America's Most Hi-Tech Hotels
These hi-tech hotels are taking the guest experience to new forward-thinking heights.
There’s more to a modern luxury hotel than fluffy pillows and gourmet room service. In the 21st century, high luxury and high technology are practically synonymous. Around the world, the most luxurious business hotels are integrating advanced technological amenities into every suite. And we’re not just talking Internet, cable TV and in-room comforts. Behind the scenes, the hottest high-tech hotels feature an intricate network of intelligent systems working to make every aspect of your stay more comfortable, more convenient and more secure—both for you and for the hotel staff.
Beyond the key
You can tell a lot about a hotel before you even get past the lobby. If your host at the front desk smiles and hands you a little plastic key card, that’s nice. If she recognizes you on sight, offers to prearrange your favorite room-service breakfast and hands you an iPhone to use throughout your stay, well, that’s something else. As hotel technology gets smarter, every aspect of your stay will get a little more personal.
At high-tech business hotels like Las Vegas’s Aria and Vdara, magnetically encoded key cards are a relic of a bygone era. Instead of swiping your card through the lock and waiting for the green light, you can simply approach the door with card in hand and walk in, thanks to smart technologies that unlock the door for you as you approach.
At Aria, radio-frequency ID (RFID) cards replace the conventional swipe card, allowing various systems throughout the hotel to detect your presence automatically and respond appropriately. In much the same way that a new Lexus will unlock the door for you if you’re standing next to it with the key in your pocket, elevators and rooms correlate the radio signal coming from your pocket with the computer record of who you are, and grant you effortless access to your suite, the gym or the parking garage. Hyatt is also experimenting with a version of this approach, building RFID into customer loyalty cards to let regular guests bypass the front desk and head straight for the comfort of their rooms.
RFID keys may sound like an overly technical alternative to plastic key cards, but they offer distinct security advantages over the plastic key cards used by most hotels today. Because most loyalty cardholders have only one such card in their possession, each card has a unique number that is more or less permanently linked to the identity of the cardholder. That makes it far less likely that the card could be held by a random interloper looking to break into a room. The technology also allows the hotel to maintain better security by knowing more clearly who’s coming and going throughout the hotel, since each RFID card can be detected by multiple sensors in the lobby, elevators and rooms.
Soon you’ll be able to use your own cell phone as your room key at a number of top hotels. Hilton and InterContinental are working with a company called OpenWays to deploy a new key technology that plays a specially encoded sound from your phone. Give your cell phone number to the hotel at the time of booking, and you’ll receive a text message with a special phone number to call. When you arrive at the door of your suite, just call the number and hold the phone up to the door lock. As the garbled noise plays from your phone’s speaker, the lock will “hear” it and open on command.
Like RFID cards, the OpenWays audio key system offers security advantages over plastic keys. A given audio key plays only once, so even if a clever crook tries to record the sound and play it back, it’ll work only the first time it’s played. Every audio sequence is unique and random, and is good only for a few minutes. So if you don’t play it right away, you’ll need to use your phone to request a new one, which takes just a few taps on your screen or keypad.
Once you’re in your room, new tech helps further ensure your security by reducing the need to open the door and hang the Do Not Disturb sign: At Miami’s Epic Hotel, when you want some privacy, just press a button from the inside and an LED sign on the outside will tell housekeeping to leave you alone. At the Four Seasons in Silicon Valley, meanwhile, a display mounted on the door shows you who’s on the other side, so you can see who’s knocking before opening up.
Behind the scenes
Managing every aspect of the guest experience within a bustling modern hotel is no mean feat, and a variety of sophisticated systems are helping staffers rise to the challenge. Increasingly, top hoteliers are turning to smart surveillance and mobile technologies to keep you comfortable and secure throughout your stay.
Borrowing a strategy from leading hospitals, hotels like the Wit Doubletree in Chicago are turning to mobile technology to speed up response times for customer requests. When you request fresh towels from the touchscreen menu on your in-room phone, the hotel’s server automatically searches for the housekeeping staffers nearest to your location and alerts them via their iPhones. Likewise, garage personnel get an alert when you’re ready to pick up your car.
One of the most advanced high-tech security technologies, facial recognition, is starting to make its way from the government sector to the hospitality industry. At the Hilton Americas in Houston, an advanced system made by 3VR Security can spot regular guests as they enter the hotel and automatically present their names and reservation information to front-desk personnel, creating the compelling (if slightly creepy) illusion that they know who you are. The system tags Gold Card members with a virtual name tag that identifies them to staffers wherever they roam in the hotel, so everyone knows which VIPs require a little extra red-carpet treatment. Meanwhile, the same system can spot suspicious characters lurking in the garage or lobby, and even help you locate your lost sunglasses if you leave them by the pool.
From the moment you step into the lobby to the time you check out, high- tech hotels of the future will be tracking your moves, identifying you to hotel staff and opening doors to luxurious amenities. This sophisticated tracking will help ensure your security and may even enhance the guest experience by personalizing your interactions with hotel staff in much the same way that Google and Facebook personalize your web browsing experience by showing you relevant content. Whether that enhanced security and personalized service will be a worthwhile tradeoff for your anonymity and privacy remains to be seen.
The Wi-Fi dilemma
What’s the number-one complaint business travelers have about their stays in high-end hotels? It’s not the thread count of the sheets or the temperature of the pool, that’s for sure. It’s the pricing on wireless Internet service. In-room Wi-Fi, once regarded as a perk, has long since evolved into an essential amenity for all travelers, and business guests in particular. Yet most hotels still typically charge $10 per night or more for the service. What gives?
Despite appearances, the real cost of Wi-Fi to the hotel can be steeper than you might think. The combined expenses of a data pipe capable of serving up broadband Internet to hundreds of rooms, networking and security equipment throughout the hotel and qualified staff to keep it all working reliably 24 hours a day can add a million dollars (or much more) to the hotel’s annual operating costs. What’s more, tech-savvy guests are increasingly bypassing the hotel’s premium entertainment services in favor of online social media and streaming video from Netflix, cutting off a traditional source of revenue.
So hotels face a paradox. Free wireless can get you in the door, but you’ll spend less on their services. As a compromise, many business-focused luxury hotels are adopting a hybrid approach: free basic Wi-Fi for everyone and tiered pricing for users who want a faster connection. This approach could satisfy basic users with no-cost access to email and Facebook, offer a more stable and slightly faster connection to business users at low cost and recoup some lost revenue from streaming video users with premium pricing for high-bandwidth use.
As hotels continue to wrestle with the question of Wi-Fi pricing, the growth of cellular broadband could eventually defuse the issue. Worldwide, mobile carriers are quickly transitioning to high-speed broadband services that let users connect to the web via their phones. Within the next few years, it could make more sense for guests to BYOI (bring your own Internet), using your own phone as a hotspot rather than relying on the hotel’s connection.