Now Boarding - By Les Shu

In Marriott’s newest flagship, tech is all behind the scenes and in your hand

As technology continues to dictate our everyday lives, we seemingly anticipate our environment to respond in the same manner. There are numerous products designed to make our homes smarter, and even restaurants are using tablets to do away with traditional wait staff. In the travel and hospitality sector, some hotels are adapting to new tech trends by adding things like automated blinds, TVs embedded in bathroom mirrors, sophisticated radios with iPhone docks, iPads in lounges, or even a robotic luggage handler (it’s real, it’s called the Yobot, and it’s at the Yotel in New York City).

Marriott International is one of the largest hospitality corporations in the world, with thousands of hotel properties. If there is a company that has the resources to roll out high-tech hotels, it would be this one. But visit any of their newest flagship properties, and, for techies hoping for a Jetsonian experience, they’ll be disappointed. Why are there no voice activation, remote controlled blinds, touchscreen flat-panel display everywhere, or robot butlers? Why does a 21st-century hotel room still look like it was from the previous one?

Nowhere is that more apparent than Marriott’s stunning and massive Marquis Washington, D.C. With more than 1,200 rooms and suites, and more than 100,000 square feet of event space, the newly built glass-and-steel, LEED-certified structure, with a soaring enclosed atrium, glows like a modern jewel box in the nation’s capital – which is fitting, considering this is Marriott’s 4,000th property. But step inside the state-of-the-art-looking building, and get over the shiny new fixtures, you’ll realize that this new hotel looks a lot like many Marriott properties that’s come before it.

(While spacious and cozy, the Marriott Marquis’ reception area, lounge, and guest rooms [above, left to right] are fairly standard. Technology, however, plays a behind-the-scenes role.)

But it isn’t because the company doesn’t embrace technology – it just interprets it differently, and there’s quite a lot of it. For Marriott, this selective approach is intentional for numerous reasons. It could have filled every room with gizmos to rival a Brookstone, but from a business standpoint, it doesn’t make any good financial sense. There are smaller boutique hotels that are capable of rolling the latest tech in and out, whenever it sees fit. But for a company that needs to establish a seamless experience across thousands of hotels around the world, it’s not feasible.

Another related issue is that big properties like the Marquis were planned years in advance, so whatever tech was dreamt up then, is most likely outdated now. Case in point: the iPod-dock radio, which was a much-ballyhooed feature in hotel rooms a few years go, but is now a relic thanks to Apple’s connector switch from 30-pin to Lightning. In fact, the Marquis’ guestrooms have simple RCA-branded clock radios that you can find in your local Walgreens.

Rather than trying to keep up with the latest gadgets like clocks with iPod docks, you'll find a basic clock radio.

Rather than trying to keep up with the latest gadgets like clocks with iPod docks, you’ll find a basic clock radio.

So no, when it comes to tech, you won’t find many gadgets inside a Marriott guest room. But there is technology being utilized, and for Marriott’s strategy, it’s behind the scenes and in the mobile smartphone inside your pocket.

Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there

As Marriott’s SVP for Global Brand Management, Paul Cahill, said, “We’re not in the tech business, we’re in the hospitality business.” What he means is that Marriott will use technology where it sees fit, but it won’t necessarily revolve around it.

It’s all about Marriott’s ongoing theme of “high tech, high touch.” It involves using technology strategically that elevates the customer service experience. For example, there are plenty of USB ports and outlets to charge mobile devices, and there are large touchscreen displays in the lobby to help you find your way around the hotel.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of the hotel itself isn’t high-tech. Technology is at play in the Marquis, but it’s done so in a way that the customer isn’t always aware of it, but is indeed using it.

The technical backbone of the Marquis is a fiber optic network, said Derek Brauner, who’s the Marquis’ director of engineering and oversees a team of 30 engineers – two of whom are dedicated to just the IT infrastructure. The fast network is not only designed to deliver YouTube steaming videos and VPN access to guests, it’s also how Brauner and the hotel staff operate the hotel. Many of the Marquis’ lighting could be operated from Brauner’s iPad, over Wi-Fi, for example. It keeps the housekeeping staff connected, as they all carry iPod Touch devices that display their assignments for the day, requests for toiletries from guests, as well as what rooms may or may not be occupied without having to knock on a door; it also eliminates the need to print out their duties on paper, and, because information can be updated in real-time, the housekeepers are able to work quicker and more efficiently.

The rooms are also smarter: It knows if it’s occupied, and puts everything in an eco-saving mode when it’s not. Sensors throughout the building continuously monitor for things that might be off. If the temperature in a particular area doesn’t seem right, an alert would be sent to Brauner and the engineering team. (Features like these are actually required for a building to be LEED-certified.)

Anyone who has stayed at a big-chain hotel and turned on the television, probably know how excruciatingly slow and unresponsive it is. But the high-bandwidth network has allowed the Marquis to install IPTV-based television sets that are fast and much more fluid. Menus and services call up near-instantly, while a downloadable app lets you control the TV from your smartphone. The system is still fairly basic, but Brauner said the system and app will be upgraded over time to include features like content streaming from your smartphone.

The hotel’s computer system isn’t so smart that it can predict what temperature each guest likes – at least not yet. Like in so many advanced buildings, Brauner says the beauty of the network is that it’s scalable, and could be upgraded accordingly in the future, to meet whatever is required. That could mean unlocking doors with your smartphone after checking in, or setting the climate control before entering. Whatever it may be, the system was designed to evolve – but only if it meets guests’ demands and enhances the customer service experience.

Embrace of mobility

If there’s one piece of customer technology Marriott is investing in, it’s with mobile devices. Marriott is researching new ways on how its hotels can interact with consumers’ mobile lifestyle. Besides the ability to interact with your television, guests can utilize the Marriott Guest Services app to do everything from checking in and checking out, to requesting more shampoo or a wake-up call – all without ever speaking to a Marriott employee, if the guest wishes.

Just for kicks, we wanted to see how responsive the system is, so we scheduled a wake-up call. At the exact time requested, we received a voice call through the room’s phone, which provided information like weather the day’s weather as well.

You could argue that these services are rudimentary – hotels today should already have such capabilities – but, like its network, these mobile services are scalable, and represent only just the beginning. Marriott continues to work with hospitality-based companies and even high-tech universities to test out new features, but, like so many other industries, mobile is where you’ll find the hotel tech of the future.

The app crashed a few times during use, but for the most part, it works. But it also demonstrates that a lot of the mobile services are in their infancy. Marriott actually offers multiple apps for different services (the TV, for example, is controlled via an app made by Guest-Tek, a company that makes IP solutions for the hospitality industry), which is actually confusing. But it is one area that Brauner said Marriott is planning to consolidate all of its apps into one.

Guests at the Marquis can make all the usual hotel requests via Marriott's Guest Services app, including check-in/check-out.

Guests at the Marquis can make all the usual hotel requests via Marriott’s Guest Services app, including check-in/check-out.

Responding to trends

Perhaps it’s all well and good that guests aren’t bombarded with tech – after all, most people just want a good night’s sleep. Cahill reminded us that they are in the hospitality industry, and they’re not trying to build an Apple Store.

But research is showing that more hotel guests are starting to demand certain techie features. Research company SmartBrief found that 45 percent of hotels guests travel with two mobile devices – 40 percent carry three. And with these devices, guests are demanding more charging options, mobile-based automated services like check-in/check-out, digital signage in the lobby, sophisticated meeting rooms, and customer service via social media, according to a poll SmartBrief conducted last year on the top-10 tech trends hotels guest are now looking for. For Marriott, it’s actually already addressing many of these trends: the study references the company’s Red Coat Direct app and service that lets meeting planners communicate directly and electronically with the hotel for requests, the Workspace on Demand service that lets guests convert hotel spaces into secondary remote offices, as well as Marriott’s use of digital signage that can be programmed constantly to highlight relevant, among others.

Unfortunately, one tech trend that the Marquis hasn’t embraced yet is free Wi-Fi. While Marriott offers it in select properties, you’ll still need to pay for it at this flagship hotel. We will say that it is robust and fast, however, which may justify the daily rate.

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