Definitely Doug 10/16/20: Cyber HITEC

by Doug Rice

This Year’s Odd HITEC Pilgrimage

This is the last issue of Siegel Sez before this year’s CYBER HITEC event. HITEC is an event I have not missed in 30 years, and historically it has always been a great place to find innovation.

This year’s virtual event will be different. No one knows quite what to expect. I hope that the extended format (a month to absorb it all!) and low registration fees will drive good attendance despite all the staff reductions in the industry.

For the traditional HITEC format, I usually spent a solid week each June planning my activities. I researched the new exhibitors extensively. I watched the press releases to see what the established technology companies were going to be promoting. I tried to gauge the year’s trends and hot buttons, as well as to identify new technology ideas that might be appearing for the first time. I reviewed the educational sessions to see which ones I wanted to attend. I made a list of the exhibitors I wanted to see. I requested appointments with some, and I developed a plan to use my time on the trade show floor as effectively as possible.

This year I started a similar planning process, knowing it would be different, but quickly concluded it was not simply different, but VASTLY different. In some ways better, in some ways worse. I want to share some thoughts on what I learned and how I plan to get the most out of CYBER HITEC.

First, I think the HITEC Advisory Council has done a really great job pulling together some interesting sessions. Unlike every other HITEC, the sessions will be recorded and available for registered attendees to view for a month afterwards. This is great; one of my biggest frustrations with the physical show was that there was simply not enough time to do everything. Even if your first priority was the educational sessions, you might often find that two or even three of the sessions you most wanted to attend were scheduled at the same time, or conflicted with the only time someone was available for an important meeting. For many of us whose schedules are packed to the gills from 7am well into the evening every day, this is a real plus. There may not be as much interaction between the audience and speakers as in the past, but I can live with that tradeoff.

While many attendees go for the education, for others like me the most important part of HITEC is the ability to walk the trade show floor, find interesting new products, and meet the people and technologies behind them. In recent years I spent most of my show-floor time visiting the tiny booths scattered around the remote reaches of the exhibit hall or in the E20x pavilion; these are where the new entrants are most often to be found. That part will be quite different this year – in some ways better, in some ways worse. I have yet to attend a real virtual trade show of comparable size, but from what I have seen, there will be pluses and minuses.

This year’s numbers give rise for concern. In recent years, there have generally been somewhere around 400 exhibitors on the HITEC floor, and of those, around 100 to 120 each year were first timers. I always tried to visit as many of those as I can, because truly disruptive technologies do not often come from the established industry players. In a good year, the 15 hours of trade show time was just about enough to hit them all for at least a look, and for most I could get a quick overview and meet the people. While maybe two-thirds of them were companies with products much like existing ones, the other third had something novel or new. While I could not do deep dives in the limited show floor hours, having met the key people and exchanged business cards, it was easy to follow up with them in subsequent weeks. Many of them have earned mentions in this column as a result.

This year, though, unless there is a last-minute rush of exhibitors, I will be disappointed on that front. As I write this with two weeks to go, there were only 95 virtual booths listed on the exhibit floor, and of those, 15 were taken by media or industry associations. Of the remaining 80, I counted only ten that have not exhibited at HITEC before, at least to my knowledge. I will certainly plan to visit all ten, but what the heck? For the last several months, I have been writing about the amazing amount of innovation that is going on right now. I know it is out there, but why are these companies not out showing it? Exhibiting at CYBER HITEC costs a whole lot less than usual, and several factors should help compensate for the negative effect of the economy on attendance (lower registration cost, vastly extended hours, and the ability for attendees to do it “on their own time” will all help). And with only 80 exhibitors, new entrants will have a much easier time being seen than when they were competing with 400!

I am extremely disappointed with the many providers who have some great and innovative products but who (unless they are just planning to sign up late) are ignoring this prime opportunity for visibility – there were literally dozens I was hoping to see, and almost none of them are exhibiting! I gave some vendors grief in a column last month for failing to promote effectively through their websites. The HITEC exhibit list is just convincing me that for many young companies it is not just a website issue, they simply do not understand how to market themselves, period. Even some those that ARE exhibiting have not given HITEC the basic product information used to describe their virtual booths – it’s about a paragraph; how hard can that be? This is a year when the attendees will have almost unlimited time to see everything that interests them – but there will not be much for them to see, and they may not be able to find some of what is there!

Even the best products rarely sell themselves. You need to market them.

I still plan to use my HITEC time productively, but my usual approach is not going to work this year, and I am not expecting to find nearly as much innovation. Most years, I skip over visiting many of the established vendors because I already know them, keep up fairly well on their new products, and have easy access to the key people away from the show; this gives me more time to meet the new ones. This year, there should be time to visit most everyone. I will hope to find some new things from the more established vendors to compensate for the dearth of new ones.

What will this year’s HITEC trends be?  Researching the exhibitor list does not provide the usual clues. It does seem that everyone and their brother has a mobile app or pseudo-app that can do contactless check-in and check-out, guest compendium, digital menu and ordering, and contactless payment; I know several of the vendors will be showing those capabilities. Some are well done, others appear to have been pulled together quickly and are somewhat disjointed, requiring time-consuming maintenance of multiple databases or an awkward user interface. There are several dozen interesting chatbot products (about half based on AI), but I could find only one on the exhibitor list. There is continued innovation in back office processes, payments, and human resources software, often to address the new normal of work-from-home and the need to retrain returning or newly hired staff without traditional classroom sessions.

A lot is also going on in health and sanitation technology, but disappointingly I saw only a couple of exhibiting vendors with products I am aware of in that area. Robotics is another hot area with some cool innovations; it is starting to look like it may be mainstream before long. But again, I do not see a single exhibitor this year from that segment.

Sometimes I get surprised, when a vendor announces a totally new product at HITEC that was still in stealth mode during my research period, and their HITEC showing may represent a complete pivot from what they were promoting a few weeks before. Some of those companies have done extremely well in the industry and I hope there will be a few of them this year.

Most of the 80 exhibitors are established providers who have been exhibiting for as many years as I can remember, and I applaud and thank them for their support of this important event. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, in many cases their innovations will be incremental rather than groundbreaking, and often useful only to customers of their core products (no one is going to replace their core PMS or POS just to get a mobile add-on).

As for the others, it is probably not too late for you to sign up and get on the industry’s radar! Let me know if you sign up to exhibit in the next two weeks, and I will be sure to look at what you have, with an eye to covering it in future columns if I find it interesting.

And since this is my last column before HITEC, if you do attend and see something interesting, please drop me a line so I can be sure not to miss it!

Douglas Rice

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