Adding Value – Train Rides and iPads

Train rides are very enjoyable for me because I get the chance to remain terrestrial. I’m not driving myself, nor am I on a bus going pretty much the same way I would have driven myself. Since train tracks do not always follow “car routes”, I get to take a more scenic view, stumbling upon sights that don’t come into my view on a regular basis. I also like to take trains at times they are sparsely occupied, so that I have a lot of space to myself. The combination of those components makes the ride an enjoyable one. However the real luxury experience can be summed up in one picture from my last trip on Amtrak:

A former client of mine, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, recently kicked off its 2012 expansion campaign with the opening of a St. Regis property in Shenzhen, China. As of last week’s opening, the property is the tallest in St. Regis’ line of luxury hotels.


  • Rooms: 257 rooms and 40 suites occupying floors 72-100 of the Kingkey 100 building, which is also the tallest building in the city.
  • Meeting Space: 2,100 square meters of meeting and event space.
  • Amenities: Iridium Spa; high-end restaurants and lounges; St. Regis Butler Service for all guests; and a penthouse level housing a whisky and cigar bar.
  • Technology: iPad2 remote controls in each room. Guests will be able to manage all of the room’s amenities with customized apps.

St Regis Hotel Shenzhen guestroom 468x312 Worlds Tallest St. Regis Hotel to Open in Shenzhen

It’s all impressive, but amidst the wonderful glitterati of amenities, I question the value of iPads. I’ve noticed that more and more lux hotels are putting them in rooms as an approach to adding value, but I wonder if they really enhance the guest experience. The iPad lets you do more for yourself, by yourself. Does it erode the lux guest’s emotional security that comes from knowing he/she has an army of people willing to serve just about any whim?

Don’t get me wrong. I’d put iPads in my hotels as well, but I would be careful as to what I allow them to do for my guests. I take care of my guests – not a digital device. I bet there are some properties out there with apps that do all sorts of new things for users, but do guests really want to use an iPad to order in-room dining? Do they want to make a spa or meeting room reservation with a touchscreen? I don’t think so.

I remember visiting a luxury apartment complex in Weehawken, NJ where they used technology to do many wonderful things, except rent payments. They still required tenants to, once a month, come down to the admin offices to pay their rents. Why? It’s because human interaction has more long-term value than a beautiful LEED-certified, technologically extravagant building.

At its core, a hotel’s success does not come only from its prime real estate, a strong market, or cost-efficient operations. Hotels are all about service and creating lasting impressions. Those “WOW” moments we read about rely on the personal interactions guests make with the staff.

I know that this argument may be likened to the debate over print vs. digital, but I think I have strong justification from my last train ride. Amtrak is certainly not the Orient Express. In fact, there are lots of people who complain about Amtrak. The locomotive engine has been around since the early 19th century. However, the fact that I had a service (on-board Wi-Fi) that let me edit my blog while travelling in a peaceful and spacious environment spells L-U-X-U-R-Y. Why? It is because I can be a better me, when I should be reasonably encumbered from going about my regular business. Like a print newspaper, I can be inspired to write a post, learn new things, and stumble upon discoveries. For me, the onboard Wi-Fi is worth a lot more than the bus ride which cost only $3 less than Amtrak.

You could say that the same argument about “being a better me…” should be made for iPads, but remember that hotels are run by people, not machines. On the train, I simply need to get from point A to point B. With the assistance of an engineer, tracks and rails get me where I am going. In a hotel, the destination is: a place better than home, comfort, fulfillment, and positive interactions. I don’t think there’s a digital device for that.


  • Don’t let technology change the way you give the luxury experience. Customers flock to luxury for something that can’t be reproduced anywhere else. If you let technology take care of your core business, you’ve lost your competitive edge.
  • Customers don’t need a lot of choices – they need capability. An iPad with various apps may leverage business costs, but they may not be able to mimick the flexibility built into standard operating procedures (SOPs). What guests really need at a high-end hotel is the confidence that the brand can fulfill all their desires. Who better to deliver on that need than a human concierge who can anticipate needs that the customer may not even be able to communicate.
  • Humans thrive on interaction. What more can I say. We may live as individuals, but we find our status and relevance in the relativity of groups. People make other people feel important, not devices.

5 thoughts on “Adding Value – Train Rides and iPads

  1. This post is incorrect in its conclusion. For the same reasons the writer enjoyed the wi-fi on the train, the customer of the hotel will enjoy being able to book spa time or order room service via the iPad – CONVENIENCE. In the same way print is falling out of favor towards digital, so too shall human interaction fall to the side in the face of the speed and efficiency of technology. One example of this is the ever increasing usage rates of “self-checkout” vestibules inside of Grocery or Convenience stores. Human interaction is nice, but overrated. If human interaction were so important we’d still be visiting family members in person instead of using our cellular phones to call, text, e-mail or facetime them.

    • Wtjoll,

      Thanks for your comment. It is very insightful and presents a strong argument for the adoption of technology in luxury businesses. Like I wrote, I would also install the iPads in my luxury hotel (if I owned one). However, what I am also trying to communicate in the article is that hotels should be wary of how deep they integrate new technologies in their business processes, because technology is really a competitive equalizer. Luxury brands need to be a step or two above the fray and so I propose that brands only use technology to the limit where they do not commoditize the differentiating experience provided to the customer.

      I definitely do not believe that human interaction will cease to be a need in our lives in a future where you say technology will make us more efficient. Thus my argument is centered on human interaction being a focal point for sustainable business success in the long term future. Technology may change, but people will still go out for dinner, shop in large brick and mortar markets, and watch movies together.

      Thanks again and let’s keep the discussion going.

      • Excellent. I would agree that luxury merchants should keep the “personal touch” in order to keep human interaction, but always use the best technologies to stay in the moment on foregoing issues. For this reason, I believe we agree in principal.

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