CANNES, France — The question of what role technology plays in the luxury hospitality experience consumed a great deal of time and attention at last week's International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) conference here.
Luxury hoteliers, analysts and travel agents at the event debated the merits of technology enhancements such as smartphone apps; in-room, touch-screen controls; and large, flatscreen TVs, probing whether such devices improve the guest experience.
Many hotel chains used the annual event to pitch their technology advancements and their role in better achieving brand service consistency and in eliminating the potential for errors by an all-too-human staff.
Others, however, preached old-fashioned human contact as the best way to ensure that hotels that charge $500 a night and up continue to provide value and a unique experience.
At no time was this high-tech vs. high-touch dichotomy better expressed than in an ILTM keynote by Nicholas Coleridge, president of Conde Nast International. In sharing his pet peeves about luxury hotels with some 2,700 ILTM attendees, Coleridge listed both overzealous personal butlers and confusing room-lighting controls.
And Rocco Forte, namesake of the 13-property London-based luxury hotel company, said technology can be just as obtrusive as the butler called out by Coleridge.
"You've got to have the WiFi, the iPhone connections and the big televisions," Forte said during an interview at the conference. "But sometimes you'll check in to a hotel and the staff's busy looking at their computer screen instead of talking to you. So there are some bad aspects."
That didn't stop some hotel companies from hawking their technological advancements at the show.
Peninsula Hotels highlighted the recent completion of the first phase of a $58.1 million renovation of the 297-room Peninsula Hong Kong. The company, in a presentation to journalists, placed particular emphasis on the property's in-room, touch-screen tablets, which enable the guest to do everything from controlling lighting levels to ordering room service.
Meanwhile, Hilton Worldwide last week publicized the launch of its Conrad Concierge app, which enables guests to order amenities ranging from meals and local transportation to bath products and pillow types from their smartphones.
Olivier Chavy, head of global brand performance for Hilton Worldwide's luxury and lifestyle brands, said the company had spent about a year developing the app.
Whatever their approach, operators of the world's most exclusive hotels are wrangling with the technology issues in an effort to better cater to a clientele whose travel spending was the first from all income levels to rebound from the economic downturn.
Paul James, global brand leader for Starwood's W, St. Regis and Luxury Collection badges, said luxury travelers spend about $1.3 trillion a year on lodging. He added that the demographic is getting younger, more multicultural and more tech-savvy.
"It's a whole new economy, even if it's going to the old destinations," James said at a conference presentation. An accompanying image showed a wedding party from India drifting by on a Venice gondola.
"This audience has grown up in a very different world than previous generations," James said.
The divide between the older and younger generations of luxury travelers has contributed to a bifurcated approach to luxury on the part of larger hoteliers. For example, Starwood's W and Hilton's Conrad brands are more forward-looking, while the St. Regis and Waldorf Astoria brands continue to cater to upscale travelers seeking a more traditional, elite level of lodging.
For the smaller hotel companies without those resources, however, ILTM attendee Robert Cook, director of sales at Longwood, Fla.-based agency Go Travel, suggested it would be wise to place a higher priority on personal pampering.
"The leisure customer just wants to be coddled," Cook said. "I just stayed at a hotel in Switzerland where it took me 30 minutes to figure out how to change the TV channels. That's too high-tech."
Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly.