Sorry Samsung, LG, et. al. – hotels won’t buy your 4K & Smart TVs – unless you change the game

When mentioning a hotel stay to our friends (or on TripAdvisor), we often talk about how they made us feel.  The attention to detail, the quality of the sheets on the bed, the way they anticipated our needs and seem to know our name whenever we call room service at 3 am.  One thing we don’t often talk about is the quality of the TV in our rooms.

As the titans of the CE industry that make and sell the next generation of connected/smart TV and 4K (Ultra HD) displays will eventually find out, this lack of conversation isn’t going to change for the foreseeable future. (But it should/ could – more on that later).

For the “why” - you needn’t look any further than the tanking revenues of pay-per-view as the main culprit. LodgeNet, once the giant of in-room hotel movie rentals, went bankrupt in January and has changed their name to Sonifi.  Industry figures show hotel pay-per-view revenues have slid by 39 percent from 2000 to 2009, and even porn (traditionally half of all hotel movie rentals) hasn’t been able to survive the decline – with Marriott joining Omni in eliminating adult movie rentals entirely. USA TODAY polled travelers in 2011 and found 81 percent weren’t ordering pay-per-view entertainment at all, opting instead to bring their own DVDs, watch free TV or use streaming services via their laptops and mobile devices. The Netflix/Hulu generation is certainly mobile – and with 64% of hotels offering free WiFi (but not always reliably)– they’re thrifty.

But beyond the cratering of hotel PPV revenues, we were curious how an industry that buys as many TVs as hotels do might take a pass on the future of TV tech. Digging deeper – we had a chance to talk TV with our friends over at Skift.com – the hip travel technology website run by Rafat Ali. Those of you who were early fans of the tech news website/newsletter PaidContent.org may remember Ali as its founder.  His current venture is all things tech about the travel and hospitality industry.
 


 

 

“A lot of hotel properties went from big CRT TVs to flat screens in the past decade, and that process isn’t even complete across the country,” said Skift co-founder and head of content  Jason Clampet (@jasonclampet). Now, the idea of switching to something new – while possibly appealing – really has to be based on increasing ROI, not the resolution. 3D TV was clearly a bust, and the next generation of flat screens aren’t any cheaper than the last one – so, with pay-per-view movie rentals declining, you have to make up the costs somewhere.  That’s why they’ll have to figure out what kind of content they can deliver that will set them apart. If I can get free WiFi and stream Netflix on my iPad – why would I ever pay $14 to buy the same movie from the hotel?”
 

Skift’s Jason Clampet

Stepping back for a minute – if hotel room TVs aren’t for movie rentals anymore, what new purpose could they serve? Taking a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach – some hotels are embracing the BYOD (bring your own device) ethos and equipping rooms with Apple TVs for wireless AirPlay streaming to the big screen, and –one imagines, the relatively new Google Chromecast streaming device will start popping up in hotels that have thrown in the towel in favor of keeping guests happy. And as WiFi bandwidth is squeezed, hotels are starting to test tiered Internet speeds to offset upgrade costs and upsell heavy users to better connections.

But these remedies won’t help CE makers sell any more displays. In an era of quad-core processors, Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) and HTML5 presentation engines – so much more could be done to create multiscreen experiences that augment and compliment the devices we already bring with us on the road. Reimagining that dynamic is clearly a high-priority, because the TV of the future is certainly part of the always-on Internet of Things.

“I think there’s a opportunity for hotel brands with strong loyalty programs who cater to business travelers to connect their in-room experience with their mobile devices,” says Clampet. While it’s possible that a world where business travelers are connected to the hotel’s own brand of personal cloud-based entertainment (much the same way Netflix remembers where you paused that movie on any device) might help, it’s a me-too move that doesn’t change the game. From a hotel guest (or user) perspective, the challenge is in truly widening the definition of what screens are for. 

For years, guests (at the end of their stays) have been encouraged to check out of the hotel via their TVs, but few ever do. By today’s standards, we’d automatically ask “Where were the usability studies? What were the known UX and UI shortcomings? Beyond that, why was there a 3 ring binder of hotel guest services information on the coffee table, but not on the big screen? And why was the call to action at the end of their stay, not the beginning?”

If you’re Samsung or LG, these kinds of questions are just as important to you now as they should have been to Hilton and Starwood back then.  The reimagining and reinvention of the in-room TV Experience (with a capital “E”) will see the large LCD display as more of a connected and intelligent role player in guest’s hotel stay than that of a dumb device for movies. (In fact, Samsung has been testing their own in-room entertainment / content management system – LYNK SINC - at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Minneapolis).

 

HOW THE GAME CAN CHANGE

Let’s run a “Day in the Life” scenario:  The year is late 2016 (not that far away) – and our intrepid traveler Ms. Taylor has just landed in Shanghai for a business trip. As her plane taxis to the gate, her smartphone searches for a network, where the first push notification she’s greeted with is from her Location/GPS aware hotel loyalty app - saying “Welcome to Shanghai, Ms. Taylor!”  Swiping her screen, she’s taken to the home screen of the app, which like any good concierge, knows something about the airport she just landed in. The app offers a coupon for a discounted coffee at the Starbucks in her wing of the terminal – and a GPS map option shows her how close it is. Adding the coupon to her mobile wallet is a two-click process, and by the time she’s got the coffee in hand – another notification shares her transportation options to her hotel room. As the cab pulls up to the hotel, another welcome message from the hotel appears – but this time with an upgrade option for her room (the app notices she has 50,000 loyalty points – and for 20,000 – offers her a suite upgrade and a spa treatment).


At the front desk, she’s offered the usual assistance with her bags, but after presenting her US Passport and digital credit card on her phone to the desk clerk, she’s also informed that her hotel loyalty app is now also her room key (via Bluetooth or RFID).  As she gets on the elevator, LCD displays with ambient video scenes are a calming relief from the frenetic pace of travel. Arriving at the room, she unlocks the door with her phone, crossing the threshold into her new posh suite – which awakes the ultra-thin 54” wall-mounted display from standby mode, welcoming Ms. Taylor and thanking her for being a loyal hotel chain member. Since it’s nearly evening local time, the visual priority on screen is mostly dedicated to touting the Michelin Star winning chef in the hotel restaurant, and the specialty dish on the menu tonight.  Would Ms. Taylor like to make a reservation and have it automatically added to her loyalty app/mobile wallet? She touches the screen to confirm yes, and seconds later – a confirmation appears on the lock screen of her mobile. (In the interest of space, happy to discuss additional scenarios offline).

With options for both motion detection and voice response – the display is a work of art, or rather – it displays curated works of art and local historical and cultural info-snacks when not being used – blending in more with the rooms décor than acting as a big drab black rectangle. Stream a movie to the display from her own device? A quick Skype chat with the family back in L.A.? Sure, but the elegance of the judiciously curated content and interaction design of this kind of programmed display could truly add both a “wow” factor and a lasting value to the loyalty rewards relationship that starts well before entering the room.   

Contrast these options with the ‘white flag waving’ strategy of simply installing better WiFi and letting guest bring their own devices, and you begin to see the opportunity for CE to step-up their hotel game in ways never considered prior. The kinds of marketing partnerships, content curation and business development required to build out this type of multiscreen guest experience ecosystem are not trivial, but something has to give if hoteliers want to participate in the innovation curve and if hardware makers want to move the needle on sales of hotel room displays (and in-room / mobile services) over the next decade.

 

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Will Kreth is a multi-screen interactive media strategist based in NYC, working at the crossroads of Connected TVs and Mobile experiences that are powered by innovative brands and digital storytelling.  You can reach him on LinkedIn or Twitter.