Encountering the infuriating, overwhelming and unwanted smart tech in my hotel room
At my boutique hotel high in the Swiss Alps, I returned from dinner, jet lagged and a tad tipsy, to discover that a television set inside a bathroom mirror had been turned on during turndown service. I pressed all of the buttons on the wall panel and then tried the switches on a control box next to the bed. Nothing.
Since I could not locate anything resembling a telephone in the room (remember, I was tipsy), I hoofed it to the lobby and returned with a receptionist to power down my “smart mirror.” Twenty minutes later, already in my pajamas, I encountered a new challenge: No switch I turned, no knob I twisted would kill the bathroom lights. I closed the door, affixed a face mask over my eyes and made do.
These days, it’s all about making do when I’m greeted by the glut of smart technology in hotel rooms. Voice-activated lights. Chatbot concierges. QR codes on television sets. Mobile browser or app check-ins. Texting the valet for my car. Don’t even get me started with motorized drapes — attempting to view the ocean in Miami was as difficult as tackling William Faulkner. It’s all infuriating. And overwhelming.
A recent study from the industry magazine Hospitality Technology and the University of Nevada’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality in Las Vegas surveyed 100 hotel operators and noted that adoption across the industry of self-service features such as check-in kiosks and mobile room keys is booming.
Proponents say the guest benefits behind these investments are numerous, from personalizing the hotel experience and anticipating guest needs to reducing their “friction” points and freeing up staff.
Neha Jaitpal, the global general manager for Honeywell’s Building Technologies sector, oversees “intuitive” solutions for more than 2 million hotel rooms worldwide, working for companies such as Accor and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. “Imagine arriving at your hotel room after a long day of travel, and it’s already adjusted to your preferred settings — from the temperature, lighting and even the position of the drapes,” she said. “Through automation, guest rooms can be personalized without the need for human interaction.”
“Smart hotel rooms are about empowerment,” said Robert Firpo-Cappiello, Hospitality Technology’s editor-in-chief. “Contactless interactions were a survival pivot for hotels during the pandemic. People are used to them now. There is no going back.”
Yes, some (young) travelers I’ve talked to love it.
“At the Wynn Hotel, I enjoyed having Alexa close the blinds, turn off the lights and play music,” said Eddie Burns, 25, a drummer and touring musician. “I arrived super late and it was great to navigate everything from bed.”
Power in the Palm of Your Hand?
One “guest technology provider” is pushing guests to rely more heavily on their ubiquitous cellphones.
Sonifi Solutions Inc., which works with global brands such as Hyatt and Marriott, generates unique QR codes for guests on their in-room television — to activate, you scan with your phone camera, as you would a web-based restaurant menu, which takes you to an app or website. Then with their phones, guests control their TVs and lighting, connect with the concierge (by chat), order in-room dining or make a spa appointment. The “personalization” piece of the platform extends to the television, which, based on guest behavior and information gleaned from a loyalty program, can be set to a yoga class for a fitness enthusiast or ESPN for a football fan.
“By streamlining mobile capabilities and letting phones be the place of fulfillment, it saves guests time,” said Kara Heermans, a Sonifi senior vice president.
Juliana Colangelo, 33, a vice president at the wine and spirits marketing firm Colangelo & Partners, is a fan. (Note her age.)
“Smart TV QR codes get me what I need on my phone, from hotel gym classes to valet parking,” she said, adding that she wishes that rooms had QR codes to leave staff tips. “I never carry cash anymore.”
A System That Wastes ‘Mental Energy’
But please, can we go back? These “guest enhancements,” touted as in-demand by hoteliers and the tech companies that make them, are not in demand by me. They have been, in fact, obstacles — obstacles between me and sleep, me and the view that I had paid for, and me and firm pillows (in Miami, that request was not an option on the tablet, and no human answered the phone in housekeeping). What was once straightforward is now idiotically complicated.
“I used to walk into a hotel room and relax. Now it is a job to figure out how to use the lights and switch off the television, which, of course, is set to the hotel’s promotional station,” said Jill Weinberg, 67, a regional director with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and like me, a frustrated hotel guest. “Here is an entirely new system to waste mental energy upon every single time I travel.”
Another quibble with “personalized” hotel rooms? They are impersonal. “Frictionless” functionality does not engender character or soul; people do. I like being welcomed by the front desk, to discuss restaurant ideas with the concierge and chitchat with the other staff, who more often than not have interesting local tips. I could care less if a room “knows” that I like Pilates and the thermostat set to a nippy 69 degrees. And I’m not downloading an app just to request towels. Can’t I just ask housekeeping?
Other travelers want to, too.
Stephanie Fisher, an adviser with the luxury travel agency Local Foreigner, said many of her clients “request hotels with personalized service that prioritize guest relationships.”
“The best memories come from connecting with people, not devices,” she added.
Thankfully for me and many other guests, not all hotels are embracing technology as the magic bullet of the future. Some, such as the Graduate Hotels, a chain of boutique hotels in college towns like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Nashville, Tennessee, are — aside from Wi-Fi and some smart TVs — intentionally analog.
“We are about nostalgia, the notion of transporting guests to a simpler time, so we never bought into remote anything,” said Ben Weprin, founder of the Graduate Hotels. “We want guests to immerse themselves in the college community and then come back to their rooms to decompress. Our motto is: Out of the metaverse and into the universe.”
In Europe, the only technology offered in the rooms of the Rocco Forte Hotels is high-speed internet. That’s not to say technology is pooh-poohed: The door attendants use an earpiece to communicate a guest’s name to reception so they receive a personal greeting as they check in, and back-end systems track preferences so the wait staff might “remember” a guest’s morning specialty coffee order. Cutting-edge, it is not. That is the point.
And that’s fine by me. While the idea of human-centric lighting to match my circadian rhythm is a noble one, please, just give me a light switch. Perhaps a good, old-fashioned landline with a human at the other end, too. I’ll be more than fine. I’ll be a happier, more relaxed guest.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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