times have you entered your room at a large chain hotel, thrown your luggage down to relax, and noticed the antiquated stereo system with an iPod dock from three models ago perched on the bedside table? Next to it lies a paper room-service menu and a clunky, ancient telephone to use if you want to order up a late night snack.

And this encounter comes after you've just spent the better part of half an hour waiting in line to show your identification, leave your credit card for incidentals, receive your room key, and navigate your way into a scene straight out of 1999.

The experience, familiar to even moderate travelers who frequent chains like Sheraton, Westin, Holiday Inn, Marriott, and others, is emblematic of an industry whose customers' relationship with technology has moved far beyond what its product can offer, leaving multibillion-dollar holding companies scrambling to stay relevant.

"The hotel industry is usually not the cheerleader for the technology sector," Nikhil Bhalla, the vice president of equity research in lodging at FBR Capital Markets, told BuzzFeed News. "Many companies have made it a philosophy not to be the leader on the tech side. They'd rather see someone else try something, succeed or fail at it, and then learn from that. The thought process is, it's fine to be the early bird, but you don't want to be the worm."

One reason the largest hospitality chains and their corporate parents, such as Starwood, IHG, Marriott International, Carlson, and Hilton, are dragging their feet when it comes to giving their properties a technological face-lift is the industry's franchise model, which makes innovation difficult to scale.

"They don't own all of their hotels, so the franchisees have to implement the changes and they are the ones spending the money," said Ryan Meliker, a senior analyst at MLV & Co. "It takes a long time to innovate. By the time a new technology gets in the room, there's going to be a new feature in the product. It's a balancing act to convince the owners to change."

As a result, large hotel chains tend to conduct a major overhaul just once every seven years, Meliker said. This underscores the wait-and-see approach Bhalla ascribed to the hospitality world's implementation of new technology — something a quick look at the industry's history of technological innovation will illustrate.

"If you're the prototype and it works, over time issues will come along with it," Bhalla said, pointing to the mid-'90s, when the keycard came along, replacing the physical room key of bygone decades.

"It was a very space-age technology," Bhalla said, "and then people realized that those would get demagnetized all the time. There were also security issues. Then came along the next types of technologies, like flatscreen TVs."

By 2006 and 2007, when most households already had flatscreen TVs in their living rooms and bedrooms, the hotel industry was just beginning to install them, Bhalla explained. The industry's standard model, which remains today, was a 32" LCD TV.

"But most people don't even have that TV at home, most people have better TVs at home," Bhalla said. "It's stuff like this that makes a big difference."

Now, nearly a decade later, the biggest players in the hospitality industry are trying, with varying levels of success, to implement a mobile strategy to streamline the check-in and in-room experiences. A look at the airline and taxi industries shows how eager travelers are to move to mobile for booking, payment, and everything in between.

"Right now you're seeing a move toward keyless entry and remote check-in or online check-in," Meliker said. While smaller lifestyle chains and boutique hotels have already adopted keyless entry as common practice, most of the large chains are lagging when it comes to its implementation.

"Some of the really interesting innovations that are taking place are in the customer experience arena, allowing those customers that want to to bypass the front desk and get right to their room," said Douglas Quinby, a travel and digital strategy analyst at hospitality consultancy Phocuswright. "Starwood has been the fastest out of the gate in terms of rolling out actual smartphone-enabled room entry and keys — they rolled this out across the Aloft and Element brands."

Both Quinby and Meliker cited Starwood as an industry leader in remote check-in and keyless entry, something Marriott is also rolling out. On its fourth-quarter 2014 earnings call last week, Starwood said it was implementing mobile check-in across properties to appeal to younger, "tech-savvy" travelers.

Still, Starwood's attempts at tech-focused, millennial-targeted properties with its Aloft and Element brands have fallen somewhat short of the company's initial goals.

"Starwood, with Aloft and Element, they have not had much success with that," Meliker said. "They said in 2007 they would have 200 Aloft hotels by 2010, and today in 2015 they have 91, so nowhere near where they were looking for and what they had envisioned. The brand hasn't had the traction they wanted."

Bhalla remains optimistic, however, that Starwood and others will make keyless check-in the norm across all large brands.

"Keyless check-in will be an industry standard in the not-too-distant future," Bhalla said. "Probably in the next two to three years."

One other area large hotel chains are trying to innovate in is the online booking space.

"A lot of the innovation is coming from app and booking tools becoming much more tech-savvy," Meliker said, noting that some of the largest chains, including Choice Hotels, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Wyndham, Marriott, and Best Western, banded together to found in 2012. The unprecedented collaboration was an attempt to compete with Expedia, Hotwire, and other online travel agencies (OTAs), which have captured tens of billions of dollars in market value by becoming, for many travelers, the primary booking and payment interface for the hotel industry.

Hotel chains are also trying to accommodate customers on the go, targeting those who choose to book their hotel while on the way to their destination.

"The next big arena in technology is being driven by mobile, and that is last-minute and transient hotel discovery and booking," Quinby said. "It's competing with HotelTonight and BookingNow — all of the OTAs have a very location-centric feature, and you just find a hotel on the way there."

Whether it's being able to book a room, check into and out of a hotel, or order room service and spa treatments all through an app, mobile technology is a space the large hotel chains know they must innovate in to stay competitive.

"The single most important thing is to allow the customer connectivity to be most efficient," Bhalla said. "People are moving on to very seamless lives, and the hotels are going to have to offer that ability to their customers. This industry has not been the leader when it comes to useable technology by guests, but the fact of the matter is that nobody in today's world can ignore it. And nobody can ignore what our phones can do."

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