"You’re almost disappointed if you cannot do something on your mobile," Lennert de Jong, commercial director at citizenM, observes. "Whereas a couple of years ago you were surprised that you could."

Unlocking a door or dimming the lighting at the swipe of a smartphone or tablet is no longer a futuristic fantasy or a statement of wealth; instead, it sums up the changing face of guest comfort.

What operators have begun to provide is an efficient paradigm of mobile-assisted travel, allowing guests to tailor their own experiences, but with the guidance of the brands’ intuitive apps, from the moment they think about booking to the moment they return back home.

Far from dehumanising and automating hospitality, mobile platforms are enhancing guests’ stays, creating and rewarding loyalty from customers; factors that Alyssa Waxenberg supports.

"What is unique about mobile is that you get to know where your consumer is, what they are doing, and with that you can actually enhance the customer experience." 

"Our SPG app for our guests obviously focuses on booking and the loyalty programme, as well as being an important companion when they’re travelling at our hotels," Starwood’s vice-present of mobile strategy says. "We want to personalise their experience and make it that much better so that they want to stay with us again, and continue being loyal to us."

Innovating from the off

Starwood was the first company in the hotel industry to roll out mobile capability to open hotel room doors, with SPG Keyless. What might seem like a simple gimmick at first glance saves guests having to visit the front desk or carry an extra key, and instead lets them use the device they never leave behind anyway. Waxenberg prioritises simple solutions for time-saving or mundane frustrations rather than chasing technological advancements for the sake of it.

"We don’t try to just look at something that might be new and trendy, but what is really going to solve a pain point for our guests," she explains. "At the same time, we are always exploring new technology, watching for innovative ideas and trying to apply them in a way that we think will stay relevant to our guests."

But what is inherent in mobile platforms that encourages a feeling of elite hotel service? The answer for Waxenberg is that rather than cutting corners and diminishing the human face of hospitality, the mobile platforms can improve the guest experience by handing back simple transactional tasks to the user. "Guests don’t want everything to be handled through technology, but what they do want is the ability to take care of things," she says. "Smaller transactions can be easily negotiated via mobile technology now. The app is not to replace, it’s to enhance; ‘how can I get the most out of this day?’."

Collecting customer feedback is vital for gauging the future of a brand’s mobile strategy, and the smartphone itself is the perfect medium to receive feedback and chart customers’ activities and preferences. Relying on this data alone is not enough though; Waxenberg explains that holding focus groups and interacting face-to-face with guests during their stay helps maintain an undiluted impression of customer satisfaction. "We are still a hospitality company, and being personal and human is still core to what people remember about a great travel experience," she says.

The extra mile

De Jong corroborates that a balance between gathering feedback data and listening to guests in person is vital for hospitality to remain efficient and forward-thinking, but personal. "What is unique about mobile is that you get to know where your consumer is, what they are doing, and with that you can actually enhance the customer experience," he says.

Paying attention to trend reports or industry professionals’ sound bites can’t offer the same insight as guests using the apps made for them can. "Ask your customers at breakfast," he suggests. "’Hey, you’re using the new iPhone, would you use it to check in; would you feel that’s an enhanced experience?’."

Our impression of what is an ‘enhanced experience’ is dictated more by the fact that, for better or worse, we are becoming increasingly dependent on our mobile devices, and prefer not to travel without them. Having the power to make hospitality requests to a hotel on and off the premises is an obvious benefit to a generation that thrives on always being connected. Enabling guests to facilitate simple responsibilities such as checking in or ordering room service frees up hotel staff to carry out other tasks.

The result is not prizing efficacy over the individual approach, but symptomatic of the growing expectation mobile users have that they can achieve anything via their device. CitizenM’s website is rife with punchy, conversational copy that sides itself with the voice of the consumer, reinforcing the idea that guests really can be in control of their own comfort: "Megalomaniacs will love the innovative touch-screen MoodPad" is the line used to advertise citizenM’s in-room personal assistant tablet app. Its function is to electronically cater for the guest, but the control is completely in the hands of the user.

As mobile capabilities increase, so do the expectations of mobile users. Whereas hotel websites used to function merely as brochures, now they employ an interactivity and accessibility that has become an industry standard.

"Where I think hotel brands are really successful is if they change the purpose of the website for the device," says de Jong. "Websites have now become booking platforms; why don’t hotels take the next step and allow people on mobiles to check in? You can find a lot of numbers on the internet about mobile usage, but people still transact with us on the website because we are basically copying the same required material on the desktop to mobile; we’re making it easier for people to do business with us."

Mutually beneficial

The hotelier’s responsibility doesn’t specifically lie with keeping up with technology, but with what the technology can provide for their brand. "It’s not that mobile technology is evolving particularly quickly," de Jong says. "What’s rapidly changing, I think, is that hoteliers have started understanding that they need to do these things; they actually need to buy a new lock that allows mobiles to open it."

It is increasingly common, particularly among the younger generation, for hotel guests to consult apps like Yelp, rather than leaflets or an information kiosk, to make itinerary decisions on holiday. Smartphones have become our travel companions and tour guides, and, as such, hoteliers are implementing their own solutions to make their brand a one-stop-shop for advising their customers’ daily activities in and out of the hotel.

The expectation that apps will sync or interface via APIs is now generally acknowledged by major tech companies; many apps can connect with Facebook or Twitter to easily access personal information and transfer contacts info and dates. For Starwood and citizenM, this is an ongoing endeavour for their mobile strategies; collaboration with external partners such as Booking.com could reinforce their place at the forefront of hospitality tech innovations, as well as their reputation for seamlessly providing a bespoke guest experience.

"The hotelier’s responsibility doesn’t specifically lie with keeping up with technology, but with what the technology can provide for their brand." 

"We’ll be exploring our current partnership with Uber further next year," Waxenberg says. "That gives our members extra benefits and points for using Uber during their stays with us, so that when you’re planning a trip, Uber will send you a message asking if you need a car to pick you up from the airport, for example."

The trajectory of mobile platforms seems to be increasingly leaning towards a social media dynamic, offering ways to communicate that have not previously been typical for hotel guests, but that are certainly part and parcel of our everyday lives messaging socially or emailing at work; these technological advancements can benefit on-the-go business travellers and the relaxed vacationer. CitizenM’s online network currently allows guests to chat online and make recommendations to each other. Starwood has a dedicated social media team who are already looking at adapting the SPG app to include their current social media capabilities, given the already enthusiastic involvement of Starwood’s customers.

"We have active members who post many thousands of Instagram photos and places to go, things to do," Waxenberg says. "We have recommendations and check-ins from guests on Facebook. We’re looking at how we offer that through the app or our website."

It would be self-defeating, however, to disregard dedicated customers for whom the mobile platforms are a hindrance or undesirable. "At the end of the day, it’s about choice," says Waxenberg, "We’re not going to be replacing hotels with machines, so I think there’ll always be a balance."