Macro Tech Trends for the Post-COVID Future (Part two)
In my last installment, I introduced four areas of hospitality technology that I believe have been significantly changed by COVID-19. I covered contactless technologies in depth in that first article. This week I will turn to the other three areas: social distancing; health and sanitation; and communications.
As before, I will not be calling out specific companies or products here. First, there would be far too many for me to review and qualify, given the breadth of the topic and the number of new products being introduced from existing industry players, from startups, and by companies coming from other industries. Second, many of the products are still in development and unproven. Third, while there are hundreds of new entrants that have gotten onto my radar since the arrival of COVID-19, I have to assume that there are many more that haven’t yet, meaning any list is likely to be missing viable options.
Instead, I want to highlight the technologies that can help address some of the challenges COVID has presented. Assuming you know, what you are seeking, it shouldn’t be too hard to find the companies and products that can provide it. I have covered some of these technologies in more detail in my prior columns and have included links where relevant.
I will start with technologies that help maintain or enforce social distancing. Perhaps the most visible trend is the emergence of reservation systems for things that never needed them before, but where occupancy limits now need to be enforced. The concept is hardly new, but the usage has grown exponentially around some use cases that were previously rare. It’s now common to need to reserve machines at the fitness center, swim lanes or seating at the pool, shuttle bus seats, tables at restaurants that were previously open-seating, and even a time slot for picking up breakfast to take back to your room.
In the same vein, some hotels are offering food and beverage via an order-and-pick-up system, with a notification to the guest when the order is ready to be picked up. This enables social distancing by preventing congregation at the pickup counter and avoids the need for a staff member to come to your room – good for guests that want to avoid unnecessary contact, and good for hotel labor costs. Text notifications when your restaurant table is ready is another not-so-new technology that is getting much more usage; it enables the guest to wait in their room or elsewhere rather crowding around the host/hostess station. With reduced physical capacity, a restaurant facility that might normally never get very full may now face more demand than it can accommodate, creating the need for reservations.
Other technologies manage social distancing by detecting overcrowding and mask noncompliance. Several companies offer Wi-Fi monitoring capabilities that can detect a high density of connections in particular locations that can then be highlighted for staff intervention. These are not foolproof, since not everyone connects to the Wi-Fi, but they can still be useful. Many video surveillance systems can also be configured or upgraded to provide alerts based on the number of people in particular areas; many can even detect and raise alerts about mask compliance. The two major questions about mask compliance are the privacy concerns (in order for an alert to be actionable, the person needs to be identified or at least recognizable, and security camera videos are typically stored), and whether hotel staff can be both available to intervene when an issue is detected, and trained to deal with the situation appropriately.
Also, in the class of social distancing are elevator control systems that can be programmed to skip stops when even just a few people are already on board. Some manufacturers are also now offering voice control, to eliminate the potential for infection from shared elevator buttons.
On the staff side, scheduling systems are implementing staggered shifts to reduce crowding and enable social distancing at staff entrances, uniform pickup sites, changing rooms, and departmental stand-up meetings. Staggered scheduling can be essential to avoiding staff congregation at larger hotels, but it does require rethinking many operational practices, and in some cases adopting new technologies. For example, some hotels have abandoned or reduced traditional standup meetings in favor of staff communication platforms that can be accessed through a mobile device.
The second area I will cover this week is health and sanitation. Several technology solutions are designed to prevent sick people from getting into the building (or in the case of guests who cannot be turned away, at least ensuring that they pose the minimal possible risk to others). Temperature scanning can be done with portable devices, or for hotels that can guide everyone through one or two common entrances, less intrusively via imaging. I covered some of these solutions in more depths in two prior columns here and here. Each solution has its challenges, but society has become far more accepting of a practice that might have been deemed inappropriate before COVID.
On the staff side, numerous solutions have emerged to help ensure that symptomatic staff do not put their colleagues or guests at risk. Apps, websites, and even manual checklists that staff can be required to complete at home before their shift can highlight symptoms that might be concerning; telemedicine partnerships with local health care providers can help assess questionable cases.
Contact tracing can also be useful, although its application may be limited to staff and perhaps certain self-contained groups. It only works for people who are opted in, and in the general guest population it will likely be difficult to achieve a high enough opt-in rate to be effective. Several technical solutions (some covered in this earlier column) can detect proximity based on mobile devices, wearables, or badges. If a person using the solution is later found to test positive for COVID, then others can be identified to be at risk based on earlier proximity to the infected person and the duration of exposure. Some reservation systems, such as for restaurants, are also collecting more information from guests so that they can be used in the case a diner is later found to have been infected; the system can identify and provide contact information for other diners who were seated nearby.
While many sanitization technologies are non-digital (and I will not cover those here), several digital or digitally enhanced solutions have also appeared. Smart UV-C sanitizers can disinfect a guest room while being remotely initiated from an app, so that staff members are not exposed to potentially harmful light. Other approaches sanitize work surfaces such as keyboards and mice by turning on the UV-C light only when they detect that no one is within range. Lower tech UV-C boxes can be used to disinfect mobile devices and small tools. Some of these technologies were covered in more detail here.
Other solutions help sanitation by making it easier to proceduralize and measure compliance with COVID cleaning procedures. Several housekeeping and workflow apps have been enhanced to include more detailed checklists that enable housekeepers to document completion of each required task, and many now support proof via photos or scanning of RFID tags. Much of this is based on prior innovations I covered in some depth here about a year ago, but adapted for COVID; some have been offered for free, as I mentioned in articles back in May here and here.
Even lost-and-found applications have seen innovation in the COVID era; one solution gets the item wrapped up in plastic and provides a means to reunite the lost item with the guest that is contactless for all parties.
The final major area of COVID innovation is communication. The combination of guest concerns about sanitation, with significantly altered availability and usage requirements for hotel facilities and services, has created an obvious need to let the guest know in advance what to expect during their visit. Most hotels have never been particularly innovative about using digital forms of communication with guests. Once they leave the booking page, the most they are likely to see is an invitation to use mobile check-in, or a canned e-mail with advertisements for hotel facilities and local businesses. COVID-related innovation will likely change that forever, and for the better. Hotels have begun using tools that were often already at their disposal to reach out to guests prior to arrival and tell them what to expect in terms of arrival, check-in process, onsite services, health and sanitation procedures, food and beverage options, housekeeping, and amenities. One wonders why so many hotels waited for COVID to do this!
Some of the housekeeping apps have added a feature to send a detailed “your room has been prepared and here is the proof” email to guests, with a checklist of what has been done and maybe even the name of the housekeepers and some pictures to prove it. During the stay, communication can remind them how to get access to what they need, or how to check-out contactlessly. And of course, as I have covered previously, communication innovations like messaging apps and AI chatbots and voice assistants can both improve communication and reduce personal interaction.
What I find most interesting is that while a few of these technologies have emerged only in the past year or two, many more of them have been around for years – but until now, few hotels used them. We can hope that the experience hotels have gained through COVID will lead to greater willingness to look at and consider broader use of technologies – often ones hotels have already paid for – where they can improve the guest or staff experience.