Travel brands should be more sustainable, responsible, and inclusive because it’s the right thing to do. But they can also improve the bottom line by taking concrete steps powered by smart building solutions that solve for all these challenges at once.
Walk into the Yotel in New York City, and you’ll find a robot waiting to store your luggage. At Wynn Hotel & Resort in Las Vegas, you can control the room curtains and lights with a voice command. Hilton has added keyless check-in, that lets guests use a mobile app to unlock and access their rooms. These examples of how tech can improve the consumer experience, however, only scratch the surface of the true potential of digital smarts in the travel industry.
By leveraging the combined power of data and different technologies such as the internet of things, cloud computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, smart buildings can now deliver more than a great experience for guests. They can help reduce energy consumption, increase savings, and enable travel brands to be more inclusive. Implementing smart building technologies can transform how physical spaces function, and how consumers interact with these spaces.
“At the end of the day, a building is a building is a building,” said David Williams, innovation architect at Microsoft. “What differs are the priorities of businesses occupying these buildings. For example, the number one priority for a museum is to preserve the quality of its exhibits. Their second priority is to ensure that they are managing the flow of visitors in a way that doesn’t cause choke points. Hotels, on the other hand, prioritize their guests’ comfort.” With smart building solutions, a company’s priorities can be achieved without increasing its carbon footprint or being prohibitively expensive.
Making Travel More Sustainable
Microsoft was able to make building maintenance more efficient and reduce energy consumption for its offices in the Seattle area. Williams predicts that businesses should be able to see returns after 18 months of implementing smart building solutions.
Microsoft used internet of things to connect all the devices that operated in their office buildings such as the air conditioning and access panels. Once that was done, data about usage, failure, and faults from the devices were constantly uploaded into cloud storage. As a result, maintenance teams were able to analyze the data and diagnose a problem (and sometimes even fix it) remotely. The data also revealed patterns of failure and helped maintenance teams proactively prevent those. Data from various sensors and access panels was used to automatically regulate airflow and lights.
After implementing smart building technology, Microsoft is achieving over 25% in energy savings per year in its offices in the Redmond Campus in the Seattle area. “While preventing unnecessary use of electricity helps to preserve energy, another way is to prevent minor faults from becoming large failures because that’s when machines consume more energy,” Williams said. And with one-tenth of the world’s carbon emissions coming from the travel and tourism industry, buildings —including museums, hotels, and other points of interest — have to figure out ways to be more sustainable.
“Five years ago, the expense of using smart building solutions would be prohibitive, but that is no longer the case,” Williams added. Simple sensors can be used to determine whether a room is in use or not and then switch off electrical systems when a space isn’t in use, for example. “You would be shocked to see some of the energy [waste] that happens in buildings today,” Williams said. “In some spaces, a heating system is pumping air at a higher temperature and a cooling system is pumping air at a lower temperature simultaneously to maintain a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead, the systems should be calibrating against the outside temperature and either only heating or cooling by the difference in temperature.”
“It’s only after someone looks into the data that he or she can identify the [waste] and then work to reduce it,” Williams said. “Every modern building has a building management system, and we collect the data from those systems and look at it as a whole. It’s like having a digital twin of the building.” Once Microsoft has that mirror image, analysts make recommendations on how to use the data responsibly while meeting the company’s commercial goals.
Technology Enabling Accessibility and Inclusivity
Apart from being responsible about their carbon footprint, travel brands must also become more conscious about being inclusive. Airlines have already taken a great first step in June 2019 by committing to improve travel for passengers with disabilities in a resolution passed at The International Air Transport Association’s annual meeting.
There are 1 billion people in the world who experience some kind of disability, and “there’s more and more technology that can integrate with smartphones [to make spaces] more inclusive,” said Yasmine Gray, founder of Getaboutable.com, a company often described as the TripAdvisor for people with accessibility needs.
“One great example is how people can use voice to interact with machines to gain access and find information,” Williams said. “These things are easy to incorporate into the software. Microsoft has a mandate to make sure that all our products have accessibility features built into them.” For those who struggle with voice commands, devices equipped with biometrics and a camera can understand commands given by the means of a physical movement like a wave or head tilt.
Of course, businesses should be inclusive because it’s the right thing to do. But becoming more inclusive and accessible also presents a large untapped potential for travel brands. The discretionary income of working-age people with disabilities is about $21 billion in the U.S., according to 2018 research from American Institutes for Research. “People with disabilities have money to spend, and once they find a place that caters to their needs, they are extremely loyal,” Gray said. This means that they have a high lifetime value, and brands investing in these technologies are therefore bound to see a direct impact on their top line as well.
Enhancing the Guest Experience — and Delivering Savings
Reducing waste, driving energy savings, and improving accessibility are three key advantages that building operators can gain from smart building technology. Few additional “wins” are the ability to be proactive and the improvements to guest experience that Microsoft can facilitate. Take the example of a museum: In order to proactively preserve exhibits and save restoration costs, sensors can be put inside display and storage cases, which will let the building management know if the air quality has changed in a way that could damage the items. For improved guest experiences at hotels: With connected devices and a centralized database, the staff at the hotel can be kept informed in advance about which rooms have something malfunctioning (i.e. TV, in-room, door battery, temperature gauge, etc) so that they can proactively avoid checking guests into those rooms.
With smart technology at every touchpoint comes the ability for hotels, museums, and airports to collect data around not just the devices but also to learn what visitors are doing in these spaces. Travel brands can then use this data to further personalize and improve customer experiences, moving from a reactive position to a proactive one.
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