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Digital Guest Technology

New paradigms for hotel and casino operators

Digital Guest Technology

According to the Hospitality Technology 2012 Lodging Technology Study, over 20 percent of hotel IT budgets is being allocated to guest technology. The reason why is simple:  Digital devices and technology are now an inextricable part of modern life in developed nations all over the world. In particular, travelers rely heavily on digital devices throughout their journeys to stay connected, informed and entertained. Keeping up with the technology demands of modern hotel and casino guests can be a daunting task for property managers, given the ever-increasing speed with which digital devices are introduced and subsequently become obsolete.

In the decades ahead, success will come to those that invest in flexible platforms capable of integrating and managing content on devices delivered via a variety of digital touch points—regardless of what changes happen in the hardware. And with such platform flexibility, there comes an opportunity to open new revenue streams by maximizing the marketing potential of your guest technology investment. The first step is to assess the current and future state of each of these guest-facing devices and technologies.

Today’s Television

Contrary to popular belief, people are not shunning their TV in favor of their laptops, tablets and smart phones. Rather, they are watching TV and engaging with these personal devices simultaneously in ever-increasing numbers—as high as 80 percent by some estimates.

For hotel and casino operators, understanding this new “second screen” trend is the key to unlocking the full marketing and revenue generation potential of the digital devices they provide, both in-room and on-site. Foremost, the in-room television is the true hub of entertainment and information access at your property.

According to a Nielsen Media study conducted in 2009, hotel guests watch over three hours of in-room television per day. And while this time is typically spent watching free TV channels and Video-On-Demand (VOD), hotels and casinos are increasingly monetizing this viewership by embracing the features of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV).

The question for hoteliers is how to best utilize this IP-powered opportunity for marketing purposes to increase RevPAR and brand loyalty.

Video delivered on a large screen is still the most compelling way to communicate and motivate, and thus is still the ideal way to market to guests during their stay. Historically, hotels have utilized “barker channels” for this purpose—linear loops of video promoting on-site services, restaurants and the like. Today, IPTV/IPVOD is the new state-of-the-art for video content delivery—one that provides maximum opportunity to truly “turn on” your guests.

Delivering video content over an IP connection is more than just a technology feature; it is an upgrade in your ability to communicate with a wide array of guests in a very personalized way. For instance, IPTV enables you to dynamically change channel lineups based on guest data such as language preference. And, instead of providing one barker channel, IPTV deployments typically can support several channels that you can program with an array of internally focused content. Likewise, IPVOD enables your property to deliver your video content exactly when guests want it, without having to tune in at a specific channel or time.

Constantly creating new video content for your property may seem like an unachievable task. However, the good news is that producing video content is much more affordable than it used to be. Likewise, due to the influence of the web and sites like YouTube, audiences have become accustomed to viewing video that is not necessarily a Hollywood masterpiece.

Producing relevant content that is informative and engaging is more important than the “production values” of the video. There is no need to spend a small fortune on your videos. Do not be afraid to tap into the expertise of your younger staff members, for whom both consuming and producing video is now second nature. Ask them to focus on compelling content, not high-end graphics or fancy editing. Film your most famous chef cooking his signature dish in the restaurant. Provide video tutorials for all your casino games. Consider interviewing happy guests on camera as they exit a show or after they win a jackpot. The key is to keep the content fresh and specific to what the guest can do and experience on-site right now.

All in-room televisions should be considered your most important guest touch point. But those properties deploying IPTV systems can benefit from a true two-way dialogue with guests. IPTV makes interactivity possible, enabling guests to not only view but also react to information and submit data. Features such as room service ordering, spa bookings, restaurant reservation requests—all can be enabled when you integrate IPTV with resident point-of-sale (POS) systems and the like.

Tablet Tests

Interactive tablet and touch devices such as the iPad, rapidly penetrating the consumer market, are also finding their way into more hotel rooms, because they offer many benefits to both guests and hoteliers. According to Hospitality Technology, nearly one-third of hotels plan to offer in-room tablet devices within the next three years. Properties that are “going green” embrace tablets as replacements for printed in-room collateral because tablets are much easier to update and obviously paper-free.

Putting your in-room compendium on a tablet device also gives guests a way to search for information that is similar to how they already search on their personal devices. Tablets also support video content playback features that can potentially create a portable entertainment device in the future with the participation of content producers willing to extend licenses for this medium.

Properties deploying both IPTV/IPVOD and tablet devices in-room have a distinct competitive advantage. Aside from delivering a modern and memorable experience to guests, true marketing synergies are achievable by embracing the “second screen” trend—guests watching TV and using the tablet at the same time.

Tablets are able to provide a large and expandable list of content and features, many of which even the most tech-savvy guests would never expect. Whereas the television can be considered the hub of media consumption, the in-room tablet is the hub of interaction. Tablets are touch-sensitive, meaning guests can use them without needing a physical keyboard or mouse—a navigation experience that is even easier than using a TV remote control. Like IPTV, tablets can be integrated with a hotel’s resident data systems to drive immediate purchases (via e-commerce) or deliver promotions that push guests to on-site retail, restaurants, gaming and more.

To achieve true marketing synergy and fully monetize the investment in digital media, hoteliers should treat their in-room IPTV solutions and tablet devices as complementary media. Utilizing the dynamic barker channels, the property can run promotional videos for on-site amenities, such as the headlining music act in the theater. Guests viewing this content can then be encouraged to utilize the tablet device for a “deeper dive”—a full-length music video, more information about the act, social media sites, electronic ticket purchasing for the next show.

Outside of the room, digital signage located in lobbies, hallways, casino floors and similar public areas are all additional opportunities to delight, inform and market to guests. As with any medium, the key is to make the content relevant to the guest and the environment. For instance, lobby and hallway signage should contain content that can be read or viewed within five to 10 seconds maximum, since most guests are quickly passing by. Digital signage in elevators delivers a true “captive audience” of immobile viewers, but only for a slightly longer average dwell time of around 20-30 seconds. In locations where guests are seated for 10 minutes or more, such as bars or gaming parlors, more lengthy content is appropriate for digital signage, as long it is engaging and entertaining.

In the casino, guests are now demanding access to more services during game play. The good news is that technology is keeping up with this demand and providing revenue generation opportunity as well. A variety of digital casino games can now be integrated with other interactive applications to deliver many of the same services available on the tablet devices described above, making it possible for guests to order drinks, print coupons, book restaurant reservations, even order and print out show tickets—all without interrupting their gaming activity.

While the industry has made several attempts to deliver such services in the past, new technology is now making deployment possible at more affordable price points. The most dynamic of these technologies—those that can be deployed on a variety of devices without major code modifications—are also the most likely to deliver the highest ROI. Deploying such a self-contained gaming and on-site commerce product can exponentially increase per-session revenue that goes beyond the standard gaming line item.

The Personal Touch

While hotels and casinos of all sizes are providing more and more modern digital devices in their properties, the guest’s own personal mobile device is still the most utilized and potentially most effective digital touch point available. Today, hundreds of thousands of mobile apps are available for both the iPhone and Android platforms that dominate the market, but most perform single functions, are used once, and then forgotten. For hotels and casinos, generating long-term use of personal mobile apps and mobile websites is a matter of delivering a variety of functionality to guests on-site, as well as on the road and at home.

Too many hotels and casinos deploy mobile products that include only basic amenity descriptions, directions and a reservation-booking tool. While these are indeed core features that should be part of your mobile product, much more can be done to make personal mobile a powerful part of your marketing mix. Since almost all smart phones have GPS functionality built in, your mobile product should utilize this capability to recognize guests even before they arrive.

Using this geo-location feature, you can greet guests with a text message upon arrival in your city. Then, by integrating your mobile app with your property and casino management system, you can authenticate their identity and enable them to check in remotely and quickly claim their pre-coded key via an automated kiosk. You can also notify guest services of the arrival of VIP customers who require special handling.

On-site, consider your mobile app as the preferred means for guests to react to and engage deeper with their surroundings. The same multi-media marketing synergies found in-room, on the television and tablet device, are in effect as the guest moves around your property with your mobile app on their smart phone.

Take every opportunity to promote the availability of your mobile product on printed and digital communications that guests see as they walk about. Even better, ensure that revenue-generating locations, such as restaurants, theaters and gaming, have customized content and promotions available to mobile app users. Simply having “download our mobile app” text on signage at these locations is merely adequate. A better tactic is to tease the availability of an exclusive offer that is revealed only to mobile users.

How? By having guests use their smart-phone camera to “snap” a Quick-Response (QR) code or similar “tag” printed at the location. Guests doing so are then linked to a page in the app or on a website containing the offer and/or coupon and instructions for redemption. QR codes are free to create, free for guests to use, and fairly easy to embed within the functions of your mobile app. You can easily change the location where the QR code “points,” meaning you can change offers without having to ever reprint the QR code on your signage.

Establish the value of your mobile product by incenting your guest to opt-in to receiving text messages and alerts. When the guests first download or access your mobile product, be sure to let them know what benefits they will receive if they agree to receive your communications on an ongoing basis. Those who do opt-in should be immediately rewarded with an offer that can be redeemed immediately on-site.

Once you have established this all-important “permission-based” relationship with the guest, you can deliver a variety of messages that enhance their stay. However, be sure not to overwhelm them with too many messages delivered too quickly. Message relevance is the goal, not volume. Targeting messages to authenticated guests based on past CRM-based purchase data and preferences is a worthwhile tactic. However, simply asking them what type of messages they want to receive is even easier, and can be just as effective.

On-site, collect responses to questions like: “Would you like to hear about our dining specials?;” “Would you like to know when table limits have been raised or lowered?;” or “Are you interested in last-minute ticket specials?” By collecting these responses, you not only can immediately begin sending messages to on-site guests based on their preferences, but you can also add this data to the guest record in your CRM system for future use.

These features represent just the tip of the iceberg of mobile’s marketing potential today. Amazing and innovative new functions accompany every new mobile hardware release. Features like near-field communications and augmented reality are futuristic-sounding but very real capabilities soon to elevate the potential of mobile marketing even higher for hotels and casinos.

Executives trying to keep pace and estimate the value of mobile investments should focus squarely on two things: Mobile has the potential to be one of your most effective marketing channels in the years to come, but it is also the most intimate of relationships a company can have with an individual. Violate this trust at your own risk.

Internet Access

Even an amenity as innocuous as guest high-speed internet access (HSIA) is now being better monetized by many innovative properties. According to Hospitality Technology, 24 percent of luxury/upscale brands now offer HSIA for some combination of free basic access and fees for higher bandwidth rates (tiered pricing). Given that guests consistently rate on-site HSIA access as their most important amenity (and one they eagerly complain about online if charges are deemed too high), pursuing such a tiered model is a smart move to mitigate such concerns.

By giving guests basic access for free, you enable them to perform routine tasks such as checking email or performing web searches. By charging a fee for online activities that require higher bandwidth, such as watching movies on Netflix, your property can recoup some revenue otherwise lost on missed video-on-demand sales. While guests might not love such a charge, most recognize the fairness of a tiered HSIA model and are thus less inclined to complain about it on increasingly influential social media sites such as TripAdvisor.com.

Revenue sources from on-site digital guest devices also exist outside your walls. Many third-party companies are eager to reach your guests for marketing purposes. Whether it is an independent restaurant inside your resort or a national credit card brand that caters to travelers, advertising on digital guest-facing devices is a potentially valuable source of incremental revenue that should not be overlooked.

Each of these digital guest touch points has its own unique utility when deployed individually. When deployed together as complementary devices, and integrated with back-of-house systems, the result is a powerful closed-loop, on-site marketing and commerce ecosystem that has additional relationship-building value. Viewed from this perspective, hotel and casino operators can realize the value of their guest technology investment well into the future.

Craig Ziegler is president of SuiteLinq, Inc. With over 25 years of experience building brands and shaping product strategy for clients in a variety of industries, Ziegler is a multimedia innovator with roots in the earliest days of the interactive revolution. His is the driving vision behind the SuiteLinq concept, growing the company from its origins to its current position as an innovator in the hospitality industry. Check in to the new Revel Resort in Atlantic City to check-out SuiteLinq’s latest deployment of integrated guest-room technologies. Ziegler can be contacted at 610-917-3863 or [email protected]  

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