I'm a big proponent of tablets - both for heightening interaction with guests and for backuse. That's why I was especially excited to get in touch with some of the top people at Ascension Software (www.ascensionsoftware.com) to talk about their latest creation. Using part ORION system and part third party XML feeds, they've launched a new iPad application designed for kiosk stations in hotel lobbies, and this app is already being put to the test at all Kimpton hotels (www.kimptonhotels.com). Discussing with me as to why this software is so successful are Joe Adkisson, President, and Rich Sipe, VP of Mobile Technology.
But let's backtrack and talk first about the evolution of this company's tablet technology. Ascension Software, formerly GBCblue, started in 2003 with the intent of putting computers in hotel rooms for guests to use. But with the rapidly escalating proliferation of laptops, what they found was that people were much more comfortable using their own tech instead of taking the time to surpass the necessary learning curve associated with an in-room computer. That, plus hardware is expensive and tricky to maintain in the guestroom environment.
Despite the difficulties of this undertaking, there was still one big success - the ORION system. Ascension noticed a significant gap in hotel software developments. Brands were putting so much emphasis on constantly upgrading their back-end tech (such as the PMS, POS and reservation software systems) and they were neglecting two imperative considerations. First, many of these back-end systems were not improving guest interactions. Everything still had to be coordinated through requests via the front desk in order to reach operators behind the scenes. And second, all the various back-end systems were creating islands of content that never integrated to make a manager's job any easier.
Thus, Ascension decided to mature ORION from a hardware-based platform to a web-based, pseudo-CMS dedicated to guest services running on the guests own web-enabled device or smartphone. Rather than thinking of it as a content management system (CMS), consider it more as a content aggregation system (CAS). The software worked to combine the various clusters of data across various back-end systems. Furthermore, it gave guests a pathway to point their requests directly at hotel operators, bypassing and alleviating the front desk. It is this ORION system that forms the backbone of Ascension Software's new iPad app.
From the get-go, Ascension had some lofty criteria, set forth by Kimpton, to meet. The app had to unite the conceits of fun and function. That is, Kimpton didn't want to build just another advanced picture show application for tablets. This just isn't engaging, and what Ascension asserts as paramount to their task is that an engaged guest is a returning guest. By building an interactive app that could make lobbies more social, this would in turn get guests to engage with the Kimpton brand and increase loyalty.
Besides fun and function, the solution also had to be fast and cheap. For this, the iPad was a clear winner. At the present, Apple is killing the tablet market. The iPad is a light and reasonably inexpensive piece of hardware. Apple leads in sales, they have the most apps and their tablets have the best screen. Additionally, more people are familiar with how the iPad works relative to other tablets.
The next concern was the physical install, of which micro-location and theft were potential obstacles. Putting the iPads in a secure, fully enclosed mount swiftly eliminated any issues of theft. And instead of placing the iPads on the front desk countertops - which would lead to front desk staff awkwardly competing for attention with the tablets - the kiosk stands were consigned to an underutilized section of the lobby floor to better distribute traffic flow. Furthermore, because the iPad has only one wired requirement (power), the kiosk can be placed virtually anywhere within reach of WiFi. All said, the physical prerequisites for a tablet station are affordable enough for even a strapped-for-cash independent hotel to get involved.
Along the same lines as theft is the concern for information security - guest privacy. With this in mind, ORION does not force-push situational data onto social media and it auto-logouts after a short period of time, reverting to the homepage. As well, the software adamantly prevents monetary transactions so that ‘walk away' people needn't worry about leaving sensitive information out in the open.
Fleshing out the ‘function' side of things, Kimpton approached Ascension about building an integrated tablet app primarily to augment and enhance their existing concierge services. Although a human presence is always preferable, an iPad kiosk adds additional value to its guests. For this, Joe and Rich walked me through exactly what their software can do.
Expanding on the ORION system meant that not only would the iPad app boast some exciting front-end features, but it could still hold its own behind the scenes. The system requires no hardware on site and all data can be aggregated through the cloud for a seamless display to guests and lobby visitors. Additionally, ORION is highly time-sensitive. For instance, hotels wouldn't want people to be reminded of Christmas events come January. Normally this requires a manual switch off, but ORION does this automatically, greatly reducing the operational heavy lifting (and thus, barriers to usage) that have caused many other systems to falter.
Back to the idea of a digital concierge, one of the key objectives for Kimpton was to promote their award-winning restaurants. To start, Ascension's iPad app pulls information straight off of the xml-encoded regular website so that it can highlight a celebrity chef and keep-up-to-date with menu changes. More importantly, however, the app is integrated with OpenTable to provide a clear call to action for interested customers to book through the iPad.
Next up is the software's boarding pass feature. What Ascension found was twofold. First, the task of printing off boarding passes for guests was a cause for scorn in numerous online reviews. People hate waiting for this simple task to be completed. Tying into this, the boarding pass process was hogging the time of front desk staff and business center computers. Thus, incorporating this functionality into the app became a crucial way to speed up operations.
All tied through a clear homepage, there's also a 5-day weather forecast, each individual hotel's social network feed parsed in a proprietary Ascension aggregator, a media gallery of the hotel, an activities section to shed some light on what's happening around the hotel and local tips, which acts as a more direct concierge substitute using information pulled and parsed from Google Maps/Places and third-party providers. Another brand-bolstering feature is the ‘Find a Kimpton Hotel' button which directs the viewer to a map of the continent with pinpoints to represent other Kimpton locations, giving customers that extra nudge to stay within the brand. Rounding out the ‘fun' side is the Photo Booth, where guests can photograph themselves and apply a range of color filters before emailing or posting the image onto Facebook - a nifty little tool to stave off momentary boredom in young guests.
Lots of features and lots more that Kimpton and Ascension want to implement over time. Joe spends much of his time circulating around Kimpton properties observing how present guests are using the lobby itself and interacting with staff and other guests. Both he and the Kimpton team are searching for where improvements can be made for later iterations and to help with further brand installations. It's a fascinating project and they seem to have hit their stride.
This article might seem a little heavy-handed in support of what Ascension has accomplished. But my hope is that the multitude of tasks and diverse functionality of this iPad app will fully convince you of how effective these devices can be for augmenting your guest services and in heightening customer loyalty. Ascension Software has found some straightforward and some very creative solutions to nearly any objections you might have for installing lobby tablets.
They're cheap, and a robust, interactive application is a great starting point for engaging guests. And that's something I couldn't agree with more: engaged guests are returning guests. That's the bottom line. For a small amount of dollars down, finding a versatile use for tablets is an outstanding return on your investment. The Kimpton lobby iPad initiative begins installations in early July and full deployment will continue through August.
(Article published in eHotelier on July 10, 2012)