Definitely Doug 4/24/20: Tech Innovations for COVID-19 (Part One)

by Doug Rice

Viral Innovation

It’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention.

As hotels start to imagine the post-COVID world, they will need to adapt to both the ever-changing regulatory environment and to new guest and staff behaviors. Some of these changes will persist even if COVID-19 suddenly disappears: the experience of living through lockdowns, nonstop media coverage, and fear of infection has unquestionably altered human behavior and expectations. Some of the changes may fade once the threat has been reduced via a vaccine, through better treatments, by herd immunity or by mutation. But experts say that it could well be 12 to 18 months before we can fully and safely resume our prior lifestyles. In the meantime, hotels and their technology partners need to be laser focused on solutions that can help hotels deal with the “new normal” – however long that may last.

One likely permanent change is enhanced awareness of, and concern for, sanitization. Even pre-COVID-19, this was an established trend, with many travelers bringing their own alcohol wipes to clean surfaces on airplanes, in hotels, and in restaurants. It has greatly accelerated in recent weeks, with more public awareness of proper hand washing, use of sanitizer, and risks of shared surfaces, utensils, and devices.

This raises the question as to how many guests will continue to accept some common everyday pre-COVID practices that they may now see as risky. For many, the changed perception will be permanent. Others will revert to prior behavior once the pandemic is under control. But it’s safe to guess that there will be at least a year, if not much longer, during which hotels will need to adapt.

Similar attitude changes can be expected with hotel staff. Shared work surfaces may no longer seem safe. Many front-line service workers understandably now insist on wearing masks and/or gloves if their job limits their ability to maintain social distancing. Employers have a vested interest in the health and happiness of their staff and are rapidly rethinking past practices and policies that are now seen as imposing unacceptable infection risk. To be sure, contactless processes like mobile check-in will become much more common, but there will always be situations where they are impractical.

In this and coming weeks I will be covering technologies that may be useful in addressing changes brought about by COVID-19. I will preface this with some caveats: I have no crystal ball that can say with any certainty how the world will change; I can at best make informed guesses. Some of these technologies (or ones like them) may ultimately be essential in the new world, others may prove useless. Furthermore, we are only weeks into the product development cycle for post-COVID technologies. Many are still just concepts, or in early test deployments; in some cases, they are not even yet reflected on company websites. Others are in active use in other industries (notably health care) and are therefore more in the nature of proven technologies, but still have not been deployed at scale within the hotel industry. They may work well, or may prove ill-designed, excessively costly, or impractical.

My usual disclaimer -- that I haven’t carefully vetted these technologies -- applies doubly here. I found them interesting, and I encourage you to look at them to get ideas, but don’t rush to buy the first thing you see. Rather, recognize this is just round one of innovation, and think carefully about out how those ideas might best be applied in your hotels. Find as many relevant vendors as you can; qualify and test multiple products. Talk to them about whether they can be adapted to better meet your specific needs. Some will likely be too expensive for widespread use in hotels; even so, they may have certain limited use cases that make sense. And don’t forget to talk to your existing technology partners to see if some of these ideas might better be implemented by them in your existing technologies, rather than purchased independently.

This week I will focus specifically on technologies to monitor staff health, to reduce the likelihood of workplace infection, and to improve hygiene practices. In coming weeks, I will address other categories.

One interesting technology from the medical sector is UV-CLEAN, from Proximity Systems. It uses UV-C light to disinfect surfaces such as keyboards, touch screens, mice, and portable devices. With short wavelengths between 250 and 280 nm, UV-C light can inactivate bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms by damaging their DNA. While not yet specifically tested specifically against SARS-CoV-2, laboratory tests show that UV-CLEAN effectively eliminates other similar common pathogens 12 inches away in about three minutes (and can achieve substantial disinfection in as little as 15 seconds). The units detect motion (such as a hand) and turn themselves off when a user shows up to use the device. They come in several form factors: one can be surface-mounted above a screen or keyboard; one can be embedded within a touch screen or other device (the company said they have gotten inquiries from point-of-sale companies curious about incorporating it within their devices); there is also one intended for sanitizing multiple mobile devices at once. The cleaning time means that UV-CLEAN might not be as suitable for high-volume public-facing kiosks (such as for check-in), but it could be quite useful for restaurant and bar point-of-sale terminals, front desk terminals, or low-use guest-facing kiosks. And while some medical disinfecting devices can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, the UV-CLEAN devices are more in the range of few hundred.

Another specific workplace concern with COVID-19 is contact tracing, which is needed whenever someone contracts the disease and you need to identify others whom they may have infected. Numerous efforts are underway to address this at the societal level, including by companies like Apple and Google, but these have limitations and may still be some time away. In the meantime, however, PwC has adapted its existing indoor geolocation platform to support the identification of staff members who had contact with an infected colleague. With Automatic Contact Tracing, each colleague loads an app on their phone, which then uses Bluetooth to detect and record proximity to other phones that also have the app. It can detect how close you were to participating phones (presumably held by other colleagues) and for how long. Depending on the infrastructure, additional geolocation data (such as from Wi-Fi access points) can further refine the calculation. When a colleague reports an infection, a designated human resources administrator can securely and confidentially query the system to find out which staff may be at high risk based on proximity and duration of exposure to the sick colleague. They can then contact those people to take appropriate action. Systems like this could be quite useful in larger hotels and corporate offices; they may have less application in small hotels, where only a few staff may interact with each other so consistently that cross-exposure can simply be assumed.

In the kitchen, studies show that many food service workers fail to follow safe handwashing protocols, leading to the spread of foodborne illnesses. While we can hope that the publicity surrounding handwashing as a preventive measure for COVID-19 has improved compliance, it still takes only one careless or inadequately trained employee to spread infection. Food Service Monitoring’s Hand Wash Coach guides employees in proper hand-washing techniques in real time, and its associated Hand Wash Monitor measures and gamifies compliance. The Hand Wash Coach (see the video here) installs above the sink and optically tracks hand-washing movements and counts down the time. It can integrate with a time clock to ensure that employees wash hands when they start their shift or return from breaks.

Still not sure those hands are clean? PathSpot’s Hand Scanner uses a two-second scan of visible light fluorescence spectroscopy to instantly “see” whether pathogens are present. Like Hand Wash Monitor, it can measure and report compliance.

Many cleaning processes are invisible to guests, and hotels are already rethinking their marketing and guest communications strategies to help guests understand what they are doing to keep them safe. But there are also visible cues that can provide reassurance and reinforcement of the message. For example, many hotels are installing hand sanitizers at key locations. This creates a new quality control issue, which is to ensure that they are kept filled with sanitizer: guest impressions could be quickly ruined if the visible parts of the sanitization protocol don’t work. To address this, Creating Revolutions has adapted its Elroy AI Assistive Intelligence platform. Installing a small and inexpensive “SmartRefill” NFC tag on each dispenser enables the hotel to use an app to ensure that each one is checked on schedule. The company is offering this free of charge right now (hotels pay only for the cost of the NFC chips).

Another interesting product is escalator handrail cleaners. These aren’t brand new (they’ve been around a couple of years) but now are getting attention in hotels, for the obvious reason that it’s something everyone touches. One Asian hotel group is currently trying out products such as this one from Hong Kong-based Weclean. The contemporary design and prominent visibility, combined perhaps with supporting informational signage, can help communicate a hotel’s commitment to sanitary practices without appearing intrusive or tacky.

In future columns I’ll focus on other technologies that may be useful in meeting future expectations of guests and staff, and helpful in keeping everyone healthy. Have you heard of ones I should be looking at? Please let me know!

Douglas Rice

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