In the hospitality sector nary a day goes by without a new ‘iconic’ product coming to market. The future is always arriving; the old is forever being washed away to make way for the glorious, previously unimagined new. Over time, one learns to take such predictions with more than a pinch of salt. In general, things change a lot less than the salesmen would have you believe.
But, at the Royal Lancaster in London, there might just be a glimpse of what tomorrow looks like on display. The new XR SmartStudio, installed in a ballroom mothballed during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year, allows guests to take a step into a brave new virtual world.
Developed in partnership with Smart AV, the facility features a 20 square metre extended reality stage, complete with an LED backdrop and floor, audio, broadcast cameras and TV-ready lighting. It allows users to have both a live audience and virtual attendees, generating a fully-immersive, 360-degree experience for both.
As Sally Beck, general manager of the Royal Lancaster, tells Breaking Travel News editor Chris O’Toole, necessity has been the mother of invention.
“It was all going well – we had finished £85 million worth renovations, climbing up TripAdvisor and getting some excellent feedback from our clients – and then, of course, it all ground to a half with Covid-19,” she explains. “We were taking the Royal Lancaster where it could be and, indeed, should be. We tried to stay open, but we closed our doors on April 1st – reopening on August Bank Holiday. The XR Studio has been a big part of that reopening – and we began to work on that even from the end of March. We realised early things were going to be different and we worked with our partners at Smart AV to bring it to life. They have invested £1.5 million in new equipment and they have taken the space we would have filled with events if it had not been for the pandemic.”
Hybrid events to date have seen a mixture of attendees welcomed, with some hosted in the Westbourne Suite at the hotel, and others joining virtually. Fully virtual events can also involve speakers pre-recording their messages, which is then live streamed or saved for a later date. The team at the Royal Lancaster can even create an app for the delegate so they can choose which session of a conference they want to join.
Beck continues: “When we began lockdown, we had a lot of business on the books for the autumn – but we have seen this cancelled, or postponed. Annual events might skip 2020, or organisers postpone well into next year. But the XR Studio has changed that – our partners are realising, while they might not be able to do what they had originally planned, they are still able to do something. The equipment allows events which are a mixture of physical and virtual – which allows events to take place, but for us to stay within the government guidelines. There is still work to be done, with our partners learning about how the technology works, but the feedback so far has been great.”
Of course, in the straightened times created by the pandemic, costs are even more important than before – but virtual reality does not mean a hit to the finances, Beck argues.
“One stumbling block has been the traditional model of an event, which uses a lot of sponsorship. There were concerns that sponsors might not be able to be involved in a virtual environment, but this has not been the case. We have seen with clients that have used the studio so far, that the sponsorship model is actually a lot more attractive in the virtual environment than in the physical. We have all been to events where the sponsors gather during the coffee break, hoping to speak to guests, but they might be unable to. In the XR Studio, the content is controlled to the audience, and you can make sure the audience does see it,” she adds.
“Once an event planner understands this, that the funding for an event can still be maintained, then the adoption of the technology will be sped up.”
There are limits to what the new studio can achieve, however, and a full recovery for the hospitality sector cannot be expected until a Covid-19 vaccine, or widespread testing, is introduced. It is hard to make much money from a virtual guest, who does not a bed, or anything to eat, after all.
“Banquets, weddings, they will endure – but in terms of global travel, companies will question if they need to send people around the world to shake hands. However, they still need to speak to their people, so there will be a change in how we meet and work globally,” Beck continues. “Obviously, this has an impact on demand for accommodation, as well as food and beverage – which we will have to address. From a staffing point of view, the limits on the numbers of people in the room include staff, so we have to keep our team to a minimum – so changes will be needed there.”
In person Beck is a quietly inspirational character, reinventing the Royal Lancaster while the travel industry collapses around her. She was recently presented with a lifetime achievement award by Preferred Hotels & Resorts, which represents the property, and remains upbeat about the future.
She continues: “Hospitality must be resilient, we cannot be buffeted by what is happening – we will get through this and whatever it looks like, we will learn to live with Covid-19. If you are resilient, you can be creative – identify ways in which you can make money, increase turnover and survive. The travel industry is massively creative – we have invented family rooms for the domestic leisure market, which we did not previously offer, while also turning our boardrooms into co-working hubs. People do not want to go to the office, but they still need to meet, so this is perfect for them. The car park is making more money than it ever has before, because people want to drive more, while we have had offers to take over the kitchens we cannot currently use.”
For Beck, the fightback begins now.
“When will the recovery come? We are recovering now. We cannot afford to wait for six months, ten months for the corner to be turned – we need to look how we can increase revenue now. We have to adapt – we cannot just sit and wait for the international market to come back, because we will die. At the same time, we must care for our partners, staff and guests – business will come back, and we do not want to do something in the short-term that will damage us in the long-term.”
We all have our role to play, she concludes: “In London, there is not enough domestic tourism to tide us over. In the countryside, there has been something of a boom, but people do not want to come to the cities currently, so that market has not been an option for us. We get up to 20 per cent occupancy at the weekend – and we need this to change. I would encourage Londoners to explore their neighbourhood and support their local hotels.”
Royal Lancaster is a contemporary, stylish hotel next to Hyde Park and within walking distance of Paddington station, Bayswater and Marble Arch in central London.