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June 26, 2017

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They want foodies who code’: Hoteliers comb ranks of tech workers to gain edge

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Mikayla Whitmore

A view of the Cosmopolitan as seen from Rivea at Delano Las Vegas on Feb. 2, 2016. The Cosmopolitan is among hotels that is developing its own in-house tech talent to innovate and test new ideas.

The front desk manager or housekeeper may epitomize the hotel employee, but the hospitality industry is increasingly dependent on tech workers, vacuuming data scientists, web designers and other experts into its ranks.

More than ever, guests look to their phones and computers to research, book, stay in and communicate with hotels. That translates to critical technology needs in information security, mobile development and systems integration.

Inside hotel operations, data analysis can help find new customers, make a dining room more profitable or provide information to executives making business decisions.

Kate Walsh, interim dean of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell, says she is seeing more companies coming on campus to hire students who are specializing in areas like digital marketing and business analytics. “They want foodies who code,” she said.

Glassdoor, a company based in Mill Valley, California, that amalgamates listings from job posting sites around the internet, has noticed an increase in tech hospitality listings as well. “All companies are becoming technology companies to some degree, and this is especially true in the hospitality industry,” said Scott Dobroski, who works in corporate communications for Glassdoor.

Michael Leidinger, chief technology officer with Hilton Hotels and Resorts, said his department had added 140 positions in just the last two years. The department manages the core technology for the hotel chain, including data centers, websites around the world, mobile apps and information technology support.

While many college students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math are attracted to the household-name tech companies in Seattle and Silicon Valley, Leidinger said he tells them, “If you’re really into technology, there’s a revolution happening in hospitality,” and as part of a smaller team, “you can drive, innovate and take ownership.”

One project for Hilton tech employees is keyless entry, which allows guests to use their phones instead of plastic key cards to unlock room doors. Of Hilton’s 4,800 hotels, 750 now offer keyless entry, and the company hopes to install the service in 2,500 hotels by the end of this year.

There are also technical job openings at the hotel level, where employees at individual properties manage social media, on-site Wi-Fi and the integration of systems like retail, parking and food sales.

Mamie Peers, senior digital, social and e-commerce director at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, an independently owned and operated hotel, said she had been expanding her team and putting its members in office space in the hotel.

Technology integrates with everything, she said, so it makes sense to give the new team access to “the casino employees, chefs, all the experts in each area, so they can work together.”

The hotel had been relying heavily on an external technical consulting agency, but it is now shifting toward doing more of its own technology development. “We’re developing our own in-house talent to innovate, test new ideas and learn from them,” Peers said.

Peers said she looked for new hires who can understand technology and also explain it. Even her marketing team gets tech questions. And “they have to hustle,” she said, to keep up with the fast-paced environment.

The trend is global. The Taj hotel group, which is based in India and operates hotels on four continents, embarked a year ago on “a digital transformation journey,” according to Chinmai Sharma, its chief revenue officer. The company, which is more than 100 years old, has been hiring more digital experts and statistical analysts, he said, especially in the past nine months.

The effort has been especially critical in his home country. “Mobile use in India is going through the roof,” Sharma said. “Our population is young and we need to meet them on the platform they are using.”

Data science is another area of growth for the industry — finding, for example, where customers are online, how they make decisions and how hotel resources are used. “We need data scientists to make sense of what is going on so we can compete against online travel agents like Expedia and maximize revenues,” Sharma said.

While hotel chains say that automating processes like check-in frees their employees to interact in other ways with guests, the use of technology also allows the hotel to hire fewer people.

Bart Selman, a Cornell professor of computer science and artificial intelligence who studies how technology affects the workplace, said a service that scans all social media postings to develop a “sentiment report” showing how customers feel about a hotel brand, for example, has replaced people who do that kind of monitoring.

These types of services are also getting better at discerning the meaning of customer messages and posts on social media, and can respond to them appropriately, so fewer people are needed for that task.

“There are definitely jobs that we thought we couldn’t automate five years ago that we are automating now, using technologies like natural language processing and voice recognition,” he said. “A lot of the motivation is cost driven. So if companies can get away with using a technology, they will do it more and more.”

Digital keys on phones could, in turn, be replaced with hallway cameras and facial recognition software to unlock guest room doors, he said.

Technology, of course, will not eliminate the human touch completely. A new Skift.com report on travelers and the travel industry found that meaningful personal experiences are more likely than efficient transactions to lead to customer loyalty.

“The travel brands should strive to understand how the experiences they provide make travelers feel,” the report said.

“High tech has become the norm,” said Albert Herrera, senior vice president for global product partnerships at Virtuoso, a company whose website connects travelers with luxury travel advisers. “Hotels need to embrace it and manage it, but not forget why they are there.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “there’s no substitute for a real person who delivers their expertise.”

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