Definitely Doug 11/6/20: CYBER HITEC Recap

by Doug Rice


I spent most of last week at HITEC, which is the “event of the year” in hospitality technology. Usually I come home with a literal mountain of notes to digest, follow-ups to schedule, and things to write about. We all knew this year’s virtual event would be different, and it was.

There were some excellent sessions on Customer Data Platforms and Universal Booking Engines from Lyle Worthington and Nick Price; on ideas for social distancing from Brennan Gildersleeve, Steve D’Erasmo, and Jenny Lucas; and on virtual and hybrid event models with Mark Haley, Bob Gilbert, Jeff Loether, and Stephanie Glanzer. I also really enjoyed the Women in Hospitality Tech session, with four highly accomplished professionals talking about their professional journeys and hopefully inspiring some of their younger colleagues. The virtual presentation technology had its issues and led to some odd moments, but overall, at least for the educational sessions, it worked.

I was, however, disappointed with the amount of innovation I saw on the virtual exhibit floor. Most years I come home with notes on 40 or 50 companies offering cool new stuff, much of which makes its way into this column in the months that follow. This year, however, the pickings were slim. That’s not because innovation has slowed down; all evidence points to the contrary and I have seen lots of new product ideas elsewhere. Indeed, times of turmoil are typically when innovation best flourishes.

Rather, the innovators, with a few exceptions, just were not exhibiting. And many of those that were, really did not have their act together. Many booths were unmanned when I visited (which I was careful to do only during the scheduled hours, since the “floor” itself was open 24x7); the posted materials and summaries were often meh; and responsiveness to questions was often slow or nonexistent.

Some of this may have been the way the event platform worked; it seemed to sometimes lose conversation threads if you navigated away from a booth. Some of it seemed more like booth staff who were multitasking and failed to notice attendees entering their booth or asking questions. And if the person you asked needed to consult a colleague, the conversations became even more asynchronous and disjointed. Much of it was, I suspect, the fact that both exhibitors and attendees were trying to figure out how to use the less-than-intuitive platform effectively, but I was left with the impressions that many of the booths were simply not staffed with anyone who was paying full-time attention.

This didn’t stop me; I visited every booth looking for things that were new. For the companies I already knew, I watched their videos, checked out their messaging, and skimmed any brochures to see what was new. I saw a lot of incremental product improvements from these companies, but not too much in the way of true innovation.

For the exhibitors I hadn’t seen before, I looked for anything new or different. Many of the first-time exhibitors were in product spaces that are already fairly crowded; of these, only the ones that managed to differentiate themselves got my attention.

One trend I couldn’t miss, even if it’s no longer very innovative, was the proliferation of mobile apps; it seemed like more than half the exhibitors had one on offer. This is one area that where COVID has helped to mature the market. Even if no one was showing any “firsts,” mobile apps are now much more widely available than pre-COVID, driven of course by hotels’ desire to offer contactless options. And unlike a year ago, many of these are now quite full-featured, with booking, upsell, check-in, check-out, room/device control, food and beverage ordering, digital compendium, chat, and other capabilities.

Hotels that don’t already have mobile apps now likely have multiple choices from just among the vendors that they already work with, whether Wi-Fi providers, property management or customer relationship management vendors, or in-room tech providers. Many third-party vendors also connect with increasingly broad partner ecosystems, creating additional choices. While there are always integration challenges, the problem is getting easier as the number of options increases. And getting them from one of your current vendors means fewer integrations are needed.

One first-time exhibitor, P3, offers a mobile app integration suite that works with Oracle’s Opera, creating a quick route to contactless app functionality for the market’s leading property management system. Zaplox, which entered the market primarily as a mobile key provider, has added an interesting approach to mobile app and check-in kiosk, with a Software Development Kit (SDK) to facilitate integration. Mobile key is improving as well, with vendors like Openkey offering a text message delivery of a link that will download a mobile key, as well as key-sharing capabilities.

There were also a surprising number of vendors offering staff alert functionality. It’s interesting to see this migrate into multi-function devices (voice and/or text) vs. standalone panic buttons. Vocera has integrated staff alerts into a smart badge as well as onto a small mobile staff communications device; it also offers an app that can be used in a Bring-Your-Own-Device environment. This also creates options for using the same technology to route both emergency and routine operational communications to the right staff member(s).

One exhibitor that had a potentially game-changing new product was Evention. The company’s core competency is automating back-office processes within hotels, by reconciling transactions across systems such as point-of-sale, property management, credit card processors, and accounting. This year they were showing new product that is automating one of the major remaining pain points for large group hotels, which is group billing reconciliation. This is where the commitments made to a group (described in a contract typically stored in a sales and catering system) need to be reconciled to the actual delivery (described in checks from the point-of-sale system or guest folios in the property management system), to the payment activity (reflected in accounting systems and payment systems), and to the meeting planner’s own records.

Today, this is a time-consuming process in which banquet checks are scanned, room postings printed, invoices created, deposits posted, and everything is assembled into a paper (thankfully now PDF) document; for a major conference this can easily run to hundreds of pages. It’s sent to the meeting organizer a week or two after the event; they then review it line-by-line for accuracy and send back questions or marked up copies. The back-and-forth can continue for a month or more before agreement is reached on the amount due, often meaning that the hotel doesn’t get paid until 60 to 90 days after the event.

The historical process resulted from the lack of a common platform that can collect information from all of the necessary systems (sales and catering, point of sale, property management, accounting, credit cards) and present it in a unified interface that enables the meeting organizer and venue to easily focus on open issues without the long back-and-forth delays and manual rework. It’s been a well understood issue for decades and one of the few that the vendor community had not stepped up to solve. I was not able to view the Evention product in detail at Cyber HITEC but have scheduled a follow-up, and if I like what I see, will plan to cover the topic and their solution in more depth in a future column.

A couple other products caught my attention; they may be of interest to some hotels even if they are not needed by most. Flash Parking had an interesting exhibit, targeted more specifically at parking garage operators but with potential implications for hotels that have significant parking operations or partners. It reimagines parking as a multifunctional mobility hub with connected services, integrated ride-share services and vehicle services, and smart technologies to make it all work for both the operator and the parking patron. There were some really good ideas in what I saw.

I expected to see more health and sanitation solutions, but the only one I noticed was from CIRQ+, which offered a touchless, connected smart-room platform with a sterilization robot. I have not looked closely or examined the scientific proof that the sterilization is effective against COVID risks – an important consideration with any sanitization solution. But this will be on my list for a closer look. I remain skeptical that most hotels will find expensive automated sanitization solutions to be cost-justifiable especially in the current market environment (especially given the limited evidence that they make much difference), but I have no doubt there will be some exceptions.

Thanks to HFTP and also to the 80+ vendors who took the time and spent the money to help remind our industry that technology is a critical part of our industry recovery! And as much as I appreciate the effort to make the virtual environment successful, I really hope that next year we will be able to return to the more traditional format!

Douglas Rice

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