The first occupancy sensor was invented in the 1940s, based on World War II research, using ultrasonic waves and the Doppler effect to identify motion in a room.
In the following decades, the technology behind occupancy sensors evolved. Today, in hotels across the world, occupancy sensors not only manage energy costs and efficiency, but make the workflow for housekeeping teams quicker and more efficient. They also benefit the guest who is no longer interrupted by a housekeeper’s knock on the door.
Sensors are cheap ($10-$20), battery-powered (lifespan 3 to 5 years) and available off-the-shelf. In addition to monitoring occupancy, sensors are used to measure temperature, humidity and CO2 levels and they play a key role in the building management IoT systems used in hotels, hospitals, schools and colleges.
IoT stands for Internet of Things which refers to the connection of any appliance to the internet for the purpose of triggering an action, automating a process, and gathering data. IoT sensors send messages directly to an IoT dashboard for real-time decision-making.
Many hotels already have a foothold in the world of IoT through their use of sensors. In fact, a 2019 survey by PwC found that 70% of hotel executives had IoT projects underway.
As hoteliers are increasingly asked to do more with less, now is a good time to consider expanding the use of IoT applications.
“We are motivated by IoT because it can mean long-term cost savings, especially energy costs,” said John Burns, president, Hospitality Technology Consulting.
The global hotel recruitment crisis means workloads have increased for operations teams. IoT can help, but managers need to first speak to their teams and identify the repetitive manual processes that are giving them the most problems.
Three Types of IOT
“Do not start with the tech. You will get lost,” advised CommScope networks engineer Andrea Coppini in a recent webinar. Instead, he recommended looking at housekeeping, maintenance, F&B and night audits and identifying actions to save time and money.
Coppini divided IoT functions into three categories: alerts, automation and auditing.
First, at its simplest level, IoT creates alerts, so a door sensor inside the mini-bar can tell housekeeping staff whether the mini-bar has been opened in the last 24 hours, saving them time in getting the room ready.
In large hotels with hundreds of rooms such as those in Las Vegas, Dubai and China, having a dashboard that shows which mini-bars have not been touched can save a huge amount of time.
In another example, maintenance and housekeeping personnel, who are often working alone, wear panic buttons on a lanyard around their necks to alert management immediately of an emergency situation. In some US cities and states, panic buttons for hotel employees are now a legal requirement.
Many of these devices also include a ‘room ready’ button so housekeepers can immediately notify the front desk as soon as a room becomes available. Again, in large hotels where housekeepers must cover great distances, this speeds up processes.
These alert-based IoT applications are easy to set up. They run over the WiFi network and all that is required are the sensors and the IoT management platform.
The second step up from alerts is automation. For instance, the hotel’s sprinklers automatically stop whenever it rains. Instead of just a simple alert, here there is an input (the weather) and an output (the sprinklers) which makes it more complex to set up in terms of the type of sensor needed and the information to enter into the rules engine.
The increasingly popular rollout of online door locks is another example of IoT automation. The difficulty of deployment here is a little higher, said Coppini, with a possible requirement to fit IoT modules and management software into the locks and upgrade the PMS.
The third and final function of IoT is auditing. IoT devices emit a constant stream of data. Having a data trail allows hoteliers to monitor utility consumption and identify anomalies.
It is up to hoteliers to decide how to store this data and how to act upon it; however the sheer volume of data pumped out by IoT devices is recognized as a drawback.
A standard IoT hotel system might manage lights, locks, thermostats, wall light switches, blinds, shades, security cameras, CO2 sensors, occupancy sensors, door sensors, and humidity sensors.
With such a system, the conference and events manager, for instance, can prepare the conference space by turning on the lights, opening the shades and setting the air conditioning, without physically visiting the room and having to manually perform these tasks.
If selecting an IoT system for a branded property for the first time, it will need to be brand-approved and able to integrate with the “smart guestroom” programs of the brand in question i.e. Hilton Connected Room and IHG Studio.
Vibhu Gaind, chief information officer, RBH Management, a UK hotel operator of over 45 branded and unbranded properties, said: “We monitor utilities and our building management systems give us a real-time view of what we are using as a hotel and what our carbon footprint is. IoT is definitely something that is going to help us both in making the environment better and running our hotels in a much cleaner way.”
The new Westin London City Hotel & Residences, due to open in October 2021, has complete end- to-end integration of the building management system with the PMS, he added.
IoT has firmly established its credentials for saving time and money in the areas of energy management and predictive maintenance. It can also help bring hotel teams who tend to work in silos more closely together because it demands greater collaboration across housekeeping, F&B, IT, security and maintenance divisions.
However, downsides to IoT include the difficulty of data storage, security, tech dependency and overreach, and the environmental impact of the sensors themselves.
IoT systems have been vulnerable to cyber-attacks. In 2017, for example, a hotel in Austria had its online door locks hacked for ransom on four separate occasions, locking guests out of their rooms and preventing the issuance of new keycards. The hotel owner paid the ransom ($1,882 worth of Bitcoin) and has since reverted to using conventional metal keys.
Today, however, vendors are confident that security protocols have been ramped up and such attacks are increasingly unlikely.
Other guest-facing IoT applications have had a bumpy ride too. In 2017 several brands, including Marriott, Best Western and Wyn Resorts, piloted voice-activated virtual assistants in bedrooms, like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. They found that most guests either unplugged the devices or complained about privacy concerns or being suddenly woken up in the night by the unwittingly-activated appliance.
Still, from energy management to online door locks, IoT in hotels is now firmly established, with more applications likely to come on stream. Some do not rule out the return of virtual assistants, either.
Burns said: “It’s entirely possible that a voice assistant of some sort may come in handy. We in the hotel business are looking for things that delight the customers and are going to differentiate us. If we’re going to be successful we have to experiment. We don’t write it off as a failure. We write it off as a learning experience.”