Getting Smart: New Tech Provides Conveniences for Guests, But What are the Risks?

By John Welty Practice Leader, SUITELIFE, Venture Insurance Programs | March 10, 2019

I travel frequently throughout the country for both business and pleasure. At every hotel, the rooms get smarter and smarter with each visit. Just a short time ago, free, fast Wi-Fi was considered a must for the digital age. Now, the digital boundaries seem to be endless.

From smart speakers like Alexa, to digital check-in capabilities, smart TVs and even robots, hotels are implementing new technology to meet guests where they want to be met. Guests want the comforts of home while on the road and for many, that means the smart devices they've grown accustomed to. Almost one-fifth of U.S. households with Wi-Fi (19 million households) had one smart speaker or more in 2018, according to Forbes. In light of this growing trend, more and more hotels are providing smart technology in guest rooms.

In fact, last spring, Amazon unveiled a new Alexa program devised specifically for hotels. According to Tech Crunch, Alexa for Hospitality is designed to optimize a hotel guest experience by providing Echo smart speakers that can be programmed to include guest check out times or pool hours, allow guests to order from housekeeping or room service, or adjust the temperature and lights in the room, among other things. Amazon partnered with Marriott International, Inc. for the initiative and the hotel giant has launched the service in select hotels around the world.

All this technology may present guests with more conveniences and, for many, some of the comforts of home, but what risk exposures does this smart technology present in terms of guest privacy? Each time they connect a smartphone to a hotel device are they putting their personal information at risk? Considering the risks before implementing these new smart features in a hotel is critical and something hotel owners and operators must understand before implementing smart technology for guests.

Smart Features

As a frequent traveler, I have had the opportunity to explore many of the ways smart TVs, speakers and other digital amenities improve the hotel guest experience. Digital check-in is great. I no longer need to stop in the long check-in line. I receive my digital room key electronically and I can go straight to my room, bypassing the normal check-in process. After a long day of travel and business meetings, this is a pleasure.

In certain hotel rooms I have access to an iPad. The iPad can be used to control the lighting, order food and provide easy access to the concierge. Some hotel iPads allow for adjusting the room temperature. I can even request when to turn the room's systems on or off to match the times I'll be in my room. These features not only benefit the guests, but they benefit hotel owners and operators from a cost standpoint while improving their impact on the environment. Energy usage and consumption can be maximized with technology.

In hotel rooms outfitted with Amazon Alexas, I've used the smart speaker to dim the lights and order breakfast for the next morning. I've also used the device to play music and turn the TV to the nightly news. I've found that the Alexas provided in hotel rooms work a bit differently than at home, as they are programmed specific for hotel applications.

Many hotels are now offering smart TVs in guest rooms. These TVs allow guests to stay up to date with certain TV shows and their favorite sports teams, again offering a convenience many guests are used to having at home. In a recent hotel stay, to my surprise, the smart TV automatically connected to my smartphone Bluetooth once a I turned on the TV. As I traveled Sunday afternoon to a business meeting for Monday, I was able to watch my home football team through my phone as the game was not on the local channel. Even better, I was able to FaceTime with my grandchildren before their bed times. The smart TV also enables guests to stream their smartphone photos.

A wired smart room can be customized to the guest choices. Whether the guest wants to upload personal photos, music, contacts or even their workouts, the guest can always be connected, and we are just at the beginning of this trend.

The Future

Smart rooms continue to innovate at a rapid pace. Recent innovations include complete room interaction that enable guests to set their room on do-not-disturb, order room service or even frost the glass in room windows for privacy. Other cutting-edge trends include outfitting guest rooms with touch-screen panels embedded in the bathroom mirror or in the mirror in the room that are intended to function like an iPad. And, while it may still sound futuristic, some hotels are test-driving robotic butlers. These digital staff members can deliver room service, provide an extra towel at the pool or store guest luggage securely if the guest is early for check-in or needs a late check out.

A virtual concierge is another smart amenity popping up at hotels. This service is often in the form of an interactive touch screen panel in the hotel lobby. The virtual screen can be changed to reflect the seasons in the area of the hotel. For example, guests can see live feed of the slopes from a ski resort in the winter or the peaceful setting of the mountains in the fall as the color of the leaves transform the landscape.

These days even guest smartphones are not out of the question. Yes, certain hotels are providing guests with a smartphone during their stays. These phones interact with other hotel devices, including the smart TVs and provide the guest with features like unlimited data usage in town and local ride sharing tied to the guest's credit card. No longer does a guest need to worry about roaming charges while traveling.

So, what's next? The sky is truly the limit when it comes to smart hotel rooms but get ready for high-end gaming systems and virtual reality devices. Already introduced in some European cities, this fun feature could be coming soon to a hotel near you. Iris scans and fingerprint technology for room entry are not too far off either.

All this begs the question: why do hotel rooms outfitted with all these smart features still have an old wired phone by the bedside?

Consider the Risks

Smart hotel room innovation seems to be unlimited. But at what price-or more specifically, at what cost-to the guest? Are these hotels crossing a line when it comes to guest privacy?

From a risk management standpoint, use of a guest smartphone connected to the smart room does pose an issue. Smartphones have tokens and these tokens contain personal data including (but not limited to) coffee orders, restaurant orders, contacts, credit card information and more. With Bluetooth technology, a hacker can intercept information if they are just within 15 feet of a smartphone, according to a recent article on CBS News. All these connected devices introduced by the smart hotel room could allow a hacker to determine a guest's location while away from the hotel and then access their hotel room.

In today's tech-savvy world, consumers, and particularly hotel guests in unfamiliar places, need to be careful about how much personal information they are willingly sharing, as well as how much of their personal information is being shared without their knowledge. With hotel smartphone access, a guest may be unaware of what they are opting-in to.

For those who are concerned that smart speaker devices like Alexa may be vulnerable to hacking, guests can ask the hotel to remove these devices from their rooms. Some could see these as surveillance devices, leaving guests to question: Are personal conversations being recorded? Are business deals being recorded?

Keeping these risk exposures in mind, hotel owners and operators should consider disclosures and guest opt outs as smart rooms, smartphones and smart tablets continue to become a part of the guest experience.

Hotel owners and operators also need to ask: Do these technological elements enhance the human element of service rather than replace it? Do these added bonuses of technology optimize comfort, accessibility and convenience for the guest as well as improve the hotel by reducing waste, improving their environment impact or reducing costs?

These are all important questions hotel owners and operators need to consider as innovation and technology advance in the hospitality industry. A good insurance partner who specializes in the hotel and resort industry can offer sound advice on the risks presented by new technology and smart devices, as well as provide tips, such as disclosures and more, to help hotel owners and operators mitigate that risk exposure. So, while hotels continue to innovate, offering guests smart technology, they can't forget with all these new features, to protect what makes a guest the most comfortable during a hotel stay–privacy.

Mr. Welty John Welty is the practice leader for SUITELIFE, an all-lines insurance and risk program for upscale hotels and resort properties administered by Venture Insurance Programs. Venture is a national program administrator for select industries, including the hotel, hotel resort, hotel management and luxury boutiques industries. At Venture, Mr. Welty is responsible for managing SUITELIFE's underwriting team and maintaining the company's top-tier carrier relationships. He is responsible for pro-actively and strategically managing the retention and growth of the SUITELIFE through disciplined underwriting, managing program profitability, and program expansion and development. Mr. Welty oversees all aspects of the SUITELIFE program from underwriting, broker relationships, marketing, carrier relationships, employee growth opportunities, and client relationships to ensure a steady, profitable, and expanding program. Mr. Welty has worked in the insurance industry for more than 30 years, specializing in commercial risks. Prior to joining Venture, he was casualty manager for the Mid-Atlantic region of American International Group in Philadelphia for nine years. John Welty can be contacted at 800-282-6247 ext. 276 or JWelty@ventureprograms.com Please visit http://ventureprograms.com for more information. Extended Biography

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