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Tech-Driven Hospitality: How the Bay Area is Elevating Guest Experiences

San Francisco Business Times: How the Bay Area is elevating guest experiences — Table of Experts

Technology is playing a transformative role in efforts by the Bay Area’s hospitality industry to attract guests to local hotels, restaurants and sports stadiums.

Generative AI, high-speed internet connectivity and cutting-edge applications are working together to create a new era of personalized yet high-tech experiences. On March 8, four industry experts joined a virtual forum sponsored by Comcast to explore how these systems are revolutionizing the hospitality landscape, creating memorable moments for patrols while driving operational efficiency and revenue growth for businesses.

The panelists were Alex Bastian, president and CEO of the Hotel Council of San Francisco; Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association; Christian Nascimento, vice president of product management and strategy for Comcast Business, and Bijal Patel, principal with Sonari Capital Partners. San Francisco Business Times Publisher Mary Huss moderated the discussion, which is condensed and edited for clarity below.

How has technology evolved the hotel guest check-in process, and what benefits does it offer both guests and staff?

Bastian: What is so important is to bring convenience to our guests. Guests want to get to their rooms and experience what the hotel and the city have to offer, which, of course, are some of the best views in the world, some of the best restaurants in the world, and, yes, magical experiences that are unparalleled across the globe. We look to make that process as efficient as possible.

  In addition to the experience of San Francisco, when they’re in the hotel, our guests want high-speed internet. Finding ways to take a city like San Francisco and keep its charm in buildings that quite often have been around since the great earthquake of 1906, while at the same time bringing in the functionality of high-speed internet, can be challenging. What we want to do is take it to the next level, and we can do that with strategic partners like Comcast so that the functionality of guests is through the roof.

Patel: If you go back to when my grandfather bought our hotel, we had racks behind the front desk where you used to put completed registration cards. Guests were issued a key at check-in and had to return it at departure. Now, we have digital registration, and people want to check in on their mobile apps. Some of the brands actually allow you to select what floor and room you want.

We’ve made improvements that not only provide a more efficient, streamlined guest experience but also touch on safety, security and environmental factors. With the RFID locks, instead of using a key card packet, you have your key on your phone enabled with Bluetooth. In the past, we had individual registration cards and took imprints of guest credit cards. Now we have digital registration tablets.

In what ways can technology enhance in-room entertainment experiences for hotel guests, and how does this contribute to overall guest satisfaction?

Patel: In our society, everything’s all about customization and technology allows guests to customize their entertainment content. Travelers all have their own mobile devices. I recently took my nephews to Disneyland, and they all had their iPads. We’re all together in our guest room and everybody’s watching their own shows. So we’ve evolved from where everybody had to watch what was on one TV to different people watching different content. High speed is a big part of that, but guests also want to have control and get their home experience while on the road. As a next-gen traveler myself, I rarely turn on the TV to watch actual network TV unless there’s a major world event. For the most part, I log in to Netflix, Hulu or any customization platform that the hotel has. Our guests expect to have these options  now, so if you don’t have that, you are at an extreme competitive disadvantage.

Bastian: In addition to individual guests, something that’s very important to us are business travelers from around the world who come here both for purposes of business travel or for conventions, and what’s so important to them is connectivity. It’s so important for us to provide them not only the space to do what they want to do but also to have memorable experiences here. That’s why many hotels and restaurants have developed customized spaces and meeting rooms. When you have a meeting space in a hotel that allows you to take over the room as if it is your office in New York City or Washington, D.C., it changes the game.

What are some examples of innovative tech solutions that restaurants use to streamline the dining experience and personalize service for guests?

Thomas: One of the biggest innovations over the past couple of years has been our ability to capture the guest profile in the reservation system. So, we can know that Mary may sit a little longer than Alex, likes this room better than that room or has a house account, so charge everything there and assign this gratuity. We have so much more information where you don’t have to have the legacy of a human who tries to remember what each guest wants. That makes the guest feel more appreciated and known, and it can help us avoid situations that might cause an uncomfortable outcome or an unhappy guest.

  There are also some new things coming to help operators respond quicker to guest needs and reviews. We’re starting to see platforms available where AI is helping with some of those responses. It unnerves me a little bit personally as an operator. I’m not ready to do that yet, but I think we will start to see some of that happen more often.

Nascimento: Where AI is going to be really powerful in the hospitality industry is with the loyalty and rewards aspect of everything. When you think about those POS, reservation, and check-in systems, AI could take all that information and make recommendations on the type of dessert that someone might want or the type of activities at the spa that they might want at the hotel. AI has the opportunity to transform that guest experience.

How does technology facilitate seamless reservations and seating arrangements in restaurants, and how does this impact guest flow and satisfaction?

Thomas: I am an industrial engineer by training and had to go to operational research classes where you’re trying to maximize the flow of something. One of the biggest things I love about these booking systems is that they help you play Tetris with your book. A turn is the duration of a customer’s seating, and if you only get one turn from seven to nine, you won’t survive as a restaurant. All of these booking programs have amazing grids that make suggestions to help. Having a suggestion on how to maximize the capacity of your restaurant makes a difference between making money and losing money.

Nascimento: If you can squeeze a bit more margin or a few more reservations because you’ve planned appropriately, that could be really powerful. Now, we can provide internet access to a restaurant, and that restaurant can then source many applications on mobile devices that can do a lot of this for them. It’s the democratization of technology because they don’t have to buy big, capital-intensive systems.

Can you share any success stories or case studies where technology implementation significantly improved guest experiences in the hospitality industry?

Patel: Unfortunately, the California hospitality industry lost 80,000 associates due to  the pandemic when they chose to pursue other options. We are diligently working on programs to attract those individuals back into hospitality, and we are relying on technology as we start to recover and bring more associates back. Before, we’d have a runner who made sure housekeeping was communicating with the front desk as rooms got cleaned  Now, it’s all done through mobile apps. The housekeepers can use the hotel Wi-Fi, log into the mobile app on their phones, communicate with the front desk or even submit maintenance requests that go directly to the maintenance engineer’s mobile app.

Bastian: One thing that impresses me when we talk about San Francisco as a hospitality community is sustainability. We are leading the way in the country when it comes to renewable energy, zero waste and electric vehicle charging stations. What’s so interesting about this is we are doing this in a way that also looks at the bottom line. Sometimes, efforts around sustainability are very costly; they end up resulting in very significant investments in infrastructure. But what we’re doing here in San Francisco is partnering with the government and finding ways to balance both the costs and the bottom line to advance sustainability efforts in a way that’s near and dear to our hearts and in a way that benefits the jurisdiction.

Thomas: Technology has made the customer experience easier. The more that you can do quickly on your phone — make a dinner reservation, check out all of the social media reviews, look at exactly where you want to go, get your mobile tickets so you don’t have to go to will call, get your tickets to your monorail — the more you can choose what you want to do and not spend hours planning everything two weeks ahead.

  We want to try to do everything we can to enhance that and help our employees have the tools to do their jobs easier and with less stress. One area where there’s an opportunity for more innovation is in the kitchen. How do we streamline the kitchen? How do we make that job, which has been classically a tough job often for people of color, easier and more fun so they can focus on their creativity and have an easier day in their work environment? This could include making it easier to get to recipes and manage costs for cooling and HVAC equipment, or it could be increased bandwidth for the cameras and monitoring systems we use, the music we’re planning and the reservation and POS systems.

How are sports stadiums leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience during events, and what opportunities does this present for collaboration with hospitality providers?

Nascimento: We’ve seen private 5G networks being built in stadiums that can connect different businesses, and we’ve seen fun things like using that private 5G network to enable cameras on mascots to get a ground-level view from what the mascot’s doing. We’re looking for this community experience, but we’re also looking for the comforts of home too. That means making sure the device that everyone has in their pocket connects to Wi-Fi so guests can take pictures and upload them to social media or send them to their kids. It also means ensuring the entire stadium has the right technology for safety, the guest experience and the connectivity to power everything.

Thomas: I was lucky enough to be at the Super Bowl, and I didn’t need a wallet. All you needed was your phone and the NFL app. I never took my wallet out. From a safety perspective at security to purchases in the stadium through getting a car afterward, it was all on your phone.

Bastian: San Francisco is truly a unique place when it comes to the impact sports make on our city. Whether it’s the NBA All-Star game in 2025, the Super Bowl that we’re going to have here in 2026 or the World Cup, we have so many opportunities in front of us around the world of sports and music. There’s an avenue for all of us to work collectively to push forward and find ways to enhance that experience.

How do hospitality businesses balance integrating technology with maintaining a personal touch and human connection in guest interactions?

Thomas: One example of this balancing act is QR codes. During the pandemic, many restaurants went away from beautiful, printed menus to QR codes, and there’s a big debate in the restaurant industry about whether those are good or bad. The key goes back to what we all know: One size doesn’t fit all in the hospitality industry. Maybe in a stadium or in a fast-casual situation, a QR code is just fine; your goal is speed and getting in and out with your food. But in a full-service restaurant that may be off-putting to the customer. They don’t want to have to look at their phone, and they’re trying to get their kids to interact with the parents during a meal. You have to know who your customer is, what is appropriate, and what isn’t. Maybe there’s room to tailor even within an organization to the different needs of the customer.

Patel: That’s why we still have the front desk, the concierge and other touch points in hotels, so we can provide a choice to travelers. Some people want to check in and have that high level of service, and some want to select their room on an app and go directly to their rooms.

Nascimento: The great thing about technology is that it really provides choice. It gives you the ability to be touchless or it gives you the ability to augment the human interaction.

Bastian: Most definitely. The more luxurious traveler who is coming here and wants to experience it through the lens of leisure often wants that personal touch, and technology can augment that experience. For those here for business and want efficiency, it gives the opportunity to just get to your room and go to sleep.

From a customer perspective, what are the most important considerations when choosing a technology provider for their hospitality business, and how does Comcast address these needs?

Nascimento: Reliability is key. We provide a world-class network with local, in-your-area service with local sales and technicians servicing these hospitality locations. Also, we are constantly innovating and investing in the network and in the applications that ride off of it. I think what the hospitality industry needs to think about is a partnership with a service provider like us that can grow with them, and that can continually increase the amount of broadband or connectivity that’s going to the location, the type of provider that is launching new services like software-defined networking and Unified communication solutions that can solve other issues that the location needs.

How is the X1 for Hospitality evolving as a part of Comcast’s offering?

Nascimento: Our X1 platform began as our consumer residential video platform, and we spent a lot of time investing in the right experience for the living room. We determined a few years ago that X1 was exactly the type of experience that our hospitality partners wanted to provide to their guests. It leverages the cloud to provide a digital video recorder so you can record your favorite shows and guide applications like Netflix and other apps to make the hotel room feel more like the living room, adding a sense of comfort if you’re traveling.

  We’ve taken that the next step further and built technology into X1 to make it even more applicable to the hospitality industry. Staff at the hotel can know if there’s an issue with a box and track inventory of boxes. It can also allow the customer to check out via the TV and then have all of their recordings wiped so that there’s no personal information left whatsoever.

Is it time-consuming to make transformative investments, or can most hospitality businesses experience significant change in six months to a year?

Nascimento: It’s a great question. We all saw the acceleration of digital transformation during covid. It was literally a matter of keeping hotels and restaurants operating by spacing out, being more creative and using technology in different ways. But the great thing about technology today is that it allows for incremental changes. There was a time when you’d have to rip and replace and pull technology out in a multi-year and capital-intensive process. With the advent of connectivity and software platforms, hotels and restaurants can be very incremental when they do it, and they can come up with a plan that’s either multi-month, multi-week or multi-year and make incremental changes that are very customer-facing and that can have an actual impact on the customer’s experience. They can be very impactful in back-of-the-house operations. So, I don’t think a hotel, restaurant or any business has to take a long, long time to transform. They can be very smart about it and take incremental steps to get there.

Patel: I joined our business when all three generations of my family — my grandfather, my dad and me – would walk the property together. Of course, I would be chomping at the bit, “Let’s install this,” or “Let’s do this. I just went to this conference; I want to put this in.” With the adoption of technology, there is less in-person walking of the property but as a strategic partner, Comcast still finds ways to work with our family to evolve our technology in cost-sensitive, hands-on way. Their flexibility and an openness to slowly evolve is important.


Alex Bastian
President and CEO
Hotel Council of San Francisco

Alex Bastian is president and CEO of the Hotel Council of San Francisco, which advocates for an industry that employs 25,000 people and generates hundreds of millions in annual tax revenue. In this role, Bastian created a security committee that has led to significant improvements in public safety. He has led efforts nationally and locally to counteract negative narratives about the city, prompting a public push for more investments in the city and its hospitality industry. He has also spearheaded workforce investment efforts within hospitality. Before joining the Hotel Council of San Francisco, Bastian was a special advisor to the Los Angeles County District Attorney. Prior to that job, he was the deputy chief of staff and an assistant district attorney for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office for nearly 12 years

Christian Nascimento
Vice President,
Product Management & Strategy

Christian Nascimento is vice president of product management and strategy for Comcast Business. He oversees the development and management of commercial connectivity and data products for businesses of all sizes, including broadband internet, metro-ethernet, Wi-Fi, and commercial video products. Additionally, he leads Digital Customer Experience, including an entire ecosystem of digital products and services designed to reduce customer contact and drive cx and revenue growth, including the mobile app, MyAccount, Help & Support, Virtual Assistant and Real Time Assistant, as well as AI services and the various product portals and experiences. Nascimento joined Comcast in 2006, holding leadership roles in consumer and commercial services. He played a key role in launching X1 into the Hospitality market. Nascimento holds a bachelor’s degree from Widener University and an MBA from Villanova University. He also serves on Widener University’s board of trustees.

Bijal Patel
CEO, Coast Redwood Hotel Group

Bijal Patel is a principal with Sonari Capital Partners, a private equity fund that invests in select service and extended stay hotels in the country’s leading metropolitan markets. Patel is a third-generation hotelier who also serves as CEO and principal partner of Coast Redwood Hospitality, his family’s company that owns and operates a portfolio of hospitality and multi-family assets in California. Previously, he served for two years as chairman of the California Hotel & Lodging Association (CHLA), America’s largest and most influential lodging association. His leadership skills, especially in government advocacy, were vital in helping to successfully guide California’s hoteliers through the pandemic. He continues to serve CHLA as a member of the board of directors and co-chair of the advocacy committee.

Laurie Thomas
Executive Director
Golden Gate Restaurant Association Laurie Thomas is executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a nonprofit trade organization advocating for restaurateurs since 1936. Thomas brings an operator’s perspective to the role. She has been in the restaurant business in San Francisco for 30 years and owns Nice Ventures, which owns and manages two successful restaurants in San Francisco: Rose’s Café and Terzo. Before becoming a restaurateur, she earned a bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University, an MBA from Harvard Business School and held senior management positions at several enterprise software companies in Silicon Valley. She serves on the board of the SF Travel Association and the honorary board of Meals on Wheels and was a founding member of Friends of Larkin Street, which raises money to serve at-risk youth.

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