Digitalization is reaching the hospitality industry

For the May issue of the young, modern restaurant magazine HOGAPAGE, the duo Katharina Aguilar of 7places and Frank Dittel of DIA spoke about the effects of digitalization on the hospitality industry. DIA designs and implements the hotel architecture, 7Places advises on innovation and digital technologies and implements them in the room from the very beginning. Below you find the complete interview, conducted by Michael Eichhamer.

digitalization hospitality industry

Is digitalization in the hospitality industry still in its infancy? If yes, to what extent?

Yes, digitalization in the hospitality industry is still in its infancy. However, a distinction has to be made between two areas of digitisation: the digitisation of background processes and the digitisation that can be experienced directly by guests. Even in the first area we have observed larger gaps in the level of penetration. Many hotels do not have any automated procurement or workforcemanagement processes, although they would be able to generate considerable efficiency gains and savings as a result. The use of digital technologies in order to create an experience for the guest is currently still definitely rare. Yet, it is precisely in the front-end where we see humans and technology going hand in hand in the future, as is also the case in our private lives. Hotels are only recognising this slowly as the hotel industry is not a sector that is closely aligned with the IT sector, it is instead a people business. Many hoteliers view this as a collision between two worlds that are not compatible with each other. We see this differently.

What advantages can digitalization in hospitality bring to a business?

The advantages can be seen on different levels. Digitisation can help you to manage in a more efficient, economic and sustainable way. It can help to increase your market penetration and the number of direct bookings as well as to acquire regular customers. Digitisation helps us architects in the planning and construction of hotels. We consider it to be a great advantage for both sides as it allows the operators or investors to participate in our design ideas early on and to experience them in a very vivid way. In particular, digitisation can help to offer guests a unique experience during their stay. This does not mean that, in the future, hotels will become technocratic places. Even an aesthetically harmonious resort hotel with intelligently integrated digital elements can fully unfold its restorative effect without ever having to reveal that technology is involved. In our view that is the future of digitisation in hotels.

In which specific areas is digitalization in hospitality able to yield benefits – from the perspective of the operator?

The use of virtual reality in the planning process. Even during the planning of a hotel, an operator can »beam into« the emerging hotel with the help of virtualand augmented reality. We are very happy to use this technology because we can sense the enthusiasm of our building contractors when they virtually enter their future buildings. Furthermore, we recognise that the virtual representation helps us to reach agreement and gain trust early on in the planning process. A virtual tour of the completed hotel can also encourage guests to make a purchasing decision online and can create a sense of anticipation.

Digital marketing, social media marketing, customer relationship management. The topicof »digital marketing« has become a key component of a successful hotel. Guests use the internet almost exclusively for their purchasing decisions. In the future, smart technologies could take over these decisions for us. Alexa will know our preferences and with just a keyword be able to book a hotel that will delight us. Yet another reason to familiarise yourself with these technologies.

Back-end digital processes and digital building management. Back-end digital processes and digital building management are advantageous both for the operator and for the staff.

“If technology is able to assume the tasks that do not affect the guest (and save money in the process), then the staff can dedicate themselves more intensely to the quintessential task of hospitality – and hence focus on the person.”

A human is not necessarily required to draw up a purchase order for goods or a shift plan. Nor is a person needed to ensure that the lights in the conference rooms are only switched on when someone is in them. If we go one step further, then a person does not even have to vacuum or empty the dishwasher. All of this requires little empathy, creativity or charisma. The automation of these mechanical processes constitutes an opportunity that the hotel industry will recognise in the future. We are enthusiastic about technology if it enables us to spend more time being human. That is what is important in the hotel industry.

In which specific areas is digitalization in hospoitality able to yield benefits – from the perspective of the guest?

Digitisation used in a way that a guest will be able to experience. The use of digital elements in architecture and in space is one of our focus topics. The degree of interaction between guests and technology will depend on the planning of the concept and on the target group and, ultimately, on the individual guests. »Digital generation« members are happy if they can order dinner and a massage session via their tablets or, more specifically, via voice control. Future scenarios describe a »responsive hotel« that recognises guests as they enter the hotel and offers them a schedule of experiences tailored to their needs on a digital and analogue basis – provided that this is what the guest would like. Such a model would be based on the user data that guests will have to willingly surrender. The »Instagram generation« does this explicitly.

Are the advantages identical for all hotels, or will some of them benefit from different aspects? For example, business hotels, small guesthouses, family hotels, hotel chains…?

The benefits of digitisation will have different effects on different hotels and target groups. To put it in more concrete terms: in a business hotel, robots might be able to work at the front-end if guests simply want to get into their rooms without much ado and do not require to be greeted in person. In family hotels robots would be a complete mistake because those who stay there will want to experience a family atmosphere. In this case, personal contact with the hotel staff is a key factor.

Are there also smart hotels, similar to smart homes? Is this more than just a gimmick? A USP? Are there actual advantages?

The basis of smart home technologies is the added value that arises for users. If they are able to pre-heat their ovens while they are still in the supermarket then, we believe, that is not a gimmick but rather technology that can make life easier.

“For every piece of digital technology, questions have to be asked about the added value that arises for the user.”

In the household, technology constitutes direct relief from chores. In a hotel, it provides opportunities for customisation or the efficient handling of cumbersome processes, such as the booking of services or providing information about the surrounding area. Digital technologies can help travellers to get in contact with others or with the local community. They can help prevent guests being surprised by room service, or assist them to operate complicated heating and lighting controls. If the room knows when the guest has left, then it can inform room service about this. If the room knows when the guest will return and what temperature s/he finds comfortable, then the room can be made ready for the guest’s return. In such cases, the added value is clear.

In an interview with md-mag.com, you mentioned that it is now possible to define your individual preferences for aspects such as room temperature, background music, lighting or sleeping periods via digital networking, for example, setting these up via a smartphone. How exactly does that work?

Guests can enter their preferences in a user interface (e.g. a smartphone app or a control panel in the room). It is even quicker with voice control. The information is then transferred via an electronic interface – for example Bluetooth or WLAN – to the intelligent building automation technology. Some examples of this are electronically dimmable or circadian lighting elements, interactive sound systems, electronically movable blinds or curtains, or even a remote electronic control that allows you to draw your bath. Here is an example of an application: enter your desired wake up time into a user interface, then a smart room – using intelligent building automation technology – can wake you up with your favourite song and create a lighting mood in the room that reminds you of sunrise. Moreover, the technology can send your wake up time to the hotel staff who can provide a breakfast at the right time and inform room service as soon as you have left the room.

As an architect, how would you describe a successful »smart hotel«?

A successful smart hotel knows to make the technology invisible, to integrate it with intuitive operability and, at the same time, to create an added value for the guest that can be felt immediately. Technology has to be subtle and accompanied by tactile and high-quality materials. Technology alone is not sufficient.

What will define a successful hotel concept in the future?

In the future, successful hotels will provide three things: they will be »curated homes«, this means that I will receive an offering there that is pre-selected and appropriate for my needs – this could include services, a lifestyle, feelings or technologies. They will provide and promote an appropriate community – I will be able to meet people like me there. And they will provide »Instagrammable moments« – in particular, as a result of the unique (interior) architecture.

How can digitalization and design go hand in hand with each other in the hotel and gastronomy industries?

An (interior) architect is one of the first people who is involved in the development of hotel and gastronomy concepts and who plays a decisive role in shaping the effect and the mood.

“The architect helps to convey the host’s essential character into a space – that includes the technological elements in the space.”

In the same way as we are able to identify the best furniture and integrate it into the space, we also identify and integrate the technology. It can be hidden or made deliberately visible, it can act in combination with materiality or it can be independent. It can create effects or it can be understated. For us, it is a new, exciting and promising design element.

Interview by Michael Eichhammer for the Magazin HOGAPAGE
Photos: ©DITTEL ARCHITEKTEN GMBH

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