HK hotels woo guests with apps

Two hotels in Hong Kong are leveraging mobile apps to give guests a new experience during their stay.

Both Hotel ICON in Tsim Sha Tsui East and L'hotel A(c)lan in Kwun Tong have integrated apps for guests' use with their backend systems, though the hotels approach mobility in different ways.

L'hotel A(c)lan--part of the L'hotel Group, owned by the Chinachem Group--opened on May 21 this year, and targets tech-savvy travelers. The majority of the hotel's guests, 70%, come from Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, said the hotel.

The hotel puts Apple iPad 2 devices in each of its 254 rooms and suites--the iPads use eGuest to drive guest-services. The guest service system is built on IBM-partner MVI's in-room entertainment system and secured with MVI's mobile device management (MDM) system, said IBM. The MDM system is also integrated with its property management and point-of-sale systems, according to Big Blue.

The iPads are pre-loaded with 10 international TV channels and hotel-selected apps that deliver the latest news, guest messages, in-room dining orders, a bill review, and express check-out, said Valentina Chiu, front office manager at L'hotel A(c)lan.

According to Chiu, the tablets aren't meant to be a TV replacement. "We have TVs with a selection of 48 channels in all rooms," she said. "If one person is watching news on the TV, another person can watch other programs on the iPad."

To the hotel, app deployment on mobile devices is a must. "This will make a real difference in customer experience, customer loyalty, and attracting new customers in today's hospitality market where competition is intense," said Sylvia Chung, the hotel's general manager.

Securing the iPad devices

To physically secure the iPads, which are placed on bedside cabinets in most rooms, the hotel attaches a steel wire to each one. Wires are intentionally short: "We had discussions about the length of the wire," said Chiu, but a longer wire could be a danger--especially for guests traveling with children."

The devices are also monitored by the hotel via its Wi-Fi on a dash board system: hotel staffers receive automatic alerts when any device isn't within the Wi-Fi-covered area.

Guest data protection

To protect guests' data-privacy, staffers are alerted upon a guest's check-out--and wipe apps including Skype and Facebook on an iPad via their dashboard system.

"This is possible because the dashboard is linked to the hotel's property management system that helps monitor guests' check-in and check-out procedures," said Chiu. "Staffers will also remotely install clean versions of those apps back on the iPad so they're available for the next guest's use."

Training required for operations staff like room attendants is minimal. "When they get into a room, all they have to do is to press the OK button to confirm re-installation of the apps," she said.

According to Chiu, there's also an e-kiosk--a touch screen TV--in the lobby to provide guests with shopping, sightseeing, and restaurants information. She added that the hotel plans to display a QR code on the TV-- guests can scan the code and carry the information on their smartphones before leaving the hotel to explore Hong Kong.

Hotel ICON cleaves to BYOD

Hotel ICON--run by Hong Kong PolyU as a hospitality and tourism education/research hotel--uses a different model: allowing guests to use their own devices to access services on an app. Their i-Guest smartphone app was launched in early October with 2,000 downloads as of October 22, said Jason Pang, director of technology & innovation at the hotel.

The app--developed by FCS Computer Systems, which focuses on hospitality IT--is only available for Hotel ICON guests using iOS devices, but an Android version will be available in Q1 of 2013, said Pang. He added that both traditional and simplified Chinese versions of the app will be available next quarter. According to FCS, the hotel is the first in Asia to have deployed the app.

Pang said that the app is integrated with various hotel systems such as job dispatching, the e-concierge, e-engineering, and the voice system. This allows guests to do a variety of things on their iOS devices: house-keeping services requests, hotel souvenir shopping, text- and voice-message retrieval, Google Maps- integrated search for local attractions, wake-up calls and do-not-disturb message set-up, as well as express check-out.

"For us and our guests, the app is like a storefront," said Pang. "It's an innovative and fun way for guests to request services anytime, anywhere."

As free Wi-Fi service isn't still common in Hong Kong, the hotel provides it free of charge on premise and on its shuttle buses. "We had concerns about the lack of free [Wi-Fi] services throughout the city before the app deployment," said Pang. "But as most information is available offline after download, there shouldn't be any serious issues."

The hotel has already planned to add in-room dining order service to the app in Q1 of 2013. Plans to allow guests to make reservations at restaurants inside the hotel, and open guest room doors via the existing app are on the drawing board.

According to Pang, response to the app is positive. He quoted guest-comments indicating the app is innovative and allows them to easily order services with their own devices.

App management and maintenance

While both hotels have small IT teams--three tech staffers at Hotel ICON and two at L'hotel A(c)lan--neither needs to spend much time on app maintenance.

According to L'hotel A(c)lan's Chiu, IBM provides project management, consultancy and maintenance services. At Hotel ICON, there's a content management system behind the app that allows tech staff to add new services while most of the maintenance tasks are done by FCS.

Though apps and mobility deployment is a tech task, it must involve the participation of other teams to ensure a better experience for both customers and staffers.

Pang said that about 20 people from house-keeping, rooms, sales, management, and tech were involved in the app development process. "Besides benefit to guests and our brand, we also looked at how the deployment would make the operation staff's job easier," said Pang. "So it wasn't simply about making an app, but bringing the best out of tech and automation to benefit everyone."

This story, "HK hotels woo guests with apps" was originally published by Computerworld Hong Kong.

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