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Mobilizing and Monetizing The Lobby Experience

Mar 20, 2012

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared on Hotel Executive.

Jackpot!

That’s the exclamation (not to mention double entendre) that’s likely doing cartwheels inside the heads of corporate higher ups and casino/hotel bookkeepers that are busy tallying their property’s profits. It’s a joy especially potent considering that a large portion of the green in their piggy banks stems from those very same gaming additions.

It may seem obvious to any Las Vegas traveler who’s ever stepped foot in the MGM Grand, The Bellagio, or Mandalay Bay, but it’s important to remember that at sometime, at some point, hotel designers reached this no-brainer conclusion: Instead of building casinos and hotels as separate structures, why not build them as single entities? Better still, why not pair the hotel and casino branding? That way, room rates, the mainstay for a hotel’s revenue, can be partnered with an entirely new income stream: gambling money. Everybody knows tourists are coming to cities like Las Vegas to try their hand (and luck) at the one-armed bandit. Why not give hotel guests what they want right in the lobby, and monetize the experience?

A simple idea, for sure, but it’s the aesthetic and business success at the root of the world-famous Las Vegas strip. And when it comes to creating revenue opportunities in common spaces, the burgeoning world of mobile, digital signage and location-aware technologies could learn a thing or two. Like the resort-casino model, mobile’s next frontier – or certainly a frontier as it relates to hotels, is the lobby. It’s a potential revenue, entertainment and loyalty source so significant that hoteliers who choose to mobilize their lobbies should be shouting “jackpot” too.

Mobile’s Winning Combination: Engage, Entertain, Enjoy

Of all the places mobile technology has reached, (through smartphones or tablets) it’s surprising that the hotel lobby has yet to be tapped – even less so than the hotel room, which is beginning, finally, to find its digital footing.

And as an “always on” technology, with penetration rates exceeding 95% for standard phones and upward of 64% for smartphones (in the 25-34 age group within the United States), a central and social meeting place like a hotel lobby is the ideal location to further engage guests throughout the booking and hotel stay process. But also through that same technology, sow the seed for future visits through the technology’s entertainment value allowing guests to download games or video content and continue the mobile hotel marketing experience well beyond the lobby’s main entrance, furthering the customer connection.

In fact, some 82% of business travelers polled in a 2011 Travelport survey said that they expect every hotel room they visit to be WiFi accessible by 2016, no, ifs, ands or buts. Travelport also found that already 56% of business travelers search and book their stays via their mobile device. Google, too, has reached similar conclusions, finding that nearly 60% of personal travelers have looked for travel-related information through their phone or tablet. In other words, travelers of both sets, expect hotels services and amenities to go where they’re already leading.

Hotel Lobby 1.0 versus Hotel Lobby 2.0

Think about a hotel’s loyalty and ROI possibilities and imagine the following scenario. A customer walks into a hotel lobby exhausted from their late-night travels and delayed flight. The last thing on their mind is having to put on that obligatory smile for the front desk and begin the check-in process.

It goes something like this: a hotel guest fishes for their credit card in a cluttered wallet, obtains a magnetic card room key, learns about check-out times, the continental breakfast, and collects a smattering of printed material –some of which might be out of date – and all of it, decidedly so last century in terms of paper and ink technology. Then there’s the added hotel expense of having to pay employees to staff on what can be graveyard shifts. None of this is a recipe for revenue or loyalty success.

Now consider this. A mobile lobby has the potential to radically change this scenario. Imagine instead a tech-centric experience where that same travel-weary customer walks in. But this time, instead of the traditional static entranceway, the guest is surrounded by a collection of interactive digital “smart” signs. Using Bluetooth technology that detects a phone’s proximity to the sign, (and for privacy reasons, not the guest’s exact location) the sign immediately sends the guest’s phone a timely relevant message about their stay. Upon a guest’s opt-in response, the sign can begin sending the guest coupons to the hotel’s restaurant or bar, upgrade packages, or it can even send the phone an augmented reality map of directions to the guest’s room, the fitness center or the pool. Need to find what’s around town? No worries there either as the digital sign-phone partnership all but does away with the need for the concierge. And no need for pen and paper in this scenario either.

And with companies like Orbitz, (which launched its Orbitz-Hotels app for iPad last summer), and Priceline, (that added a “Tonight-Only Deals” to its iPad app in October), estimating upward of 60% to 65% of mobile users book their trips the same day of their stay, finding new ways to engage the traveler both before and after their trip has never been more important. Even if a trip is booked within 24-hours of a stay, that doesn’t mean the proverbial wheels start turning long before that.

The Future (Is Almost) Here: Hotels Mobilizing their Mobile Effort

Little by little hotel chains and technology solution providers are starting to get digital sign’s mobile message. And like the hotel-casino model, they are starting to cash in. In spring 2011 Canada-based iSIGN Media, a provider of location-aware mobile advertising partnered with RTown Communications, also of Canada, to yield the perfect duo: iSIGN supplied the “smart” software and RTown, a digital media marketer, supplied the digital signs within hotel properties. Distributed through a system of some 27,000 hotel rooms in 346 locations throughout Canada, the network effectively delivers a host of branded content, special offers, coupons, discounts, loyalty program messages and other rich-media offerings of guests’ choosing. And by opening up a digital signage network to outside advertising, hotels can accept ads from companies looking to sell to travelers. In addition to delivering real-time content via in-room TV, hotels took the added step of delivering their content via digital signage in hotel commerce areas and even outdoors.

In a related digital move, Wyndham Hotel Group, in conjunction with the MCG, in summer 2011 launched a text to win campaign linked to the PGA FedEx Cup. The hotel chain was looking to increase interaction with hotel guests and through the campaign, offer rewards. Additional community outreach was achieved by donations, issued through Wyndham’s charity arm, Wishes By Wyndham. While the campaign did not rely on lobby-based digital signage, it’s the unique kind of guest engagement that such signs in the future might be able to better promote. Rather than just receiving a simple text, imagine if a rich-media image of a 3-D golf ball had come off a digital screen, offering some discount at a nearby golf course? Along with the appropriate text to connect the image to the cause or promotion, greater redemption rates seem likely. It’s also the type of social experience that, if launched in a lobby setting, might set the stage for further in-lobby and social media-driven conversation.

But more on that in the section that follows…

From the Jetway to the Jetsons: Welcome to the Kinder, Gentler Lobby

Ultimately lobby 2.0 won’t just be about the technology. In an ironic twist, it’ll be about how the technology is bringing people together in more genuine ways. As mentioned above, the ability to connect guests to each other in meaningful ways, (say for example, guests looking to organize a hotel-based tour group for the city they’re visiting and an offering from the tour group incentivizing its use via smartphone and digital signs) will help drive both online and offline conversations.

Increasingly, the linked, synched and wired lobby will take a more living room-like or Starbucks approach where guest spend more time hanging out and interacting with their mobile gadgets and other guests who are using them as well, rather than using the lobby as an austere “waiting area” before embarking on the next part of their day. Hotels like A-Loft, Hyatt, Hyatt Place, Marriott Courtyards, and Hilton’s Home2 Suites extended stay brands have already begun installing mega-sized touch-screen TVs that display information like the weather and day-trip excursion information. While that’s a first step, imagine if those touch screen TVs, like digital signs, began offering branded content?

The A-Loft hotel brand is also testing its “smart check in” technology. Starwood Preferred Guest program members are sent a radio frequency identification (RFID) keycard in the mail. On the day of a guest’s arrival, a text message is sent to their mobile device with a room number, allowing the guest to bypass the front desk entirely. And according to David Strom, writing for ReadWrite Enterprise, the technology is in place at A-Lofts in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Florida, and London. Also, the Oslo Comfort Xpress hotel has automated lobby kiosks that dispense RFID room cards. Admittedly, these technological advancements risk bypassing the lobby altogether. But it’s incumbent on the next generation of interactive digital sign designers to find ways to the keep the digital conversation in the lobby.

Continuing this look into the future, next generation digital signage, as seen by Samsung’s Transparent Smart Window at the recent 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, will merge the aesthetic of real windows with the virtual world. With advanced touch-screen technology, the 4-inch thick screens will allow up to 50 simultaneous “points of contact” or users.

Revenue Per Square Foot: From Slots to Signs

Anyone who’s been to a Las Vegas casino, or any gaming establishment from California to Monte Carlo, knows that it’s the slot machine – not the table game games – that generate the most revenue per square foot. About to turn 117, slot machines have for decades proven their worth to the hotels who’ve turned their lobbies into gaming halls, giving guests what they want, when they want it and in close proximity to their hotel rooms.

The parallels with in-lobby digital signage are striking. Both technologies – one from the 19th century and another from the 21st – engage the guest, build loyalty, and of course, improve return on investment.

Maybe the next generation of a casino-hotel’s digital signage will feature interactive images of slot machines where through contactless data transfer (NFC or Bluetooth connectivity) guests play the slots through their mobile devices? Instead of winning cash, players might receive coupons, discounts and loyalty rewards redeemable at the hotel.

Whether it is casinos, hotels, motels, or any lodging establishment in between, mobilizing the lobby is the revenue and loyalty way forward. Tech-savvy and mobile-equipped travelers continue to lead the way. It’s time for hoteliers to gather their resources and mobilize their lobbies today and hit the digital signage jackpot today.

The following article by Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk, originally appeared on Hotel Executive.

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