Based at the Four Seasons’ Jumeirah Beach Resort, Dubai, Simon Casson has a unique view of the hospitality sector and the impact wireless technology is having on both the business and its increasingly-expectant guests. He recently found some time in his busy schedule to talk to us about the ways in which the Four Seasons are using WiFi to improve the guest experience and also how the hotel sector as a whole is coping with the pace-of-change with regards to technology.
EC: What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing hotels with regards to technology?
SC: I would say that the biggest challenge for hotels, and the hospitality sector more broadly, is keeping pace with the ever-changing nature of technology and even trying to remain somewhat ahead of that change.
Historically, hotels have been somewhat aspirational in that they might have featured an in-room television that a guest may not have had at home. However, today’s travellers, particularly in our niche part of the business, invariably have the latest technology at home and whilst on the move. This means that, for a hotel group the size of the Four Seasons, keeping-pace with consumer technology, whether that be in terms of infrastructure, hardware or audio-visual, requires significant and constant level of investment. Remaining with the television example, in the past, hotels might have changed the in-room televisions every three years or so, but guests are upgrading their own televisions almost with the same frequency. As a luxury hotel, this really presses us to be at the forefront of technology trends and this goes for WiFi and wireless related technologies as well.
EC: Specific to wireless technology, do you think hotel guests expect more? Many of us enjoy fast fibre broadband connections at home – does this put the pressure on hotels to provide the same kind of wireless experience?
SC: Yes, this is certainly the case for us at the Four Seasons, and I would assume for other players in the luxury hotel market as well. This is something we addressed some time ago as we recognised the ensuing commodification of wireless, and today it is akin to hot water or 24-hour room service.
Now, when we think about investing in wireless technology, we do our best to factor-in future trends and the levels of redundancy required to keep our infrastructure performing as expected.
We have seen bandwidth and capacity demands grow over a number of years and what has accelerated this at an even greater rate is the number of guests arriving with multiple WiFi-enabled devices. This multiplication factor, often of three or even four devices per person, across the hotel can have a huge impact on the bandwidth required to maintain the customer experience.
The impact of this on the customer across the industry was that some hotels began charging for WiFi usage, or implemented a dual model where basic WiFi was free and higher bandwidth users would have to pay. However, we have now entered a time where charging for WiFi is no longer as common and free access is more-or-less expected.
EC: Have you seen a growth in the necessary resourcing required by hotels to ensure the smooth and continued operation of hotel technology?
SC: There are so many platforms used by hotels which now rely on technology, such as building management systems, POS and credit card processing as well the WiFi infrastructure and smart in-room controls, so you can definitely say that the entire scope has gotten quite broad.
A large part of this falls into the remit of the IT department, but there is also an engineering and property maintenance element required to keep the estate performing. Outsourcing of various functions is also an inevitable factor in terms of services and support. IT directors are usually tasked with ensuring that basic day-to-day performance issues are mitigated, whilst broader infrastructure management is outsourced.
EC: Is it fair to suggest that there is different perspective on the necessity of wireless technology from luxury to smaller independent hoteliers?
SC: I wouldn’t doubt that that is the prevalent mind-set, although you can’t really delay the inevitable and I think the smarter hotel operators, even those running independent hotels, will try to get-out ahead of their competition.
For guests coming in, or thinking about making a booking, WiFi will certainly factor into their decision. For all hoteliers, I think the WiFi conversation inevitably begins with basic provision but then they will quickly realise that professional seamless coverage is important, as indeed, are bandwidth and capacity considerations.
The cost of this front-end infrastructure and ongoing operating costs, depending on their bandwidth limitations, will all be factors. At the luxury end of the business we have no choice when it comes to business-grade WiFi provision – it is an expected and basic commodity. As you go further down the scale I would guess that this equation changes a bit but not dramatically.
EC: Do you think that, even for smaller hotels, investment in better WiFi systems is inevitable and, ultimately, the sector will have to give-in to consumer-driven demands?
SC: I think that, far from having negative connotations – such as ‘giving in’ – we should be looking at the demand for better connectivity in hotels as a fortuitous opportunity. Given that we are in the ‘experience’ business, we should look upon everything that is experience enhancing as a good thing.
Whether that is increasing the shower pressure or providing better Internet access, if it’s enhancing the guest experience then it is more likely that they will come back or become an advocate for our hotels.
EC: What opportunities does wireless technology give to hotels? Is it simply adding a layer of experience or is there more to gain?
SC: It is certainly about enhancing the guest experience, although at the luxury end of the business it is more about meeting expectations rather than exceeding them. Further to that, I would say that within high-end hospitality we see technology as an essential component and as an ‘enabler’ for other services rather than simply as a ‘deliverable’.
We are currently beta testing a ‘chat’ feature on our mobile app which will give direct live chat access to all of our guests. This is really important as it facilitates instant communication and interactivity; ultimately it is a human who is delivering the service and the technology provides an effective enabler to this.
EC: Much of what we have talked about applies to the luxury end of the market. In your mind, is there a clear divide between the likes of the Four Seasons and smaller independently run hotels with regards to technology?
SC: I think, ultimately, what is relevant for the luxury end of hospitality now will be relevant for smaller hotels eventually. Although I have spent my whole career at the luxury end, I would suspect that, much like automotive technology for instance, what will happen is that the luxury end pioneers the technology and then, as costs reduce, the rest of the market can benefit.
Luxury tends to lead the way as they have A) the expectation of the guest but also B) the financial capacity to innovate and to be early adopters. However, I think this ‘trickle-down’ will happen, and is happening quite quickly.
EC: In your opinion, are there any obvious barriers to entry for hotels with regards to technology?
SC: I think it is more about brand positioning and the specific market your hotel happens to be in. For instance, a hotel situated on a small island off of the Maldives will be forced to pay a high price for satellite connectivity. That cost element will be an inhibitor or a limiter, but most hotels in major urban centres should have no clear barriers-to-entry.
Regardless of barriers-to-entry, I think hotels of all sizes need to be aware that this is all about consumer-choice. I actually stayed at a small hotel in Wales this summer where WiFi was only available in the lounge. This was really inconvenient for me as I prefer to work and be productive in my hotel room.
I certainly wouldn’t go back to a hotel like that because my job and life, professional and personal, has a high requirement to be constantly connected.
EC: Do you think that the scenario you have just described at the Hotel in Wales will be enough for smaller hoteliers to increase technology investments or do the inflated costs and investment only serve to exacerbate the issues?
SC: I think all of this will end up being consumer-led, because when it becomes so important to their choice, you simply have to upgrade and update in order to remain relevant and to uphold the values of your brand or establishment.
EC: Indeed, there are many ways for hotels to approach the necessary investments in WiFi and associated technologies, such as Op-Ex over Cap-Ex payments models for instance.
EC: We believe that Hotel WiFi should be viewed as an asset and not a cost – would you agree with this statement?
SC: Well it depends on what exactly you mean by ‘asset’, but I would tend to agree. An asset traditionally has some tangible financial value which can be generated over time.
I would group WiFi with other necessities like the water boiler or the sewage system – they are all integral parts of attracting a guest to stay in your hotel and, whether electricity prices go up or your boiler breaks, you won’t survive for very long without either of them. I would categorise wireless in the same way – in today’s world you just have to have guest and corporate wireless and I would even go beyond that by saying that you have to have reasonably fast wireless which facilitates connections with the minimum of fuss.
At the Four Seasons we put a high value on our wireless, to the point that all of our limos transporting guests to and from the airport offer wireless connectivity. This, for us, is a key service as we welcome many business travellers who can make effective use of that 20-minute car journey – this is potentially very valuable time to them and we have added this as a basic, free-of-charge service.
EC: If we agree that, for the luxury end of hospitality, WiFi is a basic amenity would you also agree that WiFi can be a revenue generator for all hotels?
SC: Most certainly. I think it is definitely sector-specific, with WiFi revenue extraction being less relevant at our end of the market. We generally do not charge for our guest network access, but, at the budget end of hospitality, guest data can be extremely valuable. If you are getting customers to log-in then you can begin to build a database with which to enhance your marketing activities.
EC: Do you have any thoughts on the pressures of cybersecurity facing hotels as a result of the growing need for WiFi and Internet access?
SC: I think that network security has several different facets, and all of them are very important to hotels.
Starting with PCI Compliance and data protection, from an internal perspective the security of our systems is paramount – we hold a great deal of personal data, often of high-profile individuals, so our own firewalls and levels of protection are really important.
In terms of the content that our guests are consuming, we don’t have a particular interest in screening this. As a guest you are logging-in on the basis that you are a customer and an adult, and on that basis it is your responsibility to use the service legally.
I don’t think Hotels ought to be a viewed as a ‘content controllers’, and, in a similar vein, we are not pushing our own content to WiFi users as we find this to be counterproductive.
In fact, you could suggest that it is the country-wide, or even government-level, responsibility to manage content that is acceptable or available in any particular country. So, if you are in the UK and you can access something then that should be fine. The situation where I am based, in Dubai, is a little different in that, should a user wish to access, say, pornography, they simply can’t as this type of content is blocked on a broader level.
EC: Overall, do you feel that the hospitality sector is currently making the most out of wireless technology?
SC: The mind-set for hoteliers simply has to be that, particularly with regards to technology, if you feel that you are ‘up-to-date’ and that you have everything you require in-place, then wait five minutes and you will no longer be in that position.
I think it is a better mind-set for hoteliers to recognise that technology is something that will perpetually move and grow, and needs to be constantly updated. The implementation and updating of technology should form a major part of the hoteliers’ business plans and they should be prepared to invest both capital and operational budget to remain as current as possible.
I certainly don’t think this is something any hotel can be complacent about – a one-time technology investment will not suffice. For us at the Four Seasons, technology considerations form part of our cyclical planning of strategy in the same way that our interior renovations do.
EC: How are you at the Four Seasons using WiFi and other related technologies to enhance the guest experience?
SC: Our mobile app is probably the best current example. Having developed a fully-integrated app means our guests are able to better manage reservations and check-in ahead of time, pre-order any type of additional services or communicate their preferences to us really effectively.
This has been well received by our customers. Of course, we aren’t the only hotel group doing such things but we spend a lot of time talking to our customers to find out what kinds of features they would like to see and this has evolved over time.
EC: Finally, is there anything you think that is particularly exciting, challenging or prevalent in terms of the future for WiFi technology in Hotels?
SC: I think the most exciting thing is the way in which wireless technology brings new and innovative ways for us to connect with our guests and to know them even better. Understanding our guests’ preferences and being able to communicate with them on a global level across all of our hotels is truly beneficial for them and us.
I think the biggest challenge, for hotels of all sizes and varieties, is the necessity for this continued level of technology investment. Being able to effectively explain and understand the issues to those who sign-off on technology and advocate for further investment is often a challenge.
Take a look at Ensign Communications Hotel WiFi Solutions