The era of the smart home is upon us. But how far are we from the era of the smart hotel?

Technology companies and hotel brands alike are working to crack the various problems that come with bringing innovations like voice control into the hospitality environment at scale.

There are many challenges, like meeting the needs of hotel owners and grappling with the limitations of consumer technology, that are still being worked out. Guest privacy, as well, looms large as an uncertain aspect of this technology revolution.

At Hilton Worldwide, experimentation is an ongoing focus as more smart guest rooms are deployed. There’s no one-size-fits-all technology solution yet, but the company is making progress on improvements for both the guest experience and behind-the-scenes hotel operations.

“The answer is finding the sweet spot for how can we take the right pieces from the consumer technology experience, versus just saying, ‘Hey, everybody has got a smart speaker at home, so let’s plop one in a hotel room and there’s our solution for voice,'” said Josh Weiss, Hilton’s vice president of brand and guest technology. “That’s not how it works.”

Hilton plans to tie room controls and entertainment to its Hilton Honors app, but the technology is still a work in progress. The company also hasn’t decided which exact vendors and types of technologies will be used when it does determine a more standard guest room technology concept.

Skift spoke to Weiss about Hilton’s ongoing smart room project, the challenge of convincing hotel owners to buy in to new technology, and how much guest room entertainment can be improved.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Skift: Besides the typical consumer-facing aspect of smart technology, there’s a big opportunity for hotels to save money and provide a better experience by tracking guest room data, right?

Josh Weiss: There are lots of examples around data. Consumers have a degree of opt-in. In hospitality, we take on an additional burden of making sure that our guests are safe and secure. We have a high bar for privacy, but when we do it right and do it in a way that protects privacy, [it works]. There are kinds of data we can get, even in things like a room not reaching a guest’s desired set point temperature. There’s a point at which that generates a complaint.

Energy sensing is a big one, and we see that going into things like water. A dripping toilet is not only a waste of water, but it’s also a potential noise complaint from a guest if the toilet wakes you up in the middle of the night. That’s something to which sensors are really well acclimated. There’s a million other use cases. But to your point, the data story is a huge piece of this.

Skift: Your team is planning to offer voice and other things primarily through the Hilton Honors app.

Weiss: We haven’t got that piece turned on just yet, but it’s coming soon. We’ve done a whole bunch of design work in usability feedback for it and I would say the mobile-first approach has had a tremendous amount of success with [things like a digital room key] or our expansion in digital content. Guest satisfaction with [those things] is just tremendous. From a guest standpoint, soon they’ll be able to keep that mobile device front and center and control their room once they’re in it.

How can we build something that gives value to owners and helps them save energy, where are the other places we can add really special functionality like mobile to differentiate it and make the Hilton experience better? That’s where we’re going to go. But from the guest standpoint obviously, mobile is a huge center point of what that experience is going to be.

Skift: It’s obvious, but most hotel TVs don’t do what guests actually want, which is to let them stream on the big screen. It’s a colossal missed opportunity. How big a focus are you placing on the guest room entertainment situation?

Weiss: It’s big. We know an increasing number of our guests are streaming their own media. And we’ve all watched a 4K show on our tiny little iPhones and said there’s gotta be a better way to do this. Well of course there is, like letting them have access to their content on the guest room TV. But what we found were solutions in the market that allowed this were really clunky.

At home I’m willing to buy myself an Apple TV or another device, take a couple minutes to set it up, and then gather the family around to teach them all how to use it. But on the road, guests are just totally unwilling, and completely understandably so, to spend time learning new things or fumbling around or doing pairing codes or scanning QR codes or whatever else.

So our challenge is not just my entertainment on a bigger screen, with better resolution, controllable by my apps, but really creating a seamless pairing process so that if I choose to use that feature, I’m not fumbling around to launch it.

Our objective is to allow any type of on-demand content, whether it’s audio from partners like Spotify and others, or all of the major video streaming media providers, of course. But even if it’s still in theaters type movie content, kind of like the hotel video on demand of old … We believe there’s a place for that type of thing for some guests.

Skift: Thinking on the voice control aspect, I remember a few years ago when hotels were going wild on the potential of video conferencing solutions in the guest room. It seems like the same concerns have cropped up again with this generation of technology.

Weiss: The challenge in the hotel room, going back to my point about security and privacy, is that it has to reset and totally [change preferences for each new guest]. And we always want to err on the side of the most privacy.

Many people pitched various well-intentioned products years ago that were video conferencing-oriented, but the concept of a camera in a room, even a shielded camera that a guest can turn on and off, is very [upsetting to guests]. Voice is similar: Is it listening to me? I don’t want it to. We’re really sensitive to deploying voice in a way that won’t even be perceived as eavesdropping on them in any way.

There are some solutions that we currently have, which is when I yell out that watch word and I ask it some random question, [it responds]. That’s not how we want it to work in a hotel environment. We want to make sure that there is a much tighter integration [with hotel systems] and much more [privacy for guests].

There’s definitely a space for voice in a really thoughtful and respectful way. And by the way, that’s also thoughtful and respectful for our owners and operators.

Skift: What’s often lost in the conversation about hotel technology is that hotel owners end up paying for these technology improvements to be installed. They don’t just magically appear in hotels. What’s the conversation like when you talk to owners about pricey upgrades?

Weiss: There’s a lot of different views out there. Some owners are very willing to invest in that and learn from it and things like that. Others, much more toward the skeptical end of the spectrum, really need to understand the value that this offers. Tangible, intangible, whatever, but value before [they] agree to pay incrementally for it.

And generally we take an approach where we really want to be able to measure and articulate return on investment for them. And to be able to tell an owner, here’s the intangible value you’re going to get, here’s what guests are telling us they like about it, here’s what we see from our corporate accounts, here’s why we feel that they’re more likely to stay more often, or engage with the Honors Program more completely. Or whatever the metric is, there’s all of that qualitative. But then there’s quantitative too, which is we want to be able to show owners through a combination of energy savings, guest experience improvement, occupancy, and things like that that there is a tangible payback, in maybe roughly two years, that an owner should be able to realize their tangible return on this investment.

Skift: What’s your timetable for getting more of this technology installed in Hilton properties?

Weiss: I think 2018 is going to be a year of pretty rapid growth, obviously we’re still deploying a steady deployment trajectory in the middle, latter part of the year. In 2019 it will really start to accelerate. Much like with digital key, our trajectory has really accelerated and eventually the goal is to be everywhere. So, that’s our approach.

That’s a pretty different proposition [in other countries] when you’re talking not only different infrastructure, different types of parameters. When you’re talking about 103, soon to be 105 countries, that we operate in and more to come, you start to scale in U.S. and then beyond that. Finishing up in the U.S., it looks like it’s going to vary a bit based on the market.

Skift: Finally, what do you think about 5G mobile technology and the role it could play in the hospitality industry?

Weiss: I can’t wait. When you actually look at the kind of speeds that they’re talking about, it’s unbelievable. And it’s definitely going to be a factor, you know. I think we’d all love to see the day where any sort of building environment can say, ‘Well, that’s it, I’m done providing Wi-Fi and I can get rid of my home Wi-Fi too,’ because everything is 5G and [devices are] just talking right outside to the tower and AT&T is handling it for me or Verizon is handling it for me. But I think we’re a ways away from that.

What it’s going to do, though, is continuously drive up guest expectations for the types, range, and quality of content they can get anywhere. We need to be able to deliver to that. Now again, whether we’re going to have a 5G signal going right to the TV and eliminate the Wi-Fi, or cable, is a piece of the picture. I think we’re a ways off from that. But I really do think that 5G is going to totally change so many aspects of not just mobility, but also connected devices.

Photo Credit: Josh Weiss, Hilton Worldwide's vice president of brand and guest technology, is pictured. Hilton plans on rolling out more smart guestrooms over the next few years. Hilton Worldwide