On a visit to the hotel company’s new innovation studio, David Samuels explores the brave new world of hospitality.
Hotels are my favorite places to think and write, or simply to escape from reality, which is sometimes harsh. The hotels I am grateful for are run by sensitive, thoughtful people who provide the precarious balance of anonymity and personal care that I crave. I want privacy, interesting design, and also a place to be sociable or take a meeting for an hour or two without breaking the spell of being somewhere far away from home. I like camping out alone under the stars, in a nice room with a comfortable bed, a desk, and room service.
As human beings become switching stations for the digital signals coming in and out of our phones, the technological backwardness of so many hotels has become, for me, part of their charm. I take comfort in the fact that hotel rooms often double as museums of Jurassic technologies—the desktop landline that acts as a five-pound free weight, the dedicated button you must push to order room service, the DVD player for which you can rent actual DVDs. Still, the fear that the hotel experience I am dependent on might dissolve into the surrounding digital babble of Big Data and wearable gizmos and giant LCD screens doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable.
In fact, Starwood Hotels, which counts St. Regis and W among its global brands and operates one of my personal favorites, the Hotel Bristol in Warsaw, is investing $100 million over the next two years to create the very types of tech-y amenities that make me most anxious, among them iPad room-service menus and app-based temperature and lighting controls. (It is not the first hotel company with such ambitions, but it’s the largest.) These projects, and many more, are the focus of the newly opened Starlab, a Manhattan-based digital and design studio that seeks out the next great hotel innovations. Feeling fiercely protective of my beloved old-world order, I decided to head there myself and investigate.
The first thing that caught my eye at Starlab was a pair of wall displays broadcasting a lightly curated stream of every photo guests were posting and tagging on social media from every Starwood property in the world. More than half the pictures were of food: perfectly arrayed rare tuna slices, colorful desserts that looked almost like turn-of-the-century hats, and so on. The feed brought to mind the great Yale sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class, which posited a new generation of hotels like the Ritz in Paris as elaborate theater sets where the rising global bourgeoisie could show off their status in appropriately impressive settings. Food is a social-media-friendly version of the hotel experience on one plate.
After gazing a bit, I asked the Starlab design team how Big Data had changed their approach to their jobs. “Before, the hotel was the content. Now people are bringing their own content with them,” explained Mike Tiedy, senior VP for brand design and innovation. Great design and working Wi-Fi are simply the cost of entry to the market these days, and the hotel experience needs to be ever more alluring simply to keep up with whatever is on guests’ phones. Adding a sleek new vase or distinctive-looking chair isn’t enough to make a hotel feel fresh again. “We have to get those things right the first time,” added VP of global brand design Ted Jacobs.
The most powerful existing effect of digital technology on design, Jacobs told me, is the feedback loop of websites and social media that plays back the success or failure of each design choice in real time, making it visible to the guest’s friends, and their friends, and their friends.
Everything new is now instantly available to everyone, at least theoretically, so the value in the guest experience comes from its overall vibe—or what Jacobs calls the “red thread.” It’s not just the brand history, individual design choices, or level of service that makes an impact, but the way those things are tied together into a cohesive narrative. That’s not branding-speak, either—what it means is that hotels have become like big-budget Hollywood movies where the one-line pitch is so clear and so immediately attractive that people are delighted by the idea alone.
Starlab’s digital team concerns itself with how guests navigate a hotel. It recently made headlines after introducing its Keyless program, which lets Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) members use their phones to unlock doors at all W, Aloft, and Element hotels. When I visited Starlab, only 10 properties were offering the service, but 64,000 SPG members had already signed up.
I learned that room-service menus are available via the SPG app at Le Méridien in Munich, and will soon roll out globally. (Future historians of hotel technology may be interested to know that the first dish ordered via app was a Caesar salad.) I also got a peek at some screenshots of the SPG Apple Watch app, which will remind guests of their room number or provide turn-by-turn directions back to the hotel, in both English and the local language.
It was only when I wrapped my head around Starwood’s use of Big Data—murky territory for a privacy nut like me—that I began to understand how the cogs may actually turn in my favor. By this point, it’s not news that Starwood employs 30-odd people to keep “eyes on glass 24/7,” handling 3 million social media interactions per year that range from mentions of slow check-in lines to stories of guests who get locked out of their rooms (like one guest at Le Méridien Rimini who got stuck on his balcony and was rescued by hotel staff after tweeting his distress; he was rewarded the next day with a whistle and an Italian-English dictionary).
Data is especially useful to hotel managers, who can use it to help their guests in ways that would please the most traditionally exacting Swiss hotelier. In the backstage area of the W Downtown, in New York’s Financial District, I looked at the profile of one guest who listens to the Pixies and the Shins, eats Kettle Korn, and likes to have a teakettle in his room—the kinds of things that good hotels should know about their guests. Now, as part of an opt-in pilot in 30 hotels, Starwood plans to install Bluetooth “beacons” in lobbies and public spaces that will beam profiles of approaching guests to staff— who can then greet them by name and follow up on service requests.
Walking home in the rain, I might have felt like the lonely hero of a dystopian science-fiction novel, but oddly, I didn’t. No, I don’t care for Apple Watches and Google Glass. What I do care about is service, which is generally where American hotels and large chains fall flat. The high-touch yet protective experience that I love is generally characteristic of hotels in Europe and Asia, where the local hospitality cultures are rooted in a sense of community and discretion and attentiveness. The service virtues that I appreciate are generally not part of our culture, which has plenty of other things to offer: movies, music, democracy, upward mobility, efficient large-scale organization, open markets, and a disdain for servile habits.
The data-driven hotel experience is America’s way of closing the service gap. Sensors and apps might just be our culture’s equivalent of the beautiful ladies who keep tabs on guests’ movements in the pool and lobby areas of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, making their habits and preferences known to managers. If that’s what happens, then there’s nothing to be afraid of. In fact, I might like it.