USFSM student project looks at future – and futuristic – hotels

Dr. Katerina Berezina discusses how technology is affecting hotels. Photo by Krista Schrock

Dr. Katerina Berezina discusses how technology is affecting hotels.                                        Photo by Krista Schrock

SARASOTA, Fla. (Sept. 9, 2015) – Imagine unlocking a hotel room with a smart phone, having room service delivered by a robot or perhaps checking-in with a “mobile concierge,” bypassing the traditional front desk.

Technology is changing how people interact, work and shop so it’s not a stretch to imagine high-tech trends affecting hotel services. Some innovations are happening now – reservation apps come to mind – but how far will technology go in shaping hotels of the future?

Two dozen students from USF Sarasota-Manatee and 11 more from the prestigious Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, recently tackled that question. Collaborating for two weeks over the summer, they examined how technology now impacts – and might soon impact – four areas of hotel operations: front desk check-in, concierge services, food & beverage and in-room technology.

In some cases, the students found mobile technologies already playing a role. Some establishments, for example, allow guests to unlock their room doors using smart phones, eliminating the need for keycards.

In others, they uncovered technologies on the cusp of making a splash, from voice-activated lighting and temperature controls to beds that adjust automatically to in-room sensors that shut off heating and air conditioning after the room is vacant for more than 20 minutes.

Assistant Professor Dr. Katerina Berezina who helped organize the project said her aim was for the students to “let their imaginations go” as they endeavored to create the “hotel of the future.”

Michael Wynperle, a senior I.T. student, said he appreciated the technical acumen brought to the project by his French counterparts.

“The French have a reputation for their artistry and presentation and they lived up to it,” he said. “They did an exceptional job in formatting and putting it all together to look not like a student project but like a professional one.”

The project ran the gamut touching on both conventional and far-flung technologies, such as a hotel run by robots.

Among some of the more grounded scenarios to emerge was a “mobile concierge” to confirm guests’ reservations on hand-held devices. This is happening in some places now. Another involved an electronic kiosk where guests check-in and pay their bill by swiping a credit card, avoiding human interaction altogether. This might play well with guests arriving late at night.

Dr. Berezina said hoteliers are eyeing several such alternatives, weighing costs and whether they resonate with the public. While some, say business travelers, might value expediency in their stay, others may prize customer service and personalized attention. The trick is finding a balance that fits the hotel’s aims, she said.

One change that might not be far off is equipping more rooms with high-speed internet and docking stations for multiple electronic devices.

“Think about how many devices we carry now,” Dr. Berezina said. “The average traveler might have a phone, a laptop and a tablet. But how many hotel rooms today are prepared to conveniently charge all these devices? You might have to plug in one device in the bedroom and another in the bathroom.”

The students created video presentations to report their findings. They worked in online groups over the course of the project, communicating through email and video conferencing. Each group examined a particular aspect of hotel operations. They had two weeks to research the topic, write a paper and prepare their presentations.

“Partnering with schools from around the world provides the students unique opportunities to consider perspectives to which they might not otherwise be exposed,” Dr. James Curran, interim dean of the College of Hospitality & Tourism Leadership, said. “I am sure the students enjoyed speculating what the future might bring to the hotel business, but they also learned that people from other parts of the world might have different ideas of what that future might look like. That is a valuable lesson.”

Dr. Berezina said the idea to team up with Institut Paul Bocuse originated with Dr. Cihan Cobanoglu, director of USF Sarasota-Manatee’s M3 Center for Hospitality Technology & Innovation. Dr. Cobanoglu said he teaches a couple of weeks a year at Paul Bocuse, one of Europe’s premier culinary and hospitality management schools.

“Students usually do not like group projects. Everybody has different schedules. But these students loved working with each other,” he said. “I was very satisfied by the process and how they got together, the whole thing.”

The hospitality industry is still evaluating just how much technology to integrate into its operations. Dr. Cobanoglu expects cost-cutting ideas to grab the most support, such as sensors that adjust heating and air conditioning levels after guests leave. Other safe bets include technologies that interface with smart phones because they offer consumers more control over their stay.

However, he’s not so sure about some newer trends pushing the technology envelope, namely robotic butlers, concierges and desk clerks. This is showing up in a sprinkling of places. Among them, Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, Calif., last year introduced a wheeled robotic butler that whisks food and beverages to guests’ rooms. It interfaces with elevator controls and can trigger a phone call to guests upon its arrival.

Additionally, a robot-themed lodging dubbed the Henn-na Hotel opened a couple of months ago in Japan’s southern Nagasaki Prefecture. All of the check-in staff, porters, cloakroom personnel and concierges have been replaced by robots. A team of staff hovers in the background to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Dr. Cobanoglu remains doubtful the idea will generate wide support across the industry. Ultimately, “People still prefer quality customer service” from a person, he said.