WITH its latest redevelopment, Grand Park City Hall has not just transformed physically, but gained a digital edge too.
The hotel on Coleman Street reopened at the start of this year with a brand new look - and a brand new mobile application which guests can use to check in, access their room, and enjoy their stay.
When refurbishment plans began in 2016, the hotel was already over two decades old. Park Hotel Group chief executive officer Allen Law wanted to bring it forward and renew it "for its next 25 years".
The group thus studied available technologies in the market that they could adopt.
They hit upon an idea that could both tackle existing challenges and take the hotel into the future: a multi-purpose mobile app.
"Our whole starting point is from the guest experience," says Mr Law. "We're trying to give the guests convenience and control when they come to the hotel."
Before arrival, guests receive an email notifying them about the app.
Upon downloading it, they gain access to hotel information and an instant messaging function that puts them in touch with the reception.
Related story: Hotel's mobile app saves time by scanning guests' passports
They thus know they have "full support from the hotel even before they arrive", says Mr Law.
The app can be used to make new bookings or change existing ones.
Guests can also use the app to scan their passports and enter their credit card details in advance, which will speed up the check-in process on the day itself.
Admittedly, few people show up with the app already downloaded.
"Most of the guests may not actually know we have this app yet," says Mr Law.
But when the app is introduced to them upon arrival, most people do want to give it a try, he adds.
Those who do not wish to download it on their own devices can instead borrow mobile phones - with the app pre-loaded - from the front desk.
Replacing the traditional hotel keycard, the app is used to access the lifts and unlock room doors. In the room, it can be used to control the lighting, air-conditioning, and even the television.
Room service orders and front desk requests can also be made via the app instead of the traditional telephone call.
Besides providing guests with a high-tech experience, the app also aims to provide greater efficiency and customer insights for Grand Park City Hall itself.
While things are "still at an early stage", Mr Law hopes that data collected through the app can be used to build up a picture of different traveller profiles and their preferences.
This will give the hotel a data-backed understanding of how the preferences of business travellers, for instance, differ from those of family groups.
Preferences could also be analysed according to age groups or where guests hail from.
In the meantime, Grand Park City Hall is already reaping immediate benefits from how the app connects with and feeds into disparate systems across the hotel.
These include the keycard system, property management, finance and accounting, and building maintenance.
For instance, if the app is used upon check-out to settle the hotel bill, this information is fed directly into Grand Park City Hall's finance system.
Even the customer-facing aspects of the app can increase efficiency. With the app being used to scan passports at check-in, reception staff no longer need to laboriously type up guest details.
"It removes a lot of the time traditionally spent doing data entry or transactional work," says Mr Law.
Instead of focusing on such manual tasks, staff can focus on welcoming the guests, he adds.
"Our colleagues can actually spend their valuable time with the guests, understanding them, engaging them, and being able to provide more personalised service."
The need for such changes is especially pressing given a long-running challenge in the hospitality sector: the manpower crunch.
Given this labour shortage, it is important to "make the best use of (employees') time", says Mr Law.
The hotel's push for efficiency thus goes beyond developing an app. Other improvements include an automated system for staff to pick up and drop off their uniforms.
The hotel is also working to improve some internal workflow processes, such as petty cash claims and purchasing, by moving everything online: from filling in forms to obtaining approval and undergoing checks.
"We are combing through the entire operation of the hotel, finding opportunities to cut down some of the not-so-value-adding work," Mr Law sums up.
What helped Grand Park City Hall in its journey was that it did not have to go it alone. The mobile app was developed with funding support from the Singapore Tourism Board's (STB) Business Improvement Fund.
The fund encourages tourism sector firms to innovate, adopt technology or redesign business models and processes to improve productivity and competitiveness.
Small and medium enterprises can receive support of up to 70 per cent of qualifying costs, and non-SMEs can receive support for up to half of qualifying costs.
The funding "made the decision-making a lot easier", says Mr Law.
It would have been a tough call otherwise, due to the largely intangible and unquantifiable benefits, he says: "It is hard to put a finger on the dollar amount of guest satisfaction."
This is especially so since the app "did not set out to drive revenue", he adds.
"It's more of a customer experience enhancement app."
The STB also provided ideas such as using facial recognition for check-in. To pilot this, Grand Park City Hall is part of a regulatory sandbox with the Ministry of Home Affairs and STB.
Nor did Grand Park City Hall have to develop the app on their own. Instead, they worked with tech vendor GTRIIP.
The tech firm's key concept is "document-less travel", says GTRIIP chief executive officer Maxim Thaw Tint. Founded in 2014, the firm released its off-the-shelf app in 2016.
This app is used by smaller hotels in the Jalan Besar area for check-in, as well as by member clubs, gyms and co-working spaces for access.
In contrast to the off-the-shelf product, Grand Park City Hall's app is the first fully customised app developed by GTRIIP.
Says Mr Maxim Thaw Tint: "In hospitality, the branding and the customer experience need to be very tailored."
Grand Park City Hall's app certainly sets them apart. But Mr Law acknowledges that being ahead of the curve may mean being ahead of guest preferences: "Customers today may not be used to the app."
That is why the hotel still offers guests the option of using a traditional keycard.
Still, he is convinced that this is the right direction to take, to keep pace with consumer behaviour and expectations.
This is particularly true when it comes to younger generations, for whom mobile apps are part of their everyday lives.
He notes: "We need to ensure that we ourselves are in touch with the platform that our guests are used to."
The final stage of Grand Park City Hall's refurbishment - its retail podium - is on track to be completed by the third quarter of the year.
Work on the app, however, has not wrapped up, with the hotel continuing to fine-tune the user experience.
Guest feedback has already prompted small tweaks to the user interface, such as enlarging or moving certain icons for a smoother experience.
Future plans include adding more language options to the app, which is currently available only in English.
Constant improvement and progress, after all, is the idea behind Grand Park City Hall's digital drive.
"We believe it's the future of hotel operations," says Mr Law. "What we're trying to do is build the hotel of the future."
Brought to you by The Future Economy Council