New apps such as the Conrad Concierge are taking the hassle out of travel. Heading abroad is now as easy as two taps on your tablet
I’m in a yellow cab from Newark airport to Battery Park in downtown Manhattan, fresh off the flight from London. It’s late. I’m tired. But I’m also relieved. From the back of the cab, I’ve already checked into the hotel I’m staying in, the Conrad New York. I know what room I’m in; what the temperature will be in the room; what’s in my minibar; that I have a Nespresso machine for my morning coffee with fresh milk; and that the FT, Wall Street Journal and New York Times will be delivered to my room at 6am tomorrow.
What wizardry is at work? Hilton Hotels, owner of the luxury brand Conrad Hotels & Resorts, has come up with the Conrad Concierge app, which offers you the chance to do pretty much everything you want to make sure your stay is just the way you like it, without having to pick up the phone. The only thing it cannot do is configure my smartphone to become my room key, enabling me to bypass check-in altogether and go straight to my room. But watch this space. John Vanderslice, head of luxury and lifestyle brands at Hilton Worldwide, is working on it.
‘We’ll keep on innovating because technology is a key element of luxury,’ he says. ‘For many business and luxury travellers the travel accessory they most value is their tablet and their smartphone.’
A survey by Conrad Hotels shows that nearly 75 per cent of travellers use a smartphone, tablet or computer when booking travel. Seventy per cent prefer hotels where they can use IT to customise their experience. ‘When it comes to hotels, younger, more affluent travellers don’t necessarily want to interact with the concierge,’ says global travel analyst Claire Newell.
The growing popularity of — and dependence on — tech on the go is revealed by internet usage figures. In 2001 (not that long ago), a meagre 1.5 per cent of upscale travellers used hotel internet every day. Now that figure is almost 100 per cent. Most hoteliers say (OK, complain) that bandwidth demands double every year. Bandwidth may be expensive but hoteliers shouldn’t complain too much because guests doing things for themselves mean hotels can employ fewer staff, cutting their wage bill.
The Conrad Concierge app, which comes in thirteen languages, enables you to do more than just the basics. You can order from three lines of bathroom products; choose a pillow from the pillow menu; book a spa appointment; arrange housekeeping; and pre-order room service so it’s there when you want it, not 30 minutes after you remember to order it. And you can do all this as easily outside your room as you can in it.
Hotels have been promising us a hi-tech future for years. Retina-scan room entry, robot butlers that never ask for tips, corridors that light up and lead you directly to your room thanks to the radio chip in your room key, beds that disappear into the ceiling and intelligent bathtubs that mould themselves to your body shape — they’ve all been mooted. And then quietly forgotten.
It’s not hard to see why. Tech is expensive and, if you get it wrong, it can be really expensive. A decade ago most hotels spent millions installing fixed-line ethernet cables for plug-in internet access. Five years later the arrival of Wifi replaced it. The same goes for in-room fax machines — expensively installed fifteen years ago, now gone for good.
But smartphones and tablet computers are changing all that. They are so user-friendly that they are making technology a necessary luxury, as important as great service, decent shower pressure, a dreamy bed and top-notch food. Travellers demand a hi-tech wired environment all the time, everywhere, and hotels and travel brands cannot afford not to offer it.
Curiously it was airlines — notorious laggards when it comes to customer service innovation — that were first to adapt to the wired world. British Airways was among the first to create an app that allows you to check in using your smartphone or iPad and download the boarding card. The app also lists all forthcoming bookings with seat numbers. Soon BA travellers will get gate changes, departure and arrival time updates and details of which carousel their bags will arrive on sent to their smartphones.
‘Mobile technology with real-time information is crucial to our customers,’ says Frank van der Post, BA’s new head of customer experience. It was he who pioneered the use of iPads by cabin crew. BA stewards not only know who is on board at the tap of a finger, they know passengers’ entire BA travel history.
‘It helps us to make sure they get their favourite seat, favourite meal or, in the unlikely event that their bag has not made it on to a flight, we can tell them during the flight and let them know when it will be delivered to their hotel, so they don’t waste time on arrival.’
Ultra likes to think of itself as a modern traveller, so, apart from the Conrad Concierge, the panel below is our list of the most useful travel apps. But what else would we like to see? How about TVs we don’t need a PhD to operate? Could Conrad Hotels programme our favourite channels to be channels 1-10, rather than the lucky dip you get on most TVs? They already know our favourite newspapers.
And before we get too screen happy, let’s remember that some of the best technology is that which you never see and maybe never even know about. Every Peninsula hotel has a small valet cupboard next to the hotel room door that can be accessed both from inside the room and by hotel staff in the corridor outside. Open the door and put in shoes to be cleaned, or a shirt to be ironed, and a sensor immediately alerts staff. They access the cupboard securely from the corridor, remove whatever you’ve deposited, do what you ask and return the item within an hour.
What’s more, the sound system in every Peninsula room is linked to the telephone, so when you answer the phone the volume of the music or television is automatically lowered to make it easier to hear the conversation. Feel better? Of course you do.
Conrad Concierge is available for the iPhone and iPad from the App Store and from Google Play for Android devices