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BirdsEye View

integrating technology and tradition - the peninsula hong kong

 Community bankers at our Forums are torn.  They recognize the need for technology, but are deeply concerned it will distance their customers from them and give the largest banks an advantage.  These are valid concerns.  Smaller banks can’t compete with Chase and other bleeding-edge banks on mobile offerings and other key technologies.  Further, using such technologies and database mining to improve 1:1 marketing can create an impersonal experience that doesn’t leverage the strongest competitive advantage SuperCommunity banks have – their people and service.

A recent visit to Hong Kong showed me how others whose feet are firmly rooted in tradition have solved the technology quandary most effectively.  Let me share the story.

The Peninsula hotel chain is a small and very high-end group of hotels.  Its roots are in Hong Kong, where the flagship hotel was opened 85 years ago.  It has always catered to high-end travelers, and has built a very strong brand name among local families and business people.  That brand identity is important in any organization and culture, but even more so in Hong Kong, where tradition rules alongside technological innovation.  This couldn’t have been more apparent than during this last visit, when local families flooded the hotel celebrating the holidays.  The usual business clientele, which also reflects the brand’s strong Asian identity, gave way to locals who spent time at the famed lobby for high tea and stayed at the hotel to do their holiday shopping.

The Hong Kong property has been the Grande-Dame of the chain since inception, but it was growing old.  The first step toward modernization was to appoint the hotel’s first woman General Manager.  I met Rainy Chan, the ever-energetic and gracious GM, fifteen years earlier at this hotel.  Our story is a perfect example of how relationships (and the income streams that follow) are formed.  But that’s for another column.  This article focuses on innovation and renovation, modernization without abandoning past successes and strong cultural foundation.

Chan helmed a major renovation of the hotel, and we returned to check it out.  It was a masterpiece of integration of old and new without compromising either element.  The rooms are as gorgeous as ever, but more fresh and updated, in subtle earth tones and lots of Chinese lacquer.  The decor is modern, but you know you’re in China.  So many little items were thought through.  For example, the drawers self-close.  And there are tons of electric sockets that accommodate both 220 and 110 volts; you don’t need an adapter to charge your electronics.  A small but significant improvement.

But the most striking part of the change was the technology.  The Peninsula Hotels were always ahead of the rest when it comes to technology.  A console by your bed offered you the incredible luxury of turning lights on and off, putting on your Do Not Disturb sign, adjusting the room temperature, and opening and closing the drapes – all from your bedside.  It was the height of luxury.

The hotel now set a new standard: by every bed side and in other key locations you will find a Samsung Galaxy pad.  The pad is portable and allows you to perform all the bedside console functions described above and LOTS more.  You can turn on and watch TV, select and watch movies from an extensive online menu, review the spa treatments, read all room service menus etc. etc.  It is a major enhancement to the customer experience without detracting at all from the cozy atmosphere of the hotel.  And, in six months, you could order room service using the tablet as well.

This enhancement isn’t just a tech gimmick. It saves paper, allows for quick updates without having to reprint stuff again and again, and soon will be able to cut staff who currently receive room service and spa orders.  There will be no need for that staff since the tablet will perform all these functions with less time and aggravation.

Another great example of effective technology use is offering international calls for free since the hotel phone system is now VOIP.  What a fantastic idea!  It saves money for the hotel and for the guest.  It may sacrifice a revenue source that has been a huge annoyance to clients, but it’s a dying revenue source anyway since international travelers now use their mobile devices to call instead of paying the hotel their exorbitant fees.

This use of technology is much like putting the board books online and much more.  It puts the customer in the center of it all without diminishing service.  The Peninsula’s special touch is still here.  When I want an electric kettle to drink my endless tea, it arrives within minutes.  Room service food is still great, arrives hot and on time, and is served with inimitable graciousness.

The point is simple: the Peninsula has devised ways to enhance, not detract from, the customer experience using technology where is can create value for the customer.  It will also create efficiencies for the hotel, but at no experience cost to the customer.  On the contrary, the experience is enhanced and a new bar set for all other hotels to follow:  offering top-notch service with cutting-edge technology.

The applications in our industry are plentiful, but require out-of-the-box thinking, much like the example above shows.  Why not use technology to convey a fuller experience to customers, using video demos and tutorials both online and on tablets and mobile?  A bank can offer valuable investment seminars that way, and make its typically boring marketing far more contemporary and interesting .  Even information delivery can be enhanced using new technology.  Check out Check, the new app that allows you to create a truly consolidated statement on your mobile phone across institutions.  You cannot transact using the system, but you CAN get information on all your financial comings-and-goings at your fingertips without having to log in every time.  It is pure information at its best, and a value-add for sure.

Offering such technological enhancements doesn’t mean service is irrelevant and that humans are being phased out.  Instead, they are being put where they matter the most:  offering differentiating service levels to customers, giving advice that no app can give, and using technology to help people make their banking easier, faster and more fun!