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How smart technology is transforming travel as we know it

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When you get to the hotel, you don’t bother going to the front desk to get your key. Instead, you head straight to your room, and the door clicks open for you. Only for you.

Inside, the temperature is perfect, because the room knows what you like. You switch on the TV and watch the rest of that Netflix movie you’ve been meaning to finish. No need to hunt around for it; the room’s TV also knows what you like.

You’ve probably never stayed in a place like this. But you probably will. Vacation hotels that recognize us and cater to our desires are already here, with more on the way, powered by the up-and-coming Internet of Things. Major travel and tourism companies like Hilton, Disney, and Carnival Cruise Line are investing billions in smart technology, in a bid to make everything personal. They’re turning ships, hotel rooms, and resorts into places where everybody — and everything — knows your name.

Walt Disney World has taken an early lead. In 2012, it introduced My Disney Experience, an app that lets users plan their visits well before they set foot in the Magic Kingdom, and MagicBand, a wristband stuffed with radio chips that can interact with sensors scattered through the park.

Linked to your park tickets, use the band for entry to Disney World parks — where you can access rides, shows, and restaurants — and of course to open the door of your hotel room. Meanwhile the Disney app steers you through the park using an onscreen map. You can plot out your optimum itinerary for the day, laying out the most efficient path from one attraction to the next. Order your meal through the app, and it will alert the restaurant that you’re coming. The waitstaff may even greet you by name.

Disney spent a billion dollars installing the system, which for now is available only at Disney World in Orlando. The goal, said vice president of digital experience Dan Soto, is a friction-free vacation. “When guests come here to our parks, they’re spending their hard-earned dollars,” Soto said, and so they don’t want to spend hours in line waiting to have a good time. “We want to remove a lot of the barriers to the fun.”

John Padgett, a lead developer of the MagicBand, has taken the same concept to sea. Padgett is now chief experience and innovation officer at the cruise ship company Carnival, which has rolled out a similar system in two of the company’s massive floating resorts, Caribbean Princess and Regal Princess.

Each ship was refitted with a network of 7,000 sensors, 4,000 touchscreen data portals, and 75 miles of cables. The nautical network interacts with coin-like “OceanMedallions” carried by each passenger. The chips inside the medallions can unlock staterooms, alert the ship’s restaurant to prepare your favorite dish, and even offer musical hints to the ship’s musicians. Like classic rock? Put it in your data profile, and when you visit one of the ship’s live entertainment rooms, they’ll know the kind of music you like and try to squeeze it in. Padgett spoke of one ship’s guitarist who always strikes up a John Denver song when encountering passengers who hail from Colorado.

“Everything recognizes you,” said Padgett. “It should be all magic. That’s how we approach it.”

Carnival plans to roll out its Ocean Medallion technology in additional Princess ships this year.

Back on shore, Hilton, the global hospitality chain, is using the Internet of Things to smarten up its hotels, by upgrading to a system called Connected Room.

Hilton already allows guests to remotely unlock their room doors using the company’s Hilton Honors app.  But with a Connected Room, guests can also control the lighing and set the room temperature.  The company is planning a future enhancement to enable users to preset the temperature before they arrive. Hilton plans to use the technology to turn down heating or air conditioning when the room is unoccupied, slashing the hotel’s energy bill.

The Connected Room smartphone app doubles as the room’s TV remote control. With a standard hotel remote, it can take forever to find the channel for your favorite TV network, which changes from city to city. The Connected Room app simply displays the logos of available networks. Just scroll and tap to tune in.

The company first tested its Connected Room system in Memphis in late 2017; since then, the company has wired up about 2,000 rooms in 10 US hotels. This year, Hilton plans to hook up tens of thousands more rooms in hundreds of its US hotels, and to roll out the technology in some of its overseas locations.

Hotels are also beginning to experiment with voice-controlled personal assistants, like those found in millions of homes. Marriott’s Aloft Hotels brand has deployed customized Apple iPads at locations including Aloft Boston Seaport. A guest can use the iPad’s Siri voice-control feature to control room lighting and ask for information on nearby tourist attractions. Marriott is also testing a new version of Amazon’s Alexa system specifically designed for hotels.

But while speech-enabled devices are popular home gadgets, they may not go over well in hotels. “A lot of guests have told us they don’t necessarily feel comfortable with that,” said Josh Weiss, Hilton’s vice president of brand and guest technology. Because it amounts to putting a live microphone into every hotel room, the potential threat to privacy is all too obvious.

Of course, these devices are supposed to listen to us only when we wake them up with “alert words” like “Hey, Google.” And while the ones that have been deployed in rooms are designed to delete all stored recordings after each guest checks out, that might not be good enough for some people.

Still, a technology this popular will surely be welcomed by at least some travellers. We’re probably in for a future where hotel guests are given a choice of room types — listening or non-listening.

You’ll just enter your choice into your smartphone, and when you arrive, you won’t have to say a word, to Alexa or anyone else. The hotel will know what you like.

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