by Matt Alderton | March 22, 2017
Hotel gets more amazing every day. At Aloft Cupertino in Silicon Valley, for instance, there's Botlr, a robotic butler that delivers towels and toiletries to guests' rooms. At Yotel in New York, there's the Yobot, a robot that stores and fetches guests' luggage for them. At Seattle's Hotel 1000, guest rooms have sensors in them that detect body heat and tell housekeeping to stay away while they're occupied. At Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, there's location-based technology in the casino that can notify you when a spot opens up at the nearest blackjack table. Chicago's ACME Hotel Company has in-room Amazon Echoes through which guests can order room service or seek local restaurant recommendations. And at Manhattan's Renaissance New York Midtown, a virtual concierge system helps guests discover nearby points of interest with the wave of their hand.

Make no mistake: These and other innovations like them are seriously cool. From a group-travel perspective, though, "cool" doesn't always cut it. Instead of in-room toys worth tweeting about, meeting planners need practical onsite tools that make their jobs easier.

The next generation of hotel technology aims to fulfill that. As properties continue to look for new ways to reduce their costs while increasing their service levels, they're making more and more investments in behind-the-scenes technology that might lack the "wow" factor of guest-facing innovations, but that packs an operational punch and bolsters the bottom line. These investments already are benefiting hotel staff by streamlining employee communications -- and they might soon do the same for meeting planners.

Case in point: Thompson Hotels' Thompson Seattle, which opened in summer 2016, has invested in a unique three-pronged communication solution consisting of approximately 100 iPod Touch devices that are paired with either a wired or wireless earpiece (depending on the user's preference) and loaded with Zello, a software application that turns each iPod Touch into a multi-channel radio. Employees in every department across the hotel have their own iPod Touch, and each department has its own dedicated Zello channel that they can tune into via their earpiece, which has a push-to-talk button that allows them to speak as well as listen. As a result, housekeeping staff can instantly communicate with each other or with their colleagues in another department, such as engineering or food and beverage.

"We can have all sorts of different departments connected in real time so there is no delay in bringing towels up to room 101 or giving instant service to room 508," says IT director Danny Coker. "It's that speed of service that has been the greatest benefit so far."

That speed of service extends to group needs, too. "Anything the meeting might need, we've got at least one representative in every department that can respond instantaneously," Coker continues. "If there's an issue, like the bar needs restocking, we can respond immediately."

Although the system was deployed with employees in mind, Thompson Seattle might soon give meeting planners their own channel on Zello so they can communicate with hotel staff directly during their event.

"It's a challenge for the sales and catering teams to keep up with all the demands that meeting planners have; right now they resort to giving out personal cellphone numbers for texting back and forth," Coker explains. "How cool would it be to loan out one of our devices to the meeting planner and put them on a channel where they could communicate directly with the sales and catering teams? The planner could even download the Zello app on their own iPhone or Samsung device; all they'd have to do is hop on the network and off they'd go communicating."

Behind-the-scenes communication also was streamlined recently at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, which in January introduced Rose, a sassy chatbot that delivers customer service to guests via text message.

"Rose is a virtual VIP host with a witty personality that helps guests have a better time while they're in Las Vegas," explains The Cosmopolitan's Mamie Peers, senior director of digital, social, and eCommerce, who says guests can text Rose to instantly receive restaurant and bar recommendations, have amenities like extra pillows delivered to their room, play games, or even receive guided tours around the resort. Whatever the request, it's handled behind the scenes by concierges and guest services staff who triage requests to the appropriate departments.

At first blush, Rose seems like one of the aforementioned novelties that has a lot of appeal for individual guests but little utility for groups. On closer inspection, however, she has a lot of potential to enhance the property's relationship with meeting planners, according to Peers, who says The Cosmopolitan is rapidly deploying Rose across its many business lines. Soon, meeting planners might be able to text Rose for catering or A/V needs just as an individual guest can text her today for extra towels.

"Whatever the guest wants is what Rose is able to deliver," Peers says. "She fulfills needs quicker than it would take you to probably dial a phone number; it's one of the most convenient ways to get extremely fast service."

One hotel that's already using a new communication system to the benefit of group customers is the Hilton Québec in Québec, Canada.

"In the meeting business, a lot of changes can occur at the very last minute. Planners have to be able to rely on the team at the property to ensure the events success. Therefore, they need to be able to communicate easily with the hotel at any time," says Hilton Québec's director of catering and events, Isabelle Girard. "At the Hilton Québec, we recently have integrated a communication platform called KIPSU to communicate with guests and meeting planners. It is an instant messaging service that allows you to be in constant communication with the hotel staff and to respond to any requests almost instantly. Our staff has to respond in less than five minutes to every text, at any time of day or night."

Like Zello at Thompson Seattle and Rose at The Cosmpolitan, KIPSU debuted in another area of the hotel, but the potential for meeting planners quickly became apparent.

"We first started using KIPSU at the front desk. Seeing how beneficial it was for our guests and daily operations, we decided to use it for meeting planners," Girard continues. "Last November, we granted all of our banquet and events staff with a KIPSU access and started using it. When a meeting planner arrives onsite, we meet with them and instantly send them a text invitation through KIPSU on their cellphone. From then on, they are in constant communication with the entire team. It reassures our guests to know that there will always be someone to answer their every need at any moment during the event."

For example, when a meeting session is running late, or the coffee urn is empty, the planner can discreetly send a text to notify hotel staff without disturbing attendees.

"The key idea here is that this tool is simple, easy to use, and very efficient," Girard concludes. "At the Hilton Québec, our goal is to simplify a planner's job. They can even text us before going to bed to empty out their minds and have a good night's sleep."