Takeaways from HT-NEXT

It was good to catch up with many industry colleagues this week at HT-NEXT. As much as I would have preferred a physical event, I will give the organizers a lot of credit for pulling together an engaging program and clever use of two technology platforms. I’ve mentioned the conference/exhibit hall platform (UgoVirtual) in an earlier blog on meetings technology, and for the most part it performed well.
The second one, Shindig, was a surprise. It did an excellent job of simulating a networking cocktail reception. Everyone there showed up with their video picture thumbnail; you saw their name instantly if you hovered over it. If you saw someone you wanted to greet, you just clicked their picture to start an instant video chat (if they’re already in a group, someone in the group has to approve you).
After just a few minutes of fumbling, I was having a great conversation with friends that was really as close as you could get to a real networking event. People would drop in to say hello, or if you saw another group that looked more interesting, you could take your leave and join them. Some people took the theme to heart and had cocktails with which to make virtual toasts. The only thing different was, as one hotelier put it, it’s the first industry networking event in his memory where he had to buy his own drinks!
To be sure, there were a few glitches and ideas that failed, but mostly things worked well. The conference shed a lot of light on what is possible to do with virtual conferences, and many of these lessons will transfer to the hybrid event world that will be with us for at least a while, and most likely permanently. Still, to me the event reinforced the value of face-to-face events, where attendees are much more immersed in the moment, multi-tasking isn’t an issue, and you have the opportunities to share a coffee, meal, or cocktail to reinforce the human bonds.
Of course, my focus was looking for new and interesting technologies. As was the case with Cyber HITEC, it was disappointing to see so few new exhibitors. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed at finding technologies that were truly new. I did find some interesting new use cases that I will mention, and many of the technologies I have mentioned in prior columns that are getting much more adoption. To avoid repetition for regular readers, I have linked some of the topics below to the prior articles that covered them in more detail; this article is really more about their adoption trends.
Many of the technologies and vendors I have highlighted in this column since the arrival of COVID-19 are clearly getting more traction. Whereas many were brand new when I first covered them, it was evident at HT-NEXT this week, both in presentations and side conversations, that hotels that are actually starting to use some of them in significant numbers.
Chat applications are becoming ubiquitous, although there were differences of opinion about whether they needed to be omnichannel or SMS only, and whether they should be voice-enabled through Siri or Google. I don’t see much of a case for specific voice-chat functionality from the guest mobile device; someone who wants to use voice will already know how to use the speech-to-text function of their phone to accomplish that. There is much better recognition among hoteliers that requiring an app download for chat defeats the objective of getting as many guests as possible to utilize it; as a result, more hotels are supporting standalone SMS texting (often in addition to app-based chat). Most hotels’ adoption of chat still uses simple messaging applications rather than AI-supported ones that try to automate responses, probably a result of both the maturity of AI as well as higher costs. Outside the conference I have seen evidence that AI chat is gaining traction as well, but it still hasn’t entered the mainstream discussion.
Loews talked about an interesting initiative in support of hybrid meetings, providing (at some of their hotels) professional studio capabilities to support high-quality remote events. With meeting organizers, keynote speakers, and panels all having to present remotely, this is a great option, and the hotel can provide either just the facility itself or the facility plus professional AV services to stage them. It can also support hybrid meetings staged at multiple hotels around the country simultaneously, allowing attendees to remain in smaller groups while still meeting together. The technology here is not new, but the flexible packaging and turnkey options are.
Contactless deployments were everywhere, with several mentions of prearrival messaging to both inform guests what they can do to avoid contact during their stay or to collect information or health forms. One hotel group was using prearrival messaging to learn the guest’s attitude toward COVID risks so that they could customize interactions and housekeeping appropriately. Also ubiquitous were contactless check-in options, mobile key, and food and beverage ordering.  Many housekeeping departments have started using electronic checklists to help arm room attendants for the revised cleaning processes; one executive said they were invaluable in helping changing the behavior of staff who may have been cleaning rooms the same way for 25 years.
One interesting concept mentioned in a couple different sessions was electronic lockers for food delivery. These can be heated, refrigerated, or ambient; can be used to deliver hotel-prepared meals or to allow third-party delivery to guests more efficiently and without contact, and can be used for non-food items as well. The guest typically gets a QR code by text when the order is placed in the locker; they just scan the code to open the correct locker. Aspen Skiing Company is using a similar technology to deliver pre-purchased lift tickets without the need for queueing.
One innovation that I haven’t seen before, but that was shown in a presentation and has been installed in some Mandarin Oriental, is a contactless in-room coffee maker. It can be activated from the guest’s mobile phone or watch to make coffee without touching it, and it is reportedly also easier for housekeeping to clean. While this will likely be too expensive to make sense in most guest rooms, some of the same company’s products appear to be equally usable in a lobby or self-serve restaurant setting, and a quick Internet search tells me that there are other options, some of which may well be usable in hotels.
HT-NEXT also included presentations from three of the winners of the HTNG 2020 TechOvation competition, an annual contest designed to highlight some of the best new technologies. The winners’ innovations all slightly predated COVID, but benefited because they all happened to support reduced-contact guest experiences. Enseo Connect allows a guest to scan a QR code that is on their TV welcome screen to begin controlling both the TV and any IoT-connected devices in the room from their phone. Nonius Cast  enables a guest to pair their device to the TV for casting without having to touch the remote control. Startup Yoonik provides a biometric solution for verifying a guest’s identity from their mobile phone or kiosk that can eliminate the need to view a drivers license or scan a passport where required by local regulation or hotel policy, making self check-in feasible for more hotels.
The content from HT-NEXT will be available online until January 8 if you were registered or have a colleague willing to share it with you. I liked that most of the sessions were short (a few were under 10 minutes and most were 10 to 20); nothing seemed to drag and every session was worthwhile.
I can’t wait for a return to normal for events like HITEC and HT-NEXT, but it was an engaging and enjoyable three afternoons, and there was much to learn.