New York Hospitality by Vijay Dandapani
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Robotic service

August 13, 2014

Starwood served up a tech storm when its Cupertino, CA Aloft hotel announced it was  "testing a robotic bellhop" inartfully described by the New York Times as a "human-friendly sibling of the Terminator".  The robot is essentially  "a wheeled service vehicle designed to shuttle items from the hotel lobby desk to guest rooms".  

Starwood was quick to tout its introduction as more of an efficiency tool than one that would cost human jobs. Perhaps but  a key point Starwood may be missing is that machines can complete some jobs currently being performed by humans but cannot really provide service, at least of the kind one expects in branded and/or boutique hotels. 

At first glance Botlr appears more to lean more towards the mechanical part of its portmanteau handle with very little if any to its butler aspect although Starwood expects to "see this as an enhancement to our customer service".  Whether that turns out to be the case or not will be known before long but there are parallel service related businesses where robots and automation has turned out to be a mixed bag notwithstanding the non-sequitur offered by some of Botlr's proponents about reverting to an age without tractors. Customers can sometimes end up being chary of automation/robots as has been the case especially when system failures that are inevitable result in false room entries and other security mishaps.  

Another robot aimed at bolstering customers service that has garnered attention but with as yet indeterminate benefits is a roving robot installed at Edmonton airport. Not only does it move to address passengers but it can not only give directions and actually take  them where they need to go! Further, they potentially can interact in 30 different languages!

 Thus far the cost of the robot remains unrevealed and likely runs into the tens of thousands although Moore's law likely will bring it down particularly if it picks up traction with large orders resulting in mechanical siblings often accompanying elevator cabins along with guests, offering a heretofore unknown   take on customer experiences .



Smartphone check-ins: Not quite an Aladin's lamp

August 01, 2014

Smartphone check-ins seem destined to be as commonplace as frette sheets on hotel beds. Earlier this week Hilton announced that guests will not only be able to book rooms and check-in and check-out but also choose their rooms via their smartphone. Given the exponential growth of the "head-down tribe", smartphone users who walk, talk and even sleep with their head down and eyes fixated on their devices, it seems like a natural if not a brilliant idea. 

Beyond using the smartphone as room-key, an option many hoteliers across segments are fast embracing with the relatively cheap RFID technology that enables it, Hilton is looking at addressing an age old customer peeve: not being able to see what they are getting till they are onsite at which point a combination of travel weariness and clever selling by front desk associates often results in their plonking their bags down on whatever is given to them. 

The potential for cross and upselling is of course tremendous. While many have already incorporated such features into their app on smartphones it is sports arenas like the Barclays Center in New York that have truly been successful in upselling to customers by advancing the notion of these sales pitches as being "upgrades".   

The race for technology is not without its pitfalls and a headlong rush to embrace smartphones as Aladin's lamps runs the risk of unwelcome customers purloining guests' data by hacking in to the devices. Apart from causing public relations headaches of the kind that continue to plague the industry from data-breaches, it is potentially capable of even more dire consequences. Smartphone vulnerabilities are among the key topics in the forthcoming Black Hat confererence in Las Vegas which begins on August 2nd, 2014.

The Wall Street Journal reports that "Four Georgia Institute of Technology students are scheduled to unveil new ways to take over Apple"s latest iPhone!" One of the speakers, 28 year old "Mathew Solnik says he can take over a smartphone from 30 feet away without alerting the user or the phone company."  Apart from stealing data including money via apps from financial institutions, the potential to not only disrupt hotel operations but also for miscreants to gain access guest areas.  Then again, these may well be teething problems that hoteliers need to prepare for as on balance the technological promise is tremendous.


Holographic customer service: A real vision or a hollow claim?

July 23, 2014

Over a year ago a number of articles sought to highlight how holographic greeters in hotels, department stores, museums, schools and hospitals may enhance merchants' abilities to deliver better customer service. The idea of projecting oneself in 3D first gained widespread international attention when Britain's Prince Charles addressed a meeting on advanced energy in Abu Dhabi in the Middle-East without being physically present there.  At the time, it was touted as a way to minimize one's carbon footprint and as a substitute to physical travel. 

Starwood's Aloft hotels was an early entrant in the field and garnered a fair amount of media attention for its holographic concierge that was expected to vow guests.  The hype was plentiful with the news release stating that the hotel chain was "stepping up the level of customer service provided to guests with a holographic greeter/concierge". The lifestyle hotel chain touted its faux-concierge as "a holographic image projected onto a life-sized cut-out is so unique and lifelike that guests can't help but stop and stare". The company went on to say that it would be "using the greeter to provide information to their guests about their hotel’s amenities and offerings."  

Nearly three years later there does not appear to be the level of traction that was predicted when the holographic concierge was launched and it is not to be found in any of Starwood's other hotels.  However, that may well be because it was ahead of its times.  Holograms were used very powerfully in India's recent national election by candidate Narendra Modi, who went on to become prime minister.  Developed by UK based Musion, the campaign enabled Mr. Modi to reach out to an exponentially greater number of voters in 3D, a factor that may well have contributed to his success at the hustings.

More recently at the Meet the Future Conference in London last month its potential to engage the audience was quite literally dramatically exemplified.  Over 300 delegates witnessed a 3D holographic interview live on stage at Central Hall Westminster "that created a real buzz as the audience struggled to differentiate between the live presenter and the life-like holographic image" of the interviewee.  

Musion, the UK company refers to the trademarked process as "Telepresence" and touts it as a "groundbreaking holographic video conferencing technology."  The company has partnered "with major telecom carriers like Cisco, BT, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and EE" whereby it is possible to "transmit full-size holographic people and objects in real-time without any significant delay in communication." Unlike many faux-disrupters and indeed scofflaws, this technology could really end up changing the dynamics of the travel and hospitality industry both in terms of customer service as well as heads-in-beds.

Apologizing to retain customers

July 11, 2014

Douglas Horton, an American clergyman is reputed to have said that "being sorry is the highest act of selfishness, seeing value only after discarding it". Selfish or not, the notion of using an apology as a customer rentention strategy is increasingly being used in service industries like airlines and hotels where customers see value in an apology more so than in anything tangible or material leading to better customer retention after service snafus.  

This week's Wall Street Journal's Middle Seat column has an article entitled "the Art of the Airline Apology". Among the interesting nuggets in the article is a2009 study by researchers at the University of Nottingham's School of Economics in the United Kingdom which found that apologies can be more valued by customers than even compensation. Another study of t00 customers who posted negative comments on the German site of eBay found that more of them (45%) withdrew their negative comment pursuant to an apology than the 21% who withdrew it when offered the equivalent of $7.

The Middle Seat notes that SouthWest airlines uses "software to perform triage on upset customers. Computers look for keywords that show up in the letters, then sort the notes into four personality categories: Feelers, Drivers, Entertainers and Thinkers. Customer relations agents then write to that type of personality."  Apparently, the US Dept. of Transportation levies  fines on airlines that do not respond substantively to customer complaints.  

For some airlines like United with a high number of complaints that has prompted the establishment of a department with nearly a thousand employees, all geared around responding promptly to customer grievances.

 Apologizing as a strategy appears to have instantly paid off for the owner of several hotels in the Bay area including  a prestigious resort in Napa, Ca.  Unlike in the Chick-Fil-A case, which also involved an intolerant antediluvian perspective on gay couples, the principal here was quick off the mark with an apology.  That enabled him to keep the honor of being a Grand Marshal for the city's Fourth of July parade.

Horton's musings notwithstanding, a strategy of offering an apology for service and other lacuna, whether real of perceived as so by the customer, is one that is relatively inexpensive with evidently exponentially greater returns as compared to the traditional propensity to upgrade, offer discounts and/or comps. It would of course, be helpful if at the same time organizations use it as a teaching moment to minimize if not avert a recurrence.

Frequency programs: tearing up tiers?

July 02, 2014

Colloquy, the " go-to resource for loyalty intel­ligence" for over two decades in their tireless search for insights into loyalty programs takes another look at loyalty program tiers and what they mean to consumers. Their most recent paper offers a somewhat startling conclusion that a full third of respondents, all subscribers to loyalty programs, were unaware of the "tier" they were at. 

The muddled consumers could be forgiven as anyone who has enrolled in a program, whether for hotels or airlines or retail, is often confronted with what looks like an unscalable ladder before any meaningful rewards come their way.  Colloquy's study (predictably) notes that members of the lower tiers of loyalty programs are almost twice as likely to believe that is too difficult to meet the requirement s for the higher tier level.

More searingly, in what would easily fit into today's class warfare debate, they find that people with incomes below $50,000 per year are fifty percent less likely to earn their way to a higher tier than those with incomes over $100,000 per year. If the latter seems obvious, another finding is that a third of those residing in the bottom tier "do not think they are properly acknowledged for their level of participation"; something that can be easily attested to by anyone who is in the bottom tier of an airline program although those who clambered up a couple of rungs probably have a not too dissimilar experience. 

On the plus side (for the purveyors of loyalty programs) a full 69% of respondents have no problem with people buying their way onto a higher tier. The latter is something airlines, United in particular, has cottoned on to as evidenced by its prodding to customers at almost all stages via a non-sequitur to "earn extra award miles" given that it involves paying and not earning miles. Also on the right side of the ledger for businesses is the finding that 75% of respondents saying that they "approve of businesses giving preferential treatment to customers who spend mroe money. 

The takeaway from the study is that although technology has made it easier for customers to participate in very personalized programs the tiers need  to be more "micro-segmented" internally with a greater focus on the middle tier which offers the most potential in terms of mobility for the customer and revenues and loyalty to the business.

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  • President of Apple Core Hotels, a chain of 5 midtown Manhattan hotels offering value and comfort in the heart of the city.

    Member of the board of Directors - Hotel Association of New York.



  • The views expressed in this blog are my own and not that of any company, association or organization.