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Key changes in hospitality: When smart rooms and smartphones meet

How hotels are improving guest room comfort while driving down energy costs

In the old days you were handed a metal key at check-in allowing you to get in your hotel room. You entered your room, fumbled around for the lights—a wall switch or a fixture—then found the heating and cooling unit and set the temperature to your liking. Typically, the room was too hot or cold, so you waited for the room to get comfortable. At some point, you unpacked your bag.

The jangly keys were replaced by disposable keycards years ago. This innovation has improved security and reduced the cost of replacing keys. Today, there’s more change to come. In deploying new technology for room access, hotels seek to balance saving energy and money with providing a quality customer experience.

You may have seen small changes already. Have you noticed that when you open your room door, the AC unit turns on its fan? Most hotel rooms now have a door contact/occupancy sensor. This sensor knows when the door has been opened and that there is now a person is in the room. It sends a wireless signal to the AC unit telling it to turn on and remain on until the door is opened again, a sophisticated improvement on motion sensors. These units are also programmed to set the AC unit to a minimum/maximum setting rather than switching off completely, so the room is already more comfortable when you walk in and the unit has less work to do when you arrive. This type of room sensor typically saves hotels 15 to 20% on their energy bills.

Still fumbling for the lighting? Today, a few hotels feature automatic controls for guest room lights, but nobody likes lights switching or off when they shouldn’t, so manual controls tend to remain on the fixtures.

Naturally, hotels want to control the number of lights left on after you leave the room. Some rooms now require us to place our key card in a wall-mounted card reader while we’re using the room in order to keep the lights operational. When exiting, the card is removed and the lights turn off shortly thereafter. This can save hotels another 20% on energy costs.

As with many aspects of our lives, smartphones are changing the hotel experience. Check-in and room entry via smartphone is now available from many major brands. Using a digital key or app guests check in on their phone, skip the front desk and go straight to the room unlocking it using the phone’s Bluetooth connection.

Climate and light temperature control via smartphone are next. When checking in, guests will be able to input preferences for cooling (“I like my room cool”) and light (“warm and bright”).  The phone alerts the hotel when they’re entering and adjusts the room accordingly, switching from energy-saving mode to each guest’s selected preferences. Guests find their rooms just the way they like. It’s a win-win for customer and operator a like.

And there’s more to come. Recently, Aloft Hotels debuted a voice-controlled hotel rooms initiative called “Project : Jetson” which allows guests to use Apple’s Siri to control lighting, temperature, and sound.

Disney Resorts have given us a glimpse of what’s next with their GPS/ RFI MagicBands. A colorful wristband resembling a bracelet, users touch MagicBands to a sensor called a touch point to open room doors and much more, enabling guests to travel lighter—without keys, cash or credit cards in the Magic Kingdoms. The bands track and make recommendations for customers and allow them to charge purchases to their room, not to mention visit theme and water parks.

We know that the smart and largely invisible use of automation in guest rooms can control operating costs for the hospitality industry while improving customer comfort. With the adoption of personalized preferences and digital check-in, we’re seeing more control in the palm of the guest’s hand.

Kevin Rettich is Stantec’s global engineering discipline leader for its Buildings practice.

As with many aspects of our lives, smartphones are changing the hotel experience

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