Whether you’re ordering quiche or charging your Tesla at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner Hotel, chances are you’re being studied.
Other parts of your stay may fall under scrutiny, too: The mattress you’re sleeping on, the white noise funneled into your room, even the way you call into meetings.
The 458-room hotel, which sits next to Hilton Worldwide’s headquarters, is a laboratory of sorts for the hospitality giant as it races to outfit its properties with the newest, most useful technology.
There are 30 tests underway at any time, including partnerships with Google, 3M and iRobot.
The guinea pigs for these trials: hotel guests.
“We’ve got lots and lots of good ideas, but it doesn’t make a hill of beans to our customers [unless] it scales across many hotels in many locations,” said Jim Holthouser, executive vice president of global brands for Hilton.
The stakes have grown particularly high as hotel companies compete to capture the loyalty of the next generation of travelers, who are more likely to camp out in the lobby with their laptops than they are to stay holed up in their rooms. As a result, hoteliers are re-imagining their properties, adding more communal spaces and craft beers, and allowing guests to personalize every part of their stay, down to the type of pillows on their bed.
At Hilton, these efforts have grown more pronounced in recent months. Its two most successful trials in Tysons — Tesla charging stations and an app that allows guests to check in and unlock their rooms using their phones — are being rolled out at some of its brands, including Waldorf Astoria and DoubleTree by Hilton.
Back in Tysons, the company’s hotel continues to test dozens of new ideas, including a guest-greeting robot and an “augmented reality” device that allows users to interact with 3-D images on a screen.
Other experiments include noise-canceling rooms, where guests can control the white noise that’s emitted through strategically placed speakers. Hilton also is working with Uber to give guests information on popular restaurants and hot spots, and it’s collaborating with Google to test one-touch meeting and presentation software.
“With 3M, we’re testing how we can treat windows so your room is more comfortable.” Holthouser said. “With P&G, we’re asking what makes a guest believe a room is clean.”
The partnerships are as much about working out kinks in new technology as they are about forging partnerships for bigger, better innovations that the company might one day want to get its hands on.
“We’re not just trying to pick gadgets to put in a hotel,” said Jonathan Wilson, vice president of product innovation and brand services for Hilton. “When one of our partners has a new product or a new idea, we want them to call us up and say, ‘Hey, will you put this in your real-life environment? Will you work with us?’ It’s a very collaborative approach.”
Take, for instance, Ava the Robot.
Initially, hotel executives thought the robot would be a fun way to greet guests in the lobby. They signed on for a three-month trial with iRobot.
But the more they got to know the Ava 500, the more they liked her. It turned out that she had additional skills: serving as a translator for foreign guests, checking in guests and helping people remotely sign in to meetings. In November, two service members dialed in from Kuwait and used the robot to “walk” around the American Red Cross’s Salute to Service Gala in the hotel’s ballroom.
“With Ava, we learned things we never expected to learn,” Wilson said. “That is an example of something we can use to make our customers’ lives easier and more convenient.”
For iRobot, the partnership is helping to fine-tune applications that might be useful to the hospitality industry. Ava is used in hospitals and other large companies, including AT&T and Ford Motor Co.
“Using [the robot] for social events was not anywhere on my radar screen” before Hilton tried it, said Youssef Saleh, a senior vice president at iRobot. “We are experimenting with different approaches like that.”
Hilton extended its contract with iRobot to continue testing for a year. Next, Ava will head to four other Hilton hotels, where the hope is that she will find additional ways to help.
Increasingly, Hilton is figuring out how to gauge customer reactions in real time, by surveying guests on their phones as soon as they finish a meal or check into their rooms. The company has created its own software to track guest satisfaction, which it is testing at the Tysons Corner property.
“If you are a Hilton Honors member, we can ping you questions on your phone,” Holthouser said. “We can tell when you’ve left one of our restaurants — obviously you have to give us permission to do this — and we can ask you how your meal was. And guess what: If it didn’t meet your expectations, we can do something about it right then and there.”
The hotel’s restaurant, Härth, often serves as a testing ground for new concepts. When the company was developing an artisanal breakfast menu for its new line of Canopy Suites hotels, it swapped out the restaurant’s usual fare for smoked salmon, quiche and breakfast sandwiches. Executives then talked to employees and guests to find out what worked and what didn’t, as well as the costs associated with the specialty menu.
Sometimes feedback shows that a particular idea just isn’t practical. When the hotel outfitted its rooms with Nintendo 64 consoles a decade ago, for example, it turned out that guests were too perplexed by the technology to use it in a meaningful way.
“You really need to be a NASA scientist, or a 13-year-old, to figure out the remote controls,” Holthouser said. “We realized pretty quickly that wasn’t going to work.”
And that, Holthouser said, is part of the challenge: Identifying which technologies will become widely used in coming years, and nixing those that might not make the cut.
“The world moves very fast,” Holthouser said. “If you can buy a two-year competitive advantage, you’re doing very well.”