Written by: Dominika Duziak, research scholar
Nearly 2.5 million people visited Dubai`s Expo 2020 in the first month after the opening . This long-awaited event is expected to attract 25 million guests from all over the world . The city has prepared for this crowd and continues to deliver innovative solutions that are enhancing the experience of its residents and visitors. These changes are delivered through the ‘smart city’ agenda that is built around six pillars: living, economy, people, mobility, environment, and governance. Dubai’s plan to be ‘the happiest city on Earth’ is well on track, with over 100 initiatives and over 1,000 smart services launched over the last three years . Smart city foundations—digitization, new technologies (Blockchain, AI, and Internet of Things) and corresponding data—seem to be on everybody’s mind in Dubai, with countless tech events hosted daily around the city.
Dubai hotels have also been preparing for Expo and, after a year and a half of the global pandemic, are fully ready to welcome the guests. But are they ready for smart guests? While researching the topic of ‘smart hotels’ in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), I found many properties advertising ‘interconnected’ rooms. “Good sign,” I thought, “sounds like IoT.” The reality is, unfortunately, slightly different and has nothing to do with new technologies—the rooms are just physically connected to suit the families! Well, that is smart but in a very traditional way.
It seems that apart from a few exceptions, hoteliers are still quite reluctant to embrace new technologies and the concept of smart hotels. Employees express concerns about dehumanization—do we want robots to replace human interactions? Not to mention that not all customers are tech savvy; guests value a personal touch and robots cannot deliver the same human warmth and home-like experience.
But the smart hotel concept is not about replacing humans with robots. It is about efficiency, automation and data-driven decision making. Every corner of the smart hotel is interconnected. Every application and every unit of equipment communicates, gathers, and shares data that can be then leveraged to gain actionable insights; to enhance client experience (i.e., if the guest is parking, the sensors in the garage and lifts communicate and the lift is automatically sent to the garage level), to optimize revenue (booking and cancellations management), or operational savings (proactive maintenance tracking, food waste management). There are so many actions that we can outsource now to the ‘machines’ to save time and create space for more personal interactions.
‘Smart’ does not have to mean limited interaction with guests. On the contrary—it should mean more time for more personalized service. In a smart hotel, guests can communicate their needs and preferences through the channel of their choice (in person with a concierge, a messaging app, hotel app, etc.). They can provide instant feedback—also mid-stay and not only after, as usual—allowing staff to quickly analyze and improve the guest experience if there is a need. If we replace the land lines and printed directories in the rooms with smart tablets, for example, we give guests a source of information, in-room control, and a powerful two-way communication tool. Guests have an option to get answers to their questions without leaving the room, make requests, order food, access housekeeping and toiletries (smart and sustainable!). For a hotel, on the other hand, it is not only an opportunity to exceed customers’ expectations but also a great way to upsell by pushing information about offers, upgrades, and additional experiences—spa, excursions, theme nights, or maybe even something as simple as selling bathrobes or those beautiful thick towels. Aside from a happy customer and higher cross—sell rate, there is a huge service efficiency gain, as many of the requests can be handled by a virtual assistant powered by AI.
The Covid-19 pandemic created a massive push for contactless options, which should apply to the entire guest journey—from check-in through key-less room entry to check-out. It is safe to assume that by now, most guests are already used to fully digital solutions, such as fingerprint scanning or facial recognition. Biometric authentication is becoming a new norm, starting from unlocking a phone to dealing with a bank or even the public sector. The UAE recently announced that their residents will soon use their face to authenticate dealings with the government, as the Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship announced facial recognition will replace the Emirates ID.
Self-service is a preference of both Millennials and Gen Z (n.b. the oldest millennials are turning 40 this year and are already outnumbered by Gen Z, which is expected to represent 27 percent of the world’s income in 2030 ). They are fully digital, live in smart homes, and think of access to Wi-Fi as a basic human right. They are not afraid of chatbots and virtual assistants. I spoke to at least five chatbots last month because, as a new resident of Dubai, I had to go through a lot of administrative tasks. In almost every case, I chose a chatbot as my first option because it was available when I needed it (after hours), and it instantly provided clear answers and guidance. Hotels should build on that behavior. If the guests are smart and the destination is smart, evolving into a smart hotel seems like a logical step.
Dominika Duziak is a research scholar with the HFTP Middle East Research Center and student at the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management in Dubai, UAE.