Miracasting, geotagging and digital dining: Fast-evolving technology takes the travel industry into a brave new world.

By Abby Weingarten

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Hotels must stay ahead of the tech and design curve to be competitive in the fast-changing hospitality industry, says Austin-based R.P. Rama, vice president and CTO/CIO of JHM Hotels, Inc., who spoke at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s College of Hospitality and Technology Leadership recently.

Rama manages information technology infrastructure at his 40 hotels, a family business dating back to 1969, which today consists of more than 6,520 rooms in major metropolitan hubs throughout the United States, as well as a five-star luxury hotel in Surat, India. The company operates under leading franchise flags such as Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott and Starwood.

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Q What’s the biggest change in the hotel industry?

A “Everything’s going mobile, and soon, people are going to stop using laptops. They are making more last-minute decisions, like booking reservations. People used to take weeks to a month before booking a trip. This fast pace makes it difficult for hotels to

keep up.”

Q How are hotels reacting?

A“Hotels have to provide the bandwidth guests are used to having in their homes. That becomes a big challenge, and bandwidth management becomes an important part of hotel operations. It’s like trying to create a four-lane highway, and it’s expensive. You used to have pay-per-view movies in a hotel room. Now people have Netflix, so they’re not buying those movies; they’re streaming them on their mobile devices, and it’s up to hotels to provide them with the resources to do that quickly.”

Q Can you give us some examples of the latest hotel room technology?

A “Miracast is simply wireless technology that allows people to marry their mobile devices to a TV to browse their own content or media. It’s like a Bluetooth option that is compatible with Android, iOS, everything. It allows guests to see their mobile content on the hotel room TV, and it is currently in process.

“Geotagging is another one. Hotels will be in a position to promote businesses in the surrounding area through geotagging, so if their guests are passing by a bar or restaurant, they can send them promotions of free desserts, specials, etc.

“Guests will even be able to use mobile devices to open the locks to their hotel rooms. People will be able to select their own rooms like airline seats when they book reservations. Robots might be walking up and down the hallways, sending messages to housekeeping or room service. There will be self-service check-in and check-out kiosks, as well as radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology for electronically storing guests’ information.

“There is going to be a need for a lot more collaboration between customers and businesses going forward, from a security standpoint. Customers will have to be careful how they use their credit cards, and they will want to get away from using third-party websites to book reservations due to security issues.”

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Q What does it mean for a hotel’s profitability that consumers expect all this technology?

A “First it was free continental breakfast, then free hot breakfast, free Internet, free newspapers, free movies, free premium sports channels, full high-definition TV channels. All this comes at a cost. Utility costs go up—electric, water, gas—payroll expenses go up and now health care insurance costs are going up. How much can hotels give free? There is rate erosion due to competition, online travel sites discounting and commission rates. The cost of selling rooms is going up. Hotels compensate by going up on rates, coming up with creative cost controls or reductions in other areas of operation. The model of charging for more bandwidth is on the horizon.”

Q What about hotel dining?

A “Paper menus are going away, going digital and changing on the fly based on the available ingredients in the kitchen. The restaurant layout is changing toward a more communal model. In some hotels, there is an area with 12 to 16 chairs at a high table, like a formal dining room, but guests are sitting with strangers. It is communal-style, farm-to-table dining, which is what young people want. The chef brings out the orders and explains how the food is cooked. Because young travelers are becoming more health-conscious, they are increasing their vegetable consumption, so more ethnic foods like Thai and Chinese food are becoming popular. Faster, healthy foods like falafel are being incorporated into hotel restaurants.”

Q What’s new in hotel room and lobby design?

A “Hotel rooms are getting smaller and moving toward a module style. CitizenM is building a hotel in New York using this concept. The room is about the size of a king bed, and then there is an attached bathroom. Young people do not want to spend time in their rooms; they just want to go to their rooms to sleep, so all facilities for mingling are in the lobby. Lobbies are becoming larger and more lavish for this purpose. Young travelers want to know people from around the world and create friendships across borders. These people are traveling globally more than adults, and they’re backpacking, and they’re used to the hostel concept. It’s popular.”

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Q What about green technologies?

A “To reduce carbon footprints, hotels are going with solar power or carbon-absorbing concrete. They are promoting recycling and other environmentally friendly habits, such as not wanting their sheets or towels to be changed daily. To encourage this, hotels give out discounts, coupons or points. More and more hotels are going with low-voltage LED lighting in rooms and public areas to reduce energy consumption. Televisions are now LED, and there is less computer hardware, as software is hosted in the cloud. There is also less power consumption due to the virtualization of servers requiring less hardware and fewer  computers.”

Q Is hospitality a good profession for young people today?

A “Staffing is important right now because cost and payrolls are going up due to all of the new technologies. Many driven youth want to become doctors or lawyers because of the way our society honors those professions, and there is not enough prestige in choosing hospitality as a career. But tourism-travel is the second biggest industry in this country next to defense. Getting the recognition they deserve will change when leaders recognize the industry as a key contributor to state revenues.”

Q How is our hotel market different from other regions?

A “There are many arts and cultural [destinations], the beaches are serene, and it’s a wonderful place to vacation, so there should be no trouble attracting travelers. But hotels are at a disadvantage because they have to compete with the apartments, condos and timeshares in this market; many owners of these dwellings don’t pay their occupancy or sales taxes, and that creates a gap in revenue.”

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