Definitely Doug 10/8/21: Stalking Innovation at HITEC

by Doug Rice

HITEC was a little different this year to be sure, but it was every bit as useful as in the past. It felt like the reduced attendance count was just about offset by the smaller number of exhibitors. While the trade show floor was not quite as large and had a good number of empty booths, it felt about equally crowded as pre-COVID. Feedback from exhibitors I spoke with was that the number of people calling on their booths was down, but the quality was very good. In a very tough year, one can only rate this as success.

With just 15 hours of exhibit floor time, it was impossible to visit every one of the roughly 250 stands, much as I would have liked to. But as promised in my last blog, I tried to visit every exhibitor that I had not run across before (mostly first-time exhibitors), as well as a few others who responded to my invitation in that earlier blog. I succeeded in visiting all but a few of the ones I had targeted, and about 60 companies in all. The ones I missed were not present themselves, having fallen victim to international travel restrictions or other Covid-related concerns, or in one case being completely absent the last day.

Of course, the 60 I did visit accounted for less than a quarter of all exhibitors, so I will apologize now for not mentioning the cool new playthings that any of the other 190 exhibitors might have been showing off. But most of my hotelier readers already know those companies and they probably know how to reach you, so my mission was to focus on the ones that might NOT yet be on the radar of hotels, looking for the nuggets of innovation. I will highlight some of the most interesting ones in this week’s column. I will also skip over several staff alert products because all the ones I saw have been highly publicized and visible during the two years since the last HITEC, the result of legislative and brand mandates taking effect at scale.

Of course, many products that look great at a trade show will not pass a more detailed evaluation. As you read on, please bear in mind that I could spend only a few minutes looking at each of the 60 companies. That’s enough to form a first impression, but not enough to validate whether the product fully works as advertised, much less that it would meet the typical hotel’s requirements for security, resilience, integrations, and other aspects. So this is really just a coarse filter for innovative ideas, not an endorsement of the products or companies. I will undoubtedly do a deeper dive on some of these products in future columns, so if you have any feedback on any of the products mentioned, good or bad, I would love to hear it.  

Because my time with each product was so limited, and I had to finish this column the day after HITEC ended, without time to verify my description with each of the companies, I am sure there will be a few products that I have not described with complete accuracy or using the provider’s preferred terminology. I apologize for any mischaracterizations, but I expect that the overall descriptions will be close enough for a first pass.

For those established companies with competing products that I couldn’t see at HITEC but for which I might have missed major advances, please reach out so that if I do a deeper dive on a particular technology in a future column, I can be sure to look at what you have!

As I looked at these products, I ranked them based primarily on innovation, but also on the impact of problem they solve, the completeness of the solution, their usability across a wide variety of hotel types, and the elegance of their presentation. There may well be products from established companies that are similar or better.

Best of Show

Last spring I wrote about how the guest check-in process really needed to be redesigned, and described the ecosystem I believed would best meet the needs of hotels and guests. At the time there were no products I was aware of that met all of the needs I discussed, although I was aware of one in late-stage development project at one of the larger technology companies, that was close to starting pilots with a major hotel group, and that looked like it might come close. But this year’s newcomer Virdee ticks all the boxes from that article, with the exception that they (like the rest of the industry) cannot yet support Apple’s recently announced mobile NFC keys, which will start rolling out this fall with Hyatt. I have to assume that once NFC keys get past the initial pilot and start to become more broadly available to integrators, this issue will get addressed in an otherwise spot-on product.

Because of its impact on contactless, its applicability across a wide range of the hotel types, its ability to validate that the individual’s face matches their ID, and its application to essentially 100% of customer use cases with or without a mobile app, I rate Virdee “best of show” for innovation from among the first-time exhibitors.

Runners Up

Two products, in no particular order, earned my “runners up” rating for best in show.

I have seen dozens of point-of-sale (POS) systems over the years, and while there are lots of differences in architecture, features and functionality, integrations, and reporting, all of the staff-facing user interfaces look pretty much the same. That is, until this year, with the arrival in the US of an established and well-funded Israeli company called Tabit. The wait staff UI is designed for a handheld tablet and uses intuitive gestures as the main navigation method. You can remove a modifier by simply swiping it from the “ordered” side and back onto the list of available modifiers, or do the reverse to add one. Similar gestures provide a seemingly infinite variety of ways to split a check and perform a myriad of other functions.

Tabit is designed to enable the server to spend maximum time in the dining room, and to submit orders in real time, for example taking the drink order and send it to the bar before starting to explain the menu; the drinks can then be ready almost instantly after that’s been completed. Photos and nutrition information can be provided for any menu item with a simple tap, and are suitable for either reminding the server of ingredients and allergens or showing a photo to the diner to assist the sale process. There were many innovative features to push up the average check value; it was as much a marketing and sales tool as an order-taking one. Tabit is new to the US and is still looking for distribution partners, and of course lacks the all-important brand approvals and payment integrations. But it is a great model for the next generation of POS, and even if you cannot buy it today, it is worth a close look.

Another runner-up is Orion Labs, which was showing a push-to-talk staff communications solutions that was significantly more functional than what I have seen elsewhere. The solution runs on iOS, Android, or made-for-purpose devices, and can locate each device holder precisely based on any radio frequency signal supported by the phone (typically WiFi, Bluetooth, GSM cell tower, and GPS), anywhere in the world – in a guest room in the same hotel or at corporate headquarters thousands of miles away. So you can not only communicate with a group, you can see who is where. An aesthetically elegant disc-shaped push-to-talk Bluetooth unit can be mounted on a lapel or shirt for hands-free access and would look sharp even on the suit jacket of a five-star general manager. The system can do real-time voice language translation so a housekeeper can send a voice message in one language while the recipient can hear it in their own. Natural language processing can even support workflows, where an associate can make a request that is sent to a work-order management system or obtain information (such as inventory stock) from another hotel system. It also integrates voice, text, and even video across completely flexible communication groups.

Honorable Mention

Several other companies are worth a closer look; some of them address more niche needs but are still quite useful to hotels that they are targeting. In no particular order, the ones that caught my attention were as follows.

Fresh Air Sensor provides sensors that can detect and report tobacco and marijuana smoke in guest rooms or elsewhere, to enable hotels to better enforce no-smoking rules and to provide irrefutable evidence to support the charge of associated cleaning fees. The units are modular and the company is working on inserts that can be added to detect other airborne contaminants, such as meth and vaping. The units could make sense in any hotel that has a smoking issue, which increasingly includes many located in states that have recently relaxed marijuana laws.

Workjam is a shift and task management platform that is unusually adept at passing tasks around among qualified staff. It is new to hospitality but in use by numerous large companies in retail to enable real-time management of tasks across multiple qualified associates. It can be integrated with systems that generate or assign existing tasks (housekeeping, work order, etc.) and enables rules, triggers, and alerts to help ensure that customers are served efficiently and effectively. Tasks can be assigned to a specific person or to a pool, where they can picked up by anyone; if an associate cannot complete a task it can be assigned to someone else or go back into a pool. Tasks requiring specific skills or certifications can be directed only to qualified staff. While there are existing hospitality products that can do many of these things, it is often interesting to see things that have worked well in other industries and look for ideas that might help hotels.

SmartLinen, which partners with WestPoint Hospitality (a major linen supplier to the industry), embeds NFC tags in WestPoint products, which allow linens to be tracked as an asset. Detectors are attached to the ceiling (typically by the loading dock) and can instantly scan an entire stack of linen containers as they leave for, or return from, the laundry, tracking each item. The company also gives scanners to the hotel’s commercial laundry partner (at no cost) so that each hotel’s linens can be tracked through their arrival at and departure from the cleaners as well, reducing mixups. Reports show any items that have gone missing, at what point, and the associated cost. Appropriate actions can then be taken, such as looking for lost items or billing the cleaner for items they received but did not return.

Stay-N-Charge offers what is to my knowledge a first-in-class product they call Charging as a Service. A 2021 startup, the company provides fully serviced electric vehicle charging stations for hotels. The chargers cost just over $100 a month and can be monetized by hotels or offered as an amenity, or as a combination. One could imagine a brand offering it not only to overnight guests, but as an incentive for day-trippers to stop at hotels enroute for both a charge and a meal while waiting for their car to fully recharge. Taking the burden of monitoring and maintenance off the shoulders of the hotel could help ensure more uptime and fewer guest complaints.

Telev8, together with established vendor Roomnet, is offering an IP-based TV content service that can eliminate the need for satellite or cable feeds for over-the-air and premium channels, essentially putting these on a Live TV app next to apps such as Netflix. The company started in the residential market but is now coming into hospitality. It claims potential savings on programming costs in the range of 40%.

HotelIQ combines a business intelligence platform with aspects of collaboration tools to enable executives and teams (whether onsite or remote) easy access both to data insights, and to associated commentary and analysis from team members. One larger hotel group is starting to use it to coordinate communications between regional revenue management teams and hotels. One user can create a presentation of data, save it, annotate it, and share it with a larger team for comment and discussion. The concept is simple, but not one I have seen elsewhere.

Obviously, there were many other companies showing innovative ideas at HITEC, particularly after 27 months of tumultuous industry change since the last show. There is no way anyone could review all of them, and my apologies to those who I couldn’t see this year. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you think there’s something I should look at. I’ll review anything that hits my mailbox and respond. It may take a month or two for me to catch up, but I promise I will!

Douglas Rice

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