By Charles Moreira
Smart hotel guest room control systems are already a mature technology adopted especially in five-star hotels worldwide and with the cost of installing such systems having dropped, with a much wider choice of manufactures to choose from, such systems are already being adopted by four-star and lower-star hotels, according to Mr. Wang Swee Lee (pic), an independent consultant and technology advisor in the hospitality, healthcare and senior citizen home industries.
Enterprise IT News caught up with Wang, who has over 42 years of experience in telecommunications, information technology, multimedia building intelligence, smart control technology and artificial intelligence at a Coffee Bean Cafe in Subang Jaya to find out more about smart contactless technology in the hospitality industry.
“With a more tech-savvy younger generation both in senior hotel managements and guests, lower cost of implementation, coupled with guest aversion towards having to touch in-room controls such as switches, panels, hotel telephone handsets, TV remote controls and so forth due to COVID-19, I foresee greater overall adoption of smart contactless guest-room control apps on guests own smartphones and tablet devices, as well as voice-control of lighting, temperature, the opening and closing of curtains and even hands-free voice calls through in-room voice endpoints”, said Wang.
Whilst smart room control systems don’t necessarily save hotels on manpower, however hotels using them can gain a competitive advantage over those which don’t, within the same price and star rating.
Building automation began with the electric thermostat used to monitor and control indoor temperatures, and such thermostats can be found on the walls of hotel rooms.
Whilst the first thermostat is said to have been a mercury thermostat invented around 1620 by a Dutchman, Cornelius Drebbel to regulate the temperature in an egg incubator, however the electric thermostat was invented in 1880 by Warren Johnson, a Professor from Wisconsin who wanted a device to control the room temperature inside buildings.
Together with a group of Milwaukee investors, Johnson went on to incorporate the Johnson Electric Service company in Cork, Ireland, now known as Johnson Controls which now produces fire, HVAC (heat, ventilation and air-conditioning), and security equipment for buildings.
Then in 1883, Albert Butz patented the first temperature regulator for ovens and coal furnaces, which was the first modern automatic temperature control systems.
In 1906, a young engineer named Mark Honeywell purchased Butz’s patent and developed the first programmable thermostat, which incorporated a clock that allowed for the pre-setting of the temperature for the following morning. Thermostats with an electric clock appeared in 1934, followed in 1950 by dial thermostats which are still used today.
“In the old days, hotel rooms had thermostats on their walls, the most popular brands being Johnson Controls and Honeywell. However, these were part of the building automation system, rather than being specifically focused on guest-room control”, said Wang.
Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, INNCOM introduced a full range of guest-room control accessories such as thermostats, followed by desktop panels which can control the temperature and lighting in rooms and this is where room control technologies, commonly called guest-room management systems (GRMS) began.
With all these technologies developed, together with computerisation, Internet-of-Things (IoT) and others led to all these being renamed as smart room control systems, where there is a controller in the room which controls all the accessories and electrical systems.
Most important is temperature control for guests’ comfort, as well as lighting control and control of the opening and closing of the curtains (or drapes in North America), and with computerisation and IoT, these can also control mood lighting, such as sleep mode, reading mode, relax mode, romantic mode and so forth. With mood lighting, only certain lights are turned on to create the desired atmosphere and this has become increasingly popular.
“However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, guest behaviour has changed drastically, with guests not wanting to touch many items in the room – or what we call high-touch areas, such as the TV remote control, electrical switches and the hotel telephone handset which have been touched by many others, which creates demand for contactless technology as an evolution of smart room control systems”, said Wang.
“Since everything is already computerised and software-driven, we basically just need to create applications for guests’ mobile devices which they can download or is pushed to their phone for them to install and use to control their room lighting, temperature, curtains, music or TV.
“However, with the technology moving so fast, you may have heard about the contactless digital journey where everything can be controlled by the guest’s mobile device from the moment the guest books the room till when he or she enters the room,” Wang added.
The contactless digital journey begins when the guest books a room and the system either pushes a QR code or an app to the guests mobile device, and when the guest drives into the hotel’s car park, with certain technology, he or she can be directed to an empty parking bay, and if the guest has also paid for the room in advance, he or she can use the app to take the lift up to the floor where the room is located and also use the app to unlock the door, thus eliminating the use of key cards.
When in the room, the guest can use the app to control the lighting, temperature, curtains through their phone, as well as the television and music if these facilities are also integrated into the control system.
Basically, the touch panels on the wall are replicated in soft-form and the same layout in the mobile app.
“In the future I believe that the app can be used to control many other things as well but these will be evolving very fast”, said Wang.
Nowadays, with smart control, the status of the door lock can also be sent to the centralised dashboard so the front desk staff can see the activity of the door lock, for example, whether it was opened by the guest based upon the identification on their mobile app or key-card, by the maid, engineering staff, if it was forced open, the door was left ajar, the battery of the lock is low and so forth.
These are some of the interesting new features, and it is the same with the room control system, where the centralised room control terminal (dashboard) can view all activities in the room and also serves as a maintenance terminal.
These basically are the types of control technologies applied today, but from a business perspective, the past, only high-end hotels – i.e. five-star and above used such smart control systems since they were very expensive, costing between US$5,000 and US$8,000 per room, which was too much for smaller hotels to afford.
“However, according to global statistics, five-star hotels only comprise 20% of the total market, whilst hotels below five-star comprise the remaining 80% are a major part of the market which smart room control systems can penetrate”, said Wang.
Unlike previously where there were a handful of manufacturers of smart room control systems from the U.S. and Europe.
However today, there are many more manufactures in China and Eastern Europe which produce smart room control equipment and systems which perform equally well, yet cost as little as US$1,000 per room for five-star hotels and around US$500 per room for three-star hotels. Also, nowadays, there are lots of software products from China and India.
So, in the near future, not only will five-star hotels be able to have smart room control systems, but also four-star hotels and lower, except for one-star hotels, most of which don’t use such facilities.
THE COVID-19 FACTOR
Besides the cost perspective above, the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years has made guests reluctant to touch things in hotels, which has made contactless smart room controls even more popular, and hotel owners more willing to invest in these technologies, since, their cost is already lower and they attract customers to their hotels. Also, the younger generation of guests are tech-savvy and use mobile phones or mobile devices all the time.
Hotels can also place a QR code on a table, which guests scan with their mobile phone to pull up the soft-copy menu on their phone, order their meal through their phone and pay for it as well, without having to touch the physical menu.
“So the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with lower system costs and younger tech-savvy guests will further encourage hotel owners to implement contactless, smart room control systems. This not only creates new guest experiences, a wow-factor but also creates guest loyalty”, said Wang.
However, guests who don’t know how to use smartphone apps or don’t like to use them still have the option to use the traditional physical switches and controls in their room.
Complementing smart room control systems and smartphone apps, Wang foresees the possibility of voice control in hotel rooms.
Here, a voice endpoint, similar to an Amazon Alexa or Echo installed in homes, will be installed in rooms and guests can speak commands to, such as “open the curtains” or “turn on the bedside light” for the system to perform these tasks.
Also, such voice endpoints can replace the hotel telephone set in rooms, so instead of having to hold a handset to talk, guests can tell the voice point to call reception, room service, order a meal, call for help in case of emergencies or to place an outside call, even though most guests these days would use their mobile phone to make calls.
However, a drawback of voice activation, could be if the system cannot understand a guest’s voice, such as when he or she has a cold, so does not carry out the guest’s instructions, which could lead to complaints.
QUITE LOW BUT EXPECTED TO GROW
“I estimate that it’s around 10% worldwide but with the COVID-19 pandemic on a downtrend and once economies around the world or the travel and tourism industry recovers, I expect many more hotels will want to implement these technologies”, said Wang.
“Before the pandemic, hotels used smart contactless technology to differentiate themselves by providing guests with a new experience and create a wow factor, but with this new normal situation, this technology will become a norm”, he added.
WHERE IT’S MOST USED
Hotels in the United States are the fastest in adopting such smart room control systems, followed by Europe and then Asia, though some of the posher hotels in Asia already use such systems.
“Some hotels in China already use such technologies and Alibaba’s ‘Hotel of the Future, is one I know very well”, said Wang.
Opened in Hangzhou, China in 2019, the 290-room, high-tech, boutique FlyZoo Hotel is the first of its kind which has dispensed with traditional check-in and key cards, and instead lets guests manage they reservations and make payments entirely from a mobile app, sign in using self-service kiosks, and enter their rooms using facial-recognition technology. Also, its run almost entirely by robots which serve food and fetch toiletries and other sundries as needed.
Japan is another country which adopts advanced technologies very fast, whilst hotels in China tend to look towards the west to attract customers, so want to create a wow factor to attract customers and since their have money, they will invest in these technologies.
In Malaysia, international brand-name hotels, including franchises have already standardised on certain technologies, so most of them have to follow suit.
“From my experience, many lower-end hotels in China have adopted basic smart room control systems very well, but without contactless technology,” said Wang. Many of these hotels have fewer than 100 rooms and a two-star rating.
“I’ve also seen many three-star hotels in China with smart room systems used to control lights, temperature and mood, with curtain control higher end hotels”, he added.
However, thanks to a large number of smart room control system manufacturers in China and their very affordable prices, at the same time, many lower-end hotels there have adopted contactless smart room control systems using an open interface provided by WeChat, which itself is available free of charge especially on Android devices.
“I believe that in the future, all items in hotel rooms will be interconnected through a network”, said Wang.
No one size fits all in technology adoption due to different cultures in different part of the world.
Whilst globally as a whole, lots of technologies are initiated in the west, with the U.S. being an early adopter, followed by Asians who are very quick to learn and want to implement the latest technologies, however European adoption of technology is very much simpler, as they don’t like to use complicated technologies.
“When I was dealing in hotel telephones, they had all kinds of buttons, a message waiting light and other indicators, but in Europe, its just a simple telephone, so the culture is different,” said Wang.
“Asians like the follow the best, so we want to have everything that’s available, and this is so across all Asian countries.
“From my experience in China they build lots of posh hotels with a similar look as western hotels. Not only that but when their owners want to build a hotel, they will identify a very good hotel in Dubai or Europe and bring their whole team of people from the designer, engineer and even to housekeeper to stay at that hotel for a month to study how the hotel is designed structurally, its operations, how technologies are implemented and so forth and follow when they return to China,” Wang added.
ABOUT WANG SWEE LEE
Wang, holds a BSc degree (1st Class Honours) in Computer and Control System from the U.K., as well as professional accreditations and memberships such as C.Eng, FIMA, C.Eng, MinstMC, MMIM, MMNCC.
In his long career, Wang served as Chief Executive Officer at Siemens Malaysia Private Communication Division, a member of Siemens AG, Germany Private Communication Asia-Pacific regional management board, as Senior Vice-President with Siemens China where he brought Siemens hospitality communication solution to No.1 in the China market, led a team to develop and implement the command-and-control centre application for the 2008 Olympic games in Qingdao and installed professional dispatching systems at most major airlines in China.
After he retired from Siemens, Wang joined Cotell Intelligent Technology (Shenzhen) Co. Ltd., in China, where he spearheaded the development of guest centric hospitality communication terminals, connectivity devices, electrical faceplates, integrated smart guest-room controls, robotic, artificial Intelligence and software applications. His guest-room telephone design had created a breakthrough in the global market and his mission was to provide a series of guest-friendly communication devices, applications and solutions to the global hospitality market community, which can enhance their organisations’ performance and improve guest loyalty. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wang turned his attention on new normal contactless smart technologies for the hospitality, healthcare and senior citizen home sectors. He also provides consultancy and advises on the new technology to suit the latest market development.