How Starwood Hotels is using technology to innovate hospitality

Starwood Hotels & Resorts has implemented a number of technologies to improve the guest experience, from embedding recommendation engines into its website and integrations with transport companies, to instant messaging, mobile room key functionalities and a robot butler.

But Stephan Croix, VP of marketing for EMEA at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, said technology developments have to be meaningful. “It’s not about innovating for the sense of innovation,” he said, speaking at the Millennial 20/20 event in London this week.

The online journey

The hotel company uses online targeting and retargeting technologies to capture consumer interest online, but Croix said more and more consumers are becoming cynical about hotels advertising their rooms using professional photos.

Croix said the company has recently invested in technology for its website which crowdsources user generated comments from social media channels, as long as the hotel has been tagged in the Tweet, post or Instagram.

“We found out consumers – and millennials in particular –  are quite cynical about advertising and they don’t take our word for it anymore. They like to be influenced by their friends or have a recommendation from their social graph,” said Croix.

Mobile app and loyalty

The American hotel company – which consists of hotel brands including St. Regis, Westin, Aloft and W Hotels – also has 20 million customers registered on its app-based loyalty programme, which allows Starwood to gain insights and data which it uses to shape its marketing strategy.

Croix said the company also has partnerships in place with transport brands, including Emirates Airline and Uber, which it integrates into its loyalty programme.

“Not only is the customer able to collect points, but she also gets recognised as a VIP traveller, which significantly enhances her experience as a guest,” he explained. “We make our customer loyal and capture a bigger share of wallets at the same time as we’re able to recruit more consumers into the world of Starwood.”

Using the W Hotel as an example, Croix described how a guest travelling to their hotel in an Uber could then use the hotel’s ‘Let’s Chat’ functionality in the loyalty app. This messaging service allows the guest to connect with the front desk of the hotel before they arrive, with an average response time of 60 seconds. The chat functionality works by integrating Whatsapp, BBM and iMessage to create a personal experience between the hotel and consumer.

“It’s super simple and builds on existing technology going where the consumers are and leveraging their own habits.”

The service – which allows guests to ask the hotel anything, such as recommendations for dinner reservations or to request an extra blanket – has now been rolled out to 80% of the hotel’s portfolio in EMEA, with 100,000 users, growing 25% per month.

Mobile room key

Again, using the mobile application, guests can also by-pass check-in and requesting to use their mobile phone or Apple Watch as their key. Croix said this development was important because many guests are already paying for their coffee and Tube transport using mobile payment technologies, so a keyless experience was an obvious next step.

“If she loses her room key, forgets her room number, or the room key gets demagnetised as it’s been close to her phone, the return is not only a drive of customer satisfaction, but a drive in synergy and check-in efficiency,” said Croix, noting that the hotel chain has 47 million check-ins per year, which take an average time of three minutes each.

Social media

Croix also said the role of the call centres have been repurposed to proactively listen into social media in order to occasionally “surprise and delight” customers in response to what they are posting online. He said whether it is a new guest joining the loyalty programme, an anniversary or birthday celebration, it is “important to build an emotional connection with consumers”.

Other social innovations include the recent launch of a ‘menu-gram’, which displays hotel menus in an Instragram layout which Croix said resonates with millennial customers, as well as driving social sharability. He said Starwood was also one of the first brands to engage with Snapchat, which allowed the company to engage with an additional 4 million people in a matter of months.  

Hotel room technologies

Meanwhile, Starwood has also been modernising its hotel rooms. Using W Hotels as an example, Croix said wireless charging points have been integrated into a number of rooms, while smart mirrors are currently being tested in a hotel in Silicon Valley. These intelligent mirrors are touchscreen and display information such as news and weather and have the ability to connect to smart devices so guests can use the screen to read emails or video call.

Another development currently in testing is providing guests with the ability to use their mobile app to control light and temperature in their rooms.

“We’re trying to reinvent the wake up experience, going away from aggressive beeping and into a context where guests are woken up by lights mimicking the sunrise and a coffee machine infusing the room with a coffee smell while playing your favourite music – it sounds futuristic or romantic, but we’re testing it out now and we’re very excited about it.”

Croix also described how the company is developing a robot, called The Butler, which is also being tested in two hotels in Silicon Valley. The Butler has been developed to support the front desk associate and deliver items to guests’ rooms, such as a toothbrush, extra towel or a bottle of water.

“It is able to deliver from the front desk going along the corridor and taking the elevator,” said Croix. “And we’re teaching The Butler to read text messages to build direct relationships with guests.”