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How Do We Ensure That IoT Isn’t Too Focused on the ‘Things’?

The Internet of Things (IoT) has recently become a hot topic in the real estate and property management worlds. However there have been companies that have been successfully using IoT for years to innovate and grow their business.

Take Coca-Cola for instance. Back in the early 1980’s, they were connecting their vending machines to the internet. Like all smart uses of IoT, they leveraged the data coming from those vending machines to gauge inventory levels, manage profitability and analyse buyer habits. It was through this analysis of buyer habits that led to the company creating a new flavor, since they saw that the machines were getting simultaneous purchases of Cherry Soda and Vanilla Coke, and the company surmised that mixing the flavors might be a good idea.  

As IoT makes its way into the world of properties (be that a home, hotel, vacation rental or an apartment), there have been many stories of things falling short. Almost all of these stories have two major things in common; using the right tool but in the wrong application, and not having a laser focus on what you are trying to accomplish.

With so many smart home devices that a property manager can add to a building, it can be challenging to know what to prioritize. Cameras, smart locks, motion sensors, noise monitoring, voice assistants, hot tub controllers, garage door openers and others are being used with some level of functionality by property managers around the world.

In short-term accommodation settings, property automation used smartly is a benefit for manager and guest. Used wrongly, smart home tech can fall short of guest expectations and operational standards.

There is a famous hotel in Japan that has voice assistant robots, robot vacuums and robot front desk staff. The hotel has recently announced that it has decided to replace almost all of its robots with real people. Is this a story of using IoT and automation too soon, or simply using the wrong application?

Anyone who has ever used a robot vacuum will agree that it’s great for the home. It bounces around and does its job fairly well. However, the size of the storage canisters is pretty small, meaning you have to empty it once a day.

Getting it to handle the heavy traffic of the office, a hotel or a busy serviced apartment… it becomes clear pretty quickly, that it’s simply the wrong tool for the job. A skilled cleaner with a canister vacuum is still the best and most economical solution.

The story is the same for motion sensors and open/close sensors in properties. Motion sensors have been around for a very long time. Most people don’t know that the T in ADT stands for telegraph, because in the 1870s, the founder of ADT was the first to wire up a sensor (using the telegraph) that would tell him when someone opened his front door when he wasn’t home.

So an open/close sensor is the right tool if you want to know if someone unwanted is someplace you don’t want them to be. However, it’s the wrong tool to tell you if someone is in a hotel room or vacation rental property and you want to know if you can turn off the heating and lights (ask someone who’s fallen asleep or is watching TV how much they like having everything turned off on them).

Hotel and apartment managers have to decide which onsite technology they need to implement in order to enhance the guest experience and improve operations. For instance, maybe they need to add a new intercom with video, or a new lock for a common door used for the whole building. The real question property managers need to ask themselves isn’t what device is best, but which device most suits their needs, and fits with their existing operations.

Based on this, there are two challenges for property managers; choosing the right technology and then choosing the technology for the right application.

With today’s growth of the sharing economy, it’s increasingly common to see purchased apartments, typically in urban locations, spending 50% of their time essentially as hotel rooms thrown up on Airbnb or while the owner is away.

How do you then fit them out with smart home devices, when they are used both as a residence and as a transient accommodation?

The burglar alarm that works great for the residence, can be a point of friction for the guest.

A solution, which is a common feature of Asian homes and is growing in popularity in North America for primary residences and short-term lets, is using a smart lock with a keypad.

Both short term and long term rentals have also increasingly begun to implement noise sensors in their units. These noise sensors aren’t the security ones that can detect when a burglar breaks glass, but the type that monitors decibels and can inform a property manager if a loud party is underway and is likely to be bothering the neighbours after hours.

However, these monitors used alone, have their vulnerabilities. Someone watching TV or playing loud music can manifest noise levels that are at the same dB reading as a party.

This is where CO2 monitoring comes in. CO2 monitoring is a technology that has been used in the commercial building industry for 20 years, and its primary application is to save energy through something called demand control ventilation. This is engineering speak for not oversupplying air into a room unless necessary (thus saving on the cooling or heating of air). People breath out CO2 at a constant rate and so monitoring the levels is the best way to determine if a room is over occupied and needs more air.

What becomes really exciting for the professional property manager, whether that be of hotels, short-term rentals or long lets, is that combined, many of these more commercialized applications of sensors can be used for a host of solutions. For instance, improving compliance, providing better air quality for guests and figuring out if a unit is over-occupied.

Taken together, a keypad door lock, noise sensor and CO2 sensor can provide the opportunity for real insights into guest comfort, risk issues or security situations. Tie that together with temperature and humidity (both key to guest comfort) and there is a wealth of information available to a property manager.

However, available information doesn’t always mean actionable intelligence. Going back to the Coca Cola example, Coke didn’t connect the internet to their vending machines without having a strategy for what data they wanted to collect and why they wanted to collect it. Of course, they were laser focused on what they were trying to accomplish which included creating efficiency, and harvesting data for strategic decision making that would help the company stay ahead of both their customer and their rivals. The real magic for Coke wasn’t connecting the machine to the internet, but their use of software to manage all that collective data intelligently.

While hardware is designed to be generic (a lock opens and closes; a sensor reports its reading), it’s only through software that the real power of a device emerges. We have seen problems with this with voice assistants in hotels. While voice assistant software has advanced to a level that can be very useful for a guest, they have been designed to be used in a home.

For use in commercial rentals, voice assistant software needs to be integrated into a wider ecosystem so that it knows that one guest left and another guest has arrived. Otherwise, there will soon be complaints by guests being woken up by an alarm set by the previous guest. Again, the issue is not the device, the issue is the software.

Right now hospitality property management is fragmented with point solutions that don’t talk to each other. In my belief, connecting IoT devices in a meaningful way is how the industry is going to move forward.

Even if home automation devices do talk to each other, they are designed to talk to each other in a ‘home-like’ setting for the benefit of one occupant (or family). Therefore finding software companies that can connect the devices in a meaningful way for hotels, short-term property managers or long-term rental managers, requires a unique focus.

The smart thermostat in a home wants to learn your personal preferences. The smart thermostat in a hotel wants to balance a guest’s comfort with energy savings. The smart features for a long term lease probably just want to have a safety feature that doesn’t allow for high heat and humidity (and mould growth) or super low temperature (to avoid freezing pipes).

The only way for property managers to really make the best use of IoT is to not focus on the T (i.e. the devices) and instead focus on the data and the application.

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