Cybercomfort: embracing technology in hotels

24th November 2011 (Last Updated November 24th, 2011 12:36)

The Eccleston Square Hotel has been touted as the most high-tech in Europe. Rod James takes a look at what is on display.

Cybercomfort: embracing technology in hotels

Lying on the bed in the guestroom of the Eccleston Square Hotel is, as you’d expect, a very comfortable experience. There is, however, a twist. Dangling down the side of the mattress is a control panel, which allows you to elevate and recline your legs and head. It also controls an in-built massage function, which vibrates your various body parts to whatever degree of vigour you choose.

The bed is indicative of a £6.5-million modernisation project that is just reaching completion. Located in the Belgravia area of London in one of the city’s grand late-Georgian townhouses, the Design Hotels-recognised establishment is being promoted as the most technologically advanced in Europe.

According to director Olivia Byrne, who developed the project in partnership with her hotelier father, high technology is part of a wider programme of reinvention. "The technology is not something that we thought about from the outset," she explains. "We essentially wanted to rethink the city-centre hotel room. With smaller rooms, it’s about maximising the space that you have. You need to make it as comfortable and useful as possible, which technology allows you to do. It began with the electronically adjustable bed, then we saw the 3D TV and thought, ‘we have to have it!’."

Understated technology

Upon entry, the tech-heavy nature of the hotel is not immediately apparent. The hallway and reception are typically Georgian, with chandelier lighting, and black and white parquet-patterned floors. Turn through the door on the left, though, and you are confronted with a 103in Panasonic 3D TV that splays CNN across an entire wall. "Many of these technologies today are like water – important to every-day living," Byrne explains. "We didn’t carry out formal market research, but travelled around the world looking at different hotels. We realised that the demand for this sort of idea was out there. The industry is sometimes a bit backward when it comes to technology. We have to live in the times.

"Most of this technology is controlled by an iPad 2, which also runs a concierge application customised for use in the hotel"

"The guestrooms are all of roughly equal size and have in common the dark greys, browns and blacks of the Eccleston Square’s communal areas. Each is furnished with a 46in HD 3D television, a VoIP telephone, and a top-of-the-range Blu-ray DVD player, with control equipment from technology provider VDA. High-speed Wi-Fi is free throughout the property and iPod docking stations allow the guest to stream music through the in-room sound system. Most of this technology is controlled by an iPad 2, which also runs a concierge application customised for use in the hotel.

"We heard about Intelity – a company creating iPad-customised software and we were sold from the beginning," Byrne explains. "Soon it will be able to control the room temperature, lighting, curtains and give access to a range of other services such as booking a taxi or theatre tickets. It can really help us to personalise the stay. This is relatively new to Europe, but it’s something we are going to see more and more in hotels over here.

"Enter the bathroom and the first thing one encounters is a small flat-screen television embedded into an anti-mist mirror. An ‘experience shower’, consisting of three separate, differently shaped shower heads, is partitioned from the bedroom by a sheet of magic glass, which flips from opaque to transparent at the touch of a button. These features are designed with sustainability in mind.

"The key card cuts electricity in the room when nobody is in and the floors are heated using water, which is more environmentally friendly," says Marites Araneta, Eccleston Square’s sales and marketing manager. "There is also technology that allows us to monitor what is being left on in each individual room, which ensures that we are not using more energy than is necessary."

Keeping tabs on customers

Customer behaviour is monitored for marketing purposes, as well. The hotel has in place a Guestfolio CRM solution, which gives guests the opportunity to customise the confirmation process. Any information gleaned can be stored on the system and used at a later date.

"Guests can choose what temperature they want their room, the type of radio stations they want programmed into their sound system and can also access information about what’s going on in the city."

"The guest can pre-plan their stay," Araneta explains. "They can choose what temperature they want their room, the type of radio stations they want programmed into their sound system and can also access information about what’s going on in the city. We can store this information, so when they return to the hotel it is all pre-programmed. Of course, we want to encourage return visits." Although the Eccleston Square is at the cutting edge right now, the speed with which technology becomes obsolete makes maintaining that position a challenge.

The hotel management has formed close partnerships with technology providers, which gives them the inside track on new developments and allows the negotiation of more competitive prices. An understanding of social media is also, in Araneta’s view, a distinct advantage. "For us, the key is trying to keep up with technology because it’s constantly changing," she explains. "We work very closely with our technology partners and are in contact with a lot of technology bloggers and journalists. They are the ones with their fingers on the pulse. In fact, we are soon to hold our first bloggers event, where we can hopefully talk with these guys and pick up some new ideas."

Technology-tradition balance

To avoid targeting too narrow a market segment, striking the balance between high technology and user friendliness is vital. Although many hotel customers will be drawn in by the former, particularly business travellers, others could equally be intimidated or even repelled. While guidance is in place to help guests make the most of their rooms, Byrne is quick to emphasise that technology is just one facet of the hotel’s appeal.

"What it does is take the traditional city hotel experience and reinvigorate it."

"The technology is there for fun, but you don’t have to use it," she explains. "We’ve created ‘how-to’ videos and put them on the iPads, so clients can learn how their room works, but we have three, equally important value drivers: technology, well-being and value for money. We are trying to think of every aspect. "Unlike many hotels in the boutique sector, Eccleston Square is not what you might call quirky. All of the rooms are similarly proportioned and decked out with the same amenities. What it does is take the traditional city hotel experience and reinvigorate it.

"The way we saw the concept working, it was London that we had in mind," Byrne explains. "But this kind of demand is everywhere, especially in places such as New York, where guests are very into technology. People are essentially just looking for new experiences. Here we have that old/new mixture, the grandeur and technology. There aren’t really any other hotels like that in this area."Back in bed, I raise the head of the mattress to achieve the optimum sleeping position. Technology is no replacement for relaxation, but it’s certainly an enhancement.