As a senior vice president at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Chris Holdren is tasked with the company’s digital and mobile initiatives. A Starwood employee since 2001, he previously worked at the Walt Disney Company. Starwood–which owns brands like W and Sheraton–recently posted rising profits. One key to its success? Being at the forefront of technological innovation in hotels. This month, the company began a massive undertaking: documenting the features of all its rooms across 1,200 properties. Fast Company caught up with Holdren to learn more.
FAST COMPANY: Tell me about your great room survey.
CHRIS HOLDREN: It’s important we understand everything about the rooms for our guests, in order to better meet their needs.
We’re having our associates [employees] walk each and every room across our 1,200 hotels and gather key attributes about each room, using a custom-built app. One of our general managers called me to tell me she’d personally done 70 rooms in just a few hours.
What are the features you’re documenting?
Things like the type of fridge, the type of workspace in the room, whether the room has one or two beds, the type of entertainment system, whether it’s far from the elevator, whether it’s near the ice machine, whether it’s on a high floor or low floor, what type of view the room has, whether it has connecting doors.
Why tag rooms with “metadata” like this?
It helps us to better connect rooms with the preferences of our guests. Many of our hotels had some of this information as they ran their business, but for us to have this centrally and at this level of detail is critical for us in an age of personalization. We’ve had a great response, with a lot of our hotels downloading the apps. One of our associates came up to our mobile developer and gave him a hug. Before mobile, people would have to do this with pen and paper, then key it into a terminal.
Your iPad app is still fairly new. Why are you developing a Google Glass app already?
We see the trends, with mobile devices getting smaller and smaller. There will be many more wearable devices coming. We want to get ahead on that, put something on the market, and start learning about this space.
What are the latest developments toward the vision of keyless check-in?
Four years ago we launched a program at 14 of our Aloft hotels. We’d send you a custom membership card with an RFID chip in it, then on the day of your arrival we would send you a text message saying, “Welcome, you’re in room 303.” You could walk into the hotel, bypass the front desk, and use the card as your room key. This past year we realized the tech was at a place where you could just use an app on your phone. We’re piloting that technology at two hotels, one in Harlem and one in Cupertino, and we’re going to be bringing the tech globally to our Aloft and W hotels by 2015.
Why begin with such a small pilot?
We worked hard to look at every use case. We’ve learned a lot. For instance, in hotel rooms, the bathrooms are often near the front doors. If it’s a proximity-based unlock, you wouldn’t want someone to happen to use the phone in the bathroom, and for the door to come unlocked during the process. We solved that partially based on a unique motion to unlock the door–when it comes to the market, you’ll tap on the door lock to unlock it.
What other new tech are you trying out in hotels?
We’ve been experimenting with how to use “beacons” [Bluetooth sensors] to enhance your stay with us. One example: One of the most important things that happens in a hotel is your first check-in. Typically you go to the front desk and they say, “May I see your driver’s license?” But with the beacons, as you approach the front desk, the front desk associate would know who you are, and say, “Welcome back, David. We’re excited that you’re here.” So we’re just starting that, piloting it in a few locations.
What’s the future of the hotel, in the next five to 10 years?
Before I came to Starwood, I had only been to three countries outside the U.S. Now I’ve been to over 50 throughout the world. It’s really changed me as a person, and helped me grow. Travel is increasing. When I think of the hotel of the future, what I think about is–whether you’re in Idaho, or whether you’re in Beijing–lobbies filled with people from all over the world, as the middle class continues to rise. I get excited for what that means for us, and having that real melting pot occurring in our hotels. Rather than tech innovation, I get more excited just about the idea that more people from very different backgrounds are coming together, and what that means–the potential of that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.