Tech Innovations for COVID-19 (Part Three)
As the world and the hotel industry start to see the first green shoots of recovery from the COVID lockdowns, there is no shortage of new technologies emerging to try to address the new realities. As I sat down to write this week’s column, I found a list of more than 30 new or significantly modified products that had hit my radar I the past few weeks, all of them innovations somehow related to COVID.
That’s far too many for me to cover in one column, so this week I will focus on a just couple of areas. I’ll first highlight a few free offers for products I found interesting, because who doesn’t like free stuff? For the balance of the column, I will revisit health-screening applications, which were just beginning to emerge at the time I first wrote about them three weeks ago. In the short time since, these have generated a lot of interest, discussion, and concern both in the broader media and in hotelier discussions.
First, the free offers. One of the questions I hear most frequently right now is “how can we predict the shape and timing of the recovery, or even know when it’s about to happen?” Every country, city, and hotel will be different, and there is no playbook.
As digital marketers well know, Google Trends is a long-established free tool that gives useful insights into travel interest, for example showing the relative search interest over time for hotels in San Francisco (or any other market). But today, “interest” in travel may not be the same as “intent” to travel; I may be dreaming about a post-COVID vacation in Bali and even research the options; Google will see my search but has no idea if or when I’ll be likely to book. Booking data, however, reflects intent – and there are some interesting new sources of booking data to look at.
Hotel business intelligence provider myDigitalOffice gathers data from property management systems for about 4500 properties, including daily booking data (room nights, rates, revenue) for 90 days in the future. They are currently offering a free Market Analytics, Pace, and Performance (MAPP) report to hotels. Similar to how the STR Reports cover historical occupancy and rate, hotels share their own forward booking data and get access to a dashboard showing relative performance. It can answer the question, “is my hotel recovering as fast as its peer group?” myDigitalOffice can implement an automated daily data feed from almost all property management systems used in the US market, and there are no costs either for the MAPP reports or for the interfaces. Competitive sets can be based on relevant factors like location and segment, although they typically won’t be as tightly defined as with STR reports because the number of properties for which they have data is smaller. Nevertheless, this could be very useful information for many hotels.
Sojern is providing another free tool with deeper insight into travel interest and bookings to specific destinations. Sojern aggregates data from thousands of distribution and supplier partners and displays graphically, for most destinations, how the next 10 future travel months compare for 2020 vs. 2019.
Hotel operational technology provider Nuvola will be releasing a limited “Inspections Lite” version of their product in mid-June, and offering it for free until the end of the year. This serves as a checklist and audit facility for COVID-related (or other) cleaning tasks for both guest rooms and public areas. It also enables housekeepers to verify to managers (with an audit trail) that they have received the proper personal protective equipment (another checklist). QR-code scans can be used in public areas to document task completion. Included checklists align with the cleaning standards published by each of the major brands. Nuvola is currently adding a capability to format the completed guest-room checklists so they can be sent in a branded email to guests prior to arrival. This could help boost guests’ confidence in the hotel’s commitment to sanitation.
So much for the freebies; now I will return to the topic of health screening. In my last blog I briefly introduced some thermal imaging technologies. One that I should add to the list is PopID, an NEC partner whose POPentry+ product combines access control with facial recognition (it can work with masks) and thermal imaging. It is designed specifically for staff entrances and can alert management if staff enters with an elevated temperature. It’s available on a monthly lease that won’t break the bank.
As hotels have started to look more closely at thermal imaging technologies, some concerns have emerged. My own view is that thermal imaging has a place in many hotels’ COVID strategies, but that hotels need to be realistic and understand that at best, it reduces risk only moderately. Let’s look at the limitations.
The first issue is that thermal imaging detects skin temperature, which can differ significantly from body core temperature. A person with a normal body core temperature who has just come in from the heat may have an elevated skin temperature and generate a false positive. Similarly, someone with a fever who comes in from the cold may yield a false negative. False positives aren’t a big issue, you can just follow up with a secondary temperature screening with a medical thermometer. But false negatives are a risk. Requiring staff to re-check periodically (e.g. after breaks) can reduce the risk somewhat, but won’t eliminate it.
The second issue is that based on what epidemiologists currently believe about COVID-19, many carriers are asymptomatic entirely, or may be presymptomatic but contagious; these will all generate false negatives. Based on what we know today, there appears to be no way to avoid this.
Third, thermal imaging is challenging to use for hotel guest entrances. To be sure, it has been deployed at a number of airports. However, airports typically have high-volume entry and exit choke points where staff can monitor everyone flowing through and pull aside anyone with an elevated skin temperature for more in-depth questioning and testing. Most hotels have no such choke point, and even if they do force all guests through a single entrance, it would be expensive to employ staff 24x7 to watch the traffic and pull aside feverish guests. It’s possible to deploy unattended solutions, but they are much more expensive. For that, you need a bispectral camera that can both detect the temperature and capture the person’s image. Otherwise, while you may know that someone with a fever has just entered, you have no way to identify them. You also need a real-time alerting capability so staff can immediately chase the person down. Facial recognition can help in some cases, but only if the person’s image is already in the hotel’s database or otherwise available to them; this won’t be the usual case.
Fourth, there are privacy and regulatory concerns galore. If you have the person’s temperature and image (with or without facial recognition), then you have data that may be protected (and require consumer opt-in) under privacy regulations like the European General Data Protection Regulations or the California Consumer Privacy Act.
Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates these devices. And they generally require FDA approval (which as far as I could find, none of the devices being marketed in hospitality have obtained). In April, the FDA issued enforcement guidance (which is nonbinding) stating that in certain non-medical environments (they give airports as an example), FDA staff shouldn’t enforce the approval requirement for systems that are used only to triage potentially sick people (rather than as a medical diagnostic measurement). While the guidance suggests that these systems may be used by hotels for now without regulatory consequences, it’s hard to know what any updated regulations might say in the future, and whether devices purchased today would be excluded or grandfathered from any new requirements.
A final regulatory concern is the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Broadly, this covers health information that is created or received by a health care provider, health plan, employer, or certain other entities. As such, it would cover health information (such as temperature) collected by a hotel about its employees, but not (at least in most circumstances) its guests.
The bottom line on thermal imaging is that it can play a role in reducing the risk of employees transmitting illnesses to each other (not just COVID-19) and in conveying an employer’s commitment to a safe workplace. But to be clear, it’s about risk reduction, not risk elimination. I like that thermal imaging systems don’t rely on employees voluntarily taking their own temperature or admitting other symptoms; if someone is sick but feels they really need to go to work, they may not be truthful in self-reporting. Some of the staff thermal imaging solutions are well designed and inexpensive. I would suggest not storing the results of the scans from these devices; they aren’t reliable enough to be useful for medical purposes and there is no reason to save them otherwise. Instead, do a secondary screening and log any decisions to send someone home, as you would any sick call.
On the other hand, when it comes to guests, I’m not sure many hotels will find much value today in thermal screening. It’s expensive, difficult to implement logistically, may require a lot more staff, and raises difficult privacy and compliance issues. Anything you buy might end up unusable depending on how the FDA regulations evolve. If there’s a case to be made, it’s most likely at a large casino hotel that has a lot of traffic and a single entrance. But otherwise, if a hotel believes it needs to take guests’ temperatures, then it may be simpler (if more intrusive) to use more traditional and reliable instruments. Even this makes sense only if the hotel has a definitive plan of what it will do when someone tests positive; many hotels have realized that sick people who are traveling away from home are going to have to stay somewhere, and that hotels are often the only option.
As always, I enjoy hearing from readers about the technologies they find interesting – COVID-related or otherwise!