There’s no question technology is reinventing the hospitality industry. Online hotel booking is now the norm, and check-in via smartphone is becoming more prevalent. But the notion of “hospitality” evokes a more personal touch.
Marriott International’s Aloft Hotels is one of many brands faced with striking a balance between the competitive edge that technology enables, and the human element that brings warmth and delight to a travel experience. The brand, which has experimented with robot butlers and voice-activated guest rooms and was the first brand to introduce keyless check-in, is one of the most technologically advanced options on the market. Yet, with each location centered around a lively lobby bar (home to its popular live music program) and loft-like common spaces designed to encourage mingling, it’s clear the brand values social interaction.
That philosophy guided Aloft’s reinvention of its on-site food offering, Re:fuel, a project developed with the brand’s innovation partner, Human Innovation. It gives the same sense of interactive charm that pervades the hotel while infusing the experience with the convenience and speed that tech offers.
FastCo.Works spoke with Jason Nuell, vice president of brand operations, design, and development at Marriott, and Bridget Higgins, senior director of global brand management for Aloft Hotels, about how to evolve the guest experience and to creatively apply technology without losing that all-important human touch.
FastCo.Works: What’s different about Re:fuel compared with the grab-and-go options at other hotels?
Bridget Higgins: It’s a 24/7, self-service food market, which a lot of hotels offer, but what sets ours apart is that in addition to pre-made snacks and drinks, we serve fast, fresh, made-to-order meals that you don’t have to sit down to eat. It’s designed to go with you, whether you’re headed to an early-morning meeting or you need a quick snack before crashing in your room after a long flight.
Ordering is driven by a simple touch-screen kiosk that provides a seamless ordering experience for guests, including payment by card or a bill to their room. We’ve moved away from ordering through a staff member, but there’s still a lot of personality in the overall experience. After they’ve ordered, guests can see the progress of their order being prepared and are told who is making it. We put a lot of research into figuring out exactly what our guests wanted, and into creating technology that would make the experience fast and intuitive.
FCW: What did you discover that you didn’t already know?
Jason Nuell: With Human Innovation, we looked at guest behaviors today at breakfast as well as cultural food trends from around the world. We found that a lot of guests didn’t really want what most hotels are offering, the traditional hotel breakfast. People have really busy travel schedules. A lot of them are eating meals in the back of an Uber. So, they were going elsewhere, to places like Starbucks or local coffee shops, where they could get quick, easy, fast food. But health and freshness were also really important, and it wasn’t easy for them to find options that would check all those boxes.
That told us two things—we could use technology to improve the speed of the ordering and payment process, and we needed to get creative with our breakfast offering and how we deliver it, to strike that balance between fresh and healthy, fast and portable.
FCW: How do you meet all those criteria? Sounds challenging.
JN: We found that people would rather have more than a granola bar or a banana in the morning when they’re traveling. So, in addition to the healthy snacks we’ve always offered, we came up with a flexible concept we call “breakfast pots.” They’re portable containers filled with hot breakfast foods like eggs, bacon, and potato gems, or quinoa and avocado. It’s the kind of stuff you might find at a sit-down restaurant, except they’re fast to prepare and super easy to eat on the go.
FCW: With technology guiding the ordering process, how do you bring the human element to the experience?
JN: While guests don’t necessarily have direct interaction with the kitchen staff, we make sure guests are very much aware there is a real human back there making their food for them.
We display unique avatars for our crew members on each pot, along with a time stamp saying when the food was cooked to order. Each staff member has their own avatar, chosen from a library we’ve created, so when the guest gets their pot, they can “see” who has hand-made it. It adds personality to the experience, and it’s a fun way for staff to put their own stamp on the food they make.
FCW: Beyond Re:fuel, how do you integrate technology throughout the hotel while creating a place where people feel at home?
BH: Our goal is always to push the envelope around how technology can enhance hospitality, but never in a way where tech replaces humans. The intent is to create easier, more seamless experiences for guests, and sometimes that means blending technology with human expertise. Aloft will never be the hotel brand that has no associates. We know our guests are social–they love to engage with the staff and the bartenders at the W XYZ bar.
Technology can only help enhance those experiences, if done well. For instance, our Chat Botlr is a chatbot that guests can text questions and requests to whenever they want. If an associate is needed, they can attend to the request in a more efficient and attentive way. We want to give our experts the time to be experts. The technology is there to smooth out the process for everyone involved, and at the same time, make the guests feel taken care of.
This article was created with and commissioned by Aloft Hotels.