To make lobbies livelier and stays more personal, hotels are enlisting Microsoft products and platforms

The hotel lobby has lost much of its cache. You check in, you check out. You might partake in a continental breakfast in an adjoining room, but not a lot of time is spent in the actual lobby these days. Concierges live in our phones, and the experience of lingering over wine or cocktails around a live piano in the lobby is nearly extinct .

Despite this, some hotels haven’t given up on their little-used living rooms. For example, when the Hyatt Regency Bellevue decided to spend $5.2 million on a makeover in 2014, it wanted to reinvent, not shun, its lobby. John D’Angelo, the hotel’s director of rooms, says the first step in doing so was renovating an outdated space. “We were stuck in the ’80s,” he says. “It looked like Blondie was going to walk through the door.”

So in came a fireplace, posh couches, and tables with pop-up outlets to charge phones, tablets, and laptops. “We needed it to be usable here, today,” D’Angelo says. “People needed to feel at home and get some work done.” Passing through, the lobby is a lovely room, but the Hyatt doesn’t want people to just pass through. That’s where the John Mayer-playing coffee table comes into play.

Thanks to Microsoft, the former catchment area for coffee cups and propped-up feet now doubles as a 55-inch entertainment center, which on this day is playing one of D’Angelo’s favorite crooners, and that’s not all it can do. “The No. 1 use is the air hockey app,” D’Angelo says. “We get impromptu tournaments out here.”

John D’Angelo, Hyatt Regency Bellevue’s director of rooms

John D’Angelo, Hyatt Regency Bellevue’s director of rooms

The Perceptive Pixel table, which runs on Windows 8, is just one example of how hotels are using Microsoft products to better serve their customers. As connected devices infiltrate our homes, it’s our hotels that could more quickly adopt the technologies in a widespread fashion.

The Bellevue Hyatt isn’t the only hotel using Microsoft devices. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group is testing the use of Surface Pro tablets in guest rooms. The tablets are loaded with five guest-services apps that are available in nine languages, thus eliminating the interminable, Muzak-blaring information channel that once was ubiquitous on hotel TVs. Pilot programs are underway in the company’s Las Vegas, London, Tokyo, and Washington, D.C., properties.

“When you get tablets in the room and with our work on room controls, you start to then have the opportunity to personalize content,” says Greg Jones, director of Microsoft’s hospitality department. “So if I have certain allergies … that room-service menu could be customized to my requirements.”

While Microsoft devices can help ease the guest experience, platforms hosted in the Azure cloud infrastructure are allowing guests to tweak their hotel preferences before they even walk in the door. Philadelphia-based Evolve Controls’ Room Operations Center (ROC) platform is perhaps the most connected room-control system available. The platform allows guests to set preferences such as room temperature and position of a room’s blinds via a mobile app. The hotelier also can program the room to automatically kill the air conditioning and shut off all lights to save energy once the guest leaves.

“We have the ability for the hotel to manage the environment, and we give the guests the ability to customize their stay,” says Evolve’s vice president of user experience, Leo Daiuto. “It’s basically a trigger-and-effect system. If somebody buys a movie on the television, our infrastructure can be told to go into movie mode — close the drapes, dim the lights, turn the room into ‘do not disturb,’ those types of things.”

Twelve hotels now use ROC, and more than 30 are in the backlog. Platforms like ROC have value only if the hotel employs connected devices, but this is where Daiuto sees an impending shift. Cloud-based partnerships like the one between ROC and Azure enable customization that could remain consistent between hotel locations. Loyalty programs have yet to catch up with technology, Daiuto says, and cloud-based systems let guests customize any digital device the hotel sees fit to connect with the platform.

Microsoft tablets and software are helping rooms become more personal, but tackling the declining popularity of the lobby is another issue. The tablet-table hybrid in the Bellevue Hyatt could make its lobby more social, but the device is still an awkward early edition. While a 7-inch tablet requires finger swipes to operate, a 55-inch table takes arm sweeps and a bending of the back. Reaching to the far corner of a coffee table isn’t a natural gesture, but the Hyatt table all but requires it. “When we first got this thing, I spent all day bending over it to set it up,” D’Angelo says. “By the end of the day, my back was really sore.”

Awkwardness aside, the table is an experiment in reviving the lobby’s relevance. Hotels across the nation are taking cues from coffee shops — lots of outlets, free Wi-Fi — to better welcome today’s connected traveler. But to get a guest to linger, a hotel needs something more immersive than an outlet. Maybe air hockey is the answer.