China is on the forefront of the next generation of hotels. There have been several major announcements regarding so-called “smart hotels” in the past few years, with the latest being a strategic partnership between luxury hotel brand Shangri-La and Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings.

The goal of the partnership is to develop “smart hotel solutions to power the transformation of hotel operations and services for Shangri-La.” What this actually entails isn’t known just yet, but, according to Shangri-La, the partnership will utilize Tencent’s cloud computing, AI, social communications, and payment platforms.

Representatives from Shangri-La Group and Tencent sign a strategic partnership at Shangri-La’s Futian, Shenzhen location. Photo: Shangri-La Group

While we may not know much about the new Shangri-La-Tencent partnership, it’s reasonable to expect that it will feature amenities that other new Chinese smart hotel projects have implemented. In fact, many of China’s biggest names in technology have already begun to foray into the smart hotel business, including Baidu and Alibaba.

InterContinental and Baidu have already rolled out a few smart rooms at the hotel’s Sanlitun, Beijing location. There are plans to introduce the technology to 100 suites across China, indicating smart rooms won’t be a standard feature anytime soon. The rooms feature an interactive voice AI system, with which guests can get information about travel times and hotel services. Guests can also use the system to control lights, the thermostat, and the curtains.

AI technology at the hotels could allow repeat guests to have their room settings ready upon check-in

Baidu and InterContinental also stated that the AI technology will be used to gather guest information. So if a guest decides to stay in a smart room multiple times, the room settings will already be changed to their liking before arrival. This means that room experiences could become even more tailored for consumers than ever before. However, for now it seems it will be limited to more basic features like temperature and lighting. Once the capabilities of smart rooms expand, we will likely see accommodation experience customization become more robust.

While an interactive voice feature will be standard for most smart hotel rooms, some companies have attempted to use the technology to tie in hotel stays with their core businesses.

A major part of Alibaba’s smart hotel strategy is tying in the hotel experience with their e-commerce platforms

Alibaba’s online travel agency, Fliggy, has also launched a smart hotel brand, dubbed the Flyzoo Hotel in Hangzhou. The Flyzoo Hotel has robots that guide guests around the premises, face recognition for check-ins and room locks, and elevators that do not require guests to press buttons. Much like the Baidu-InterContinental rooms, there is a digital assistant, called the Tmall Genie, that can control lighting, temperature, and curtains.

Perhaps most interesting is the hotel’s e-commerce tie-in. Guests can, for example, use the Tmall Genie to order groceries. Guests can also use their mobile phones to purchase the furniture in the room. So the hotel experience isn’t simply about selling accommodation, it is also serving as a product marketing effort that could drive sales online.

The potential here for synergy is significant. Moreover, it could make the hotel experience more accessible and customer friendly. If delivery times are short enough, guests could quickly order and receive key items they may have left at home or items they didn’t realize they would need to purchase. Ideally, this could even be done before guests arrive, so that during check-in their groceries, for example, would already be delivered to their rooms.

All of this technology looks cool, but it’s still not clear which “smart features” will resonate with consumers or if guests are willing to pay more for these kinds of experiences. Then again, given how rapidly AI assistant technology has developed in the last few years, smart hotel experiences may simply become an industry standard at both the high and mid-tier levels of accommodation.

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Hotels & Accommodation