Subscribe

California Wine Country luxury hotels go touchless amid coronavirus by deploying high tech

New times, new priorities

The pandemic has caused travelers to adjust their decision-making when choosing hotels, with safety and cleanliness being top concerns. Here are some of the preferences found in surveys conducted this year by mobile-solutions company Criton.

Contactless technology

80%: Would download a hotel app to allow check in, check out and access to all property information.

73%: Would use an app to open the guest-room door.

47%: Would be more likely to order room service if given the option to order via an app.

Safety measures

75%: Hotel should have clearly defined cleaning standards to combat COVID-19.

67%: Would stay in a hotel only if staff disinfects everything people might touch in a guest room.

42%: Expect the hotel to replace complimentary toiletries, whether used or not, between guests.

53%: Still prefer to eat in the hotel restaurant; 18% would choose room service.

Source: Criton

In an industry reliant on the human touch, it may seem counterintuitive for hotels to adopt contactless technology platforms. But if they want to stay in business, there’s little choice.

Before the coronavirus pandemic — and now for certain — hotels were partnering with mobile-solutions companies like OpenKey and Criton that offer keyless room entry, remote check-in, hotel-specific apps, and the ability to communicate with guests before, during and after their hotel stays.

The technology, while convenient, has become vital for hoteliers to keep and grow their customer base in a new world where less contact keeps everyone safer.

In studies Criton commissioned this year — one before the pandemic and another after — to gauge travelers’ interest in using an app to help manage their hotel experience, 80% of participants surveyed in July and August expressed interest, a 10% increase compared to February and March. More than 5,000 people participated in the first survey; and more than 2,500 in the second, according to Criton’s website.

Where service is ‘gr8’

Four Sisters Inns, which operates 16 boutique hotels in the state, including seven properties in the North Bay, announced this month it signed up with Whistle, a text-messaging platform for the hospitality industry that allows for real-time communication with guests, said Tamara Mims, president of Monterey-based Four Sisters Inns.

The company’s hotels in Sonoma County include Kenwood Inn & Spa, Gaige House + Ryokan, Inn at Sonoma and Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza. Four Sisters’ Napa properties include Maison Fleurie, Lavender and Milliken Creek Inn.

Mims said the Four Sisters team had been looking at Whistle pre-COVID-19 because its texting platform simplifies company processes and interactions with guests. Plus, she tried it herself while staying at a competitor’s hotel.

“It’s just so quick, you feel like you have this personal concierge waiting to respond to any questions,” Mims said. “When COVID happened and we shut down, we all sat down and looked at every single element of the entire guest stay and operations. … We said now is the time to do this.”

With the Whistle technology, hotel management can quickly see the interactions and operations taking place across all of its properties. Employees, however, can only view activity at the hotel where they work.

Whistle offers hotels a free one-month trial, and businesses can sign up on a month-to-month basis, Mims said. Four Sisters Inns pays roughly $200 a month per property, she said.

“I think we all intuitively knew that (Whistle) was going to be beneficial for everyone, but for me, I didn't realize what a difference it really can make,” Mims said. Feedback from staff has been positive, as have been guest reviews on travel websites, she said.

Rosé the room service bot

An entertaining 3-foot-tall robot has been roaming around Hotel TRIO since the property opened two years ago. But now, it has pivoted from a novelty attraction for families, to a contactless necessity at the Marriott franchise in Healdsburg.

“It’s kind of cute and fun, and you’d hear it going down the hallway,” said Scott Satterfield, general manager of Hotel TRIO. “But then come March, we said, ‘Wait a minute, this is a serious thing. People don't want us to make deliveries to their rooms. They just don't want to have the touch.”

Programmed by the people who did R2D2 from Star Wars, Rosé — a tribute to Wine Country and a nod to Rosie, the robot from The Jetsons cartoon — has been making the rounds more frequently, delivering to guests everything from towels and pillows, to snacks, pet treats and bottles of wine.

“When the robot arrives to a guest’s room, the phone rings and she says, ‘I’m here,’” Satterfield said. “When they open their door, that triggers the top of Rosé to open and you take your items out.”

Hotel TRIO also is adopting additional contactless technologies beyond the existing Marriott mobile app that gives guests keyless entry to their room.

On Sept. 15, the 122-suite hotel will introduce a higher level of Marriott’s proprietary software that will let guests go through the entire check-in process through the app, Satterfield said. Hotel Trio is a member of the Marriott Bonvoy Travel Program, the brand’s free loyalty-membership program.

“I think each brand is coming out with new technologies and figuring out exactly what needs to happen, and when and how,” Satterfield said.

Many of those decisions industry-wide revolve around heightened cleanliness standards.

Hotel TRIO at the end of the month will receive electrostatic sprayers and handheld UV lights that had been ordered a while ago, to provide even deeper sanitation, Satterfield said.

New times, new priorities

The pandemic has caused travelers to adjust their decision-making when choosing hotels, with safety and cleanliness being top concerns. Here are some of the preferences found in surveys conducted this year by mobile-solutions company Criton.

Contactless technology

80%: Would download a hotel app to allow check in, check out and access to all property information.

73%: Would use an app to open the guest-room door.

47%: Would be more likely to order room service if given the option to order via an app.

Safety measures

75%: Hotel should have clearly defined cleaning standards to combat COVID-19.

67%: Would stay in a hotel only if staff disinfects everything people might touch in a guest room.

42%: Expect the hotel to replace complimentary toiletries, whether used or not, between guests.

53%: Still prefer to eat in the hotel restaurant; 18% would choose room service.

Source: Criton

“It’s very interesting to see the continuum of guests,” he said. “Some couldn't care less about COVID, and then you have some who are terrified.”

But mostly, guests have been patient, expressing appreciation for the extra sanitization efforts, even when it means having to wait longer to check in to their rooms, he said.

After all, Rosé can only do so much.

“She doesn't carry luggage, she doesn’t vacuum and she can’t clean a room,” Satterfield said in jest.

Long-used keyless-entry tech put to greater use

An 80-room luxury resort in downtown Yountville for several years has maintained an annual subscription to the mobile-solutions company OpenKey, said Chase Chasteen, manager of Hotel Yountville.

“We’ve been investing in technology to make our jobs more efficient, but also to enhance the guest experience,” Chasteen said. “Before, we were utilizing it more for the convenience side of things, and now it's more for the safety side of things.”

OpenKey also presents a more level playing field among hotels, he noted.

“A lot of the larger management companies have their own proprietary app, so they can incorporate the use of mobile check in into (their) rewards program app, for example,” he said. “We don't have that luxury, so (OpenKey) gives the independent hotels that ability so we can stay relevant and remain competitive.”

(P)robably 25% of our guests want a completely contactless experience, so that’s going from 0% before. Chase Chasteen, hotel manager

The technology also serves as a necessary switch in focus the hotel has had to make at no additional cost, other than how business is conducted.

“I think that because this is a luxury resort, a lot of our guests still want that personal touch, that face-to-face interaction,” he said. “I would say, probably 25% of our guests want a completely contactless experience, so that’s going from 0% before.”

Incoming guests receive an email confirming their stay, telling them about the app, and detailing the cleanliness standards in place so they feel safer and more secure.

“As a luxury hotel, we have housekeeping service daily and turndown service nightly, but we understand that some of our guests are going to want no one in the room while they’re here,” he said. “And if they want delivery, they want it left at their door. So, we get that.”

OpenKey has been “very responsive” to Hotel Yountville’s needs, and has released several updates to its platform to better personalize the guest experience, Chasteen said.

“One thing that's relatively new is the ability for us to push notifications out to our guests,” he said. “So, if there's something that we want to communicate, rather than slipping a letter under the door or leaving a voicemail on the guestroom phone, now you can get a notification.”

Remote controls move to the app

The downtown 141-room Andaz Napa hotel had a mobile app with contactless benefits before the pandemic, such as keyless room entry, through the World of Hyatt free-membership program, said Patrick Miller, general manager of the Hyatt-managed property.

But more contactless features are on the way with the app, including the ability to order and pay for food, through a mobile-ordering platform called MyCheck.

“It helps to minimize all those touch points that would have been there before,” Miller said. “So that’s in the works and should be up and running in the next month or two.”

Hyatt was already looking at more ways to heighten the app’s capabilities for its properties, including Andaz, but that has been accelerated because of the pandemic.

One of the contactless solutions coming down the pike will be the ability to use the app as a TV remote.

“I know this is a hot topic, but it's a touchy one because I know we do a good job of sanitizing,” Miller said. “But there's still fear with a lot of guests with specific high-touchpoint items like a remote control.”

Further down the road, guests through the Hyatt app also will be able to control the room’s lighting and air conditioning.

“I think you're going to see the customer having a lot more control than they would have had in the past,” Miller said.

On a personal level, though, Miller said he’s conflicted about the technological changes.

“I think what's one of the more challenging things in hospitality these days is that interaction with our guests is our bread and butter,” he said. “So, it's an interesting way of being able to offer those options, but still finding ways to be able to still stay close to our customers, even if it means we're not able to meet with them face to face.”

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine