Definitely Doug 5/8/20: Tech Innovations for COVID-19 (Part Two)

by Doug Rice

Tech Innovations for COVID-19 (Part Two)

In my last column, I introduced some technologies that could help hotels deal with the new realities of travel in the COVID-19 era. I’ll continue that theme this week, with the same caveats as last time – some of these are still in development or even prototype form, and I haven’t been able to look at many of them as closely as I would like. But they may still be useful in terms of exposure to new ideas to help jump-start your own thinking.

Three main themes dominate post-COVID technologies for hotels. The first is the operational task of sanitizing of everything in sight, and its related marketing task of convincing guests that you did that well. The second is monitoring the health of staff and guests, reacting to symptomatic individuals, and tracking potential incidents of exposure. The third is eliminating points of contact with potential infection sources (primarily humans and surfaces). A fourth category, important but smaller and perhaps shorter-lived, is technology to help hotels manage the process of shutting down and reopening.

One sad reality is that while the need is real, many hotels have little or no money to spend. Yet the demand for new materials, equipment, and technology to adapt to COVID are very real. There are some great technologies out there, well proven in health care, to automate the disinfection of guest rooms and public spaces. But many hotels are not prepared to spend the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for top-end systems. Even those with ready access to cash are asking questions like “how much am I willing to spend on something that may be useful only for 12-18 months?” and “is there anything cheaper that would be good enough?”

Many hotels are first looking at changes in operational procedures, staffing, furnishings and altered product offerings to reduce risks without significant capital expense. These may include less frequent or opt-in housekeeping, boxed meals rather than buffets or table service, and the like. While not necessarily cost-free, such changes have the advantage that the associated costs can be quickly eliminated when they are no longer needed.

Many of the COVID technologies and alternative operational processes carry associated labor costs as well; you can’t check the temperatures of guests entering the building without an associate working the device, and comprehensive disinfection of guest rooms takes more staff time as well as equipment and cleaning solutions. So, the technology cost is just a part of the total ROI picture. Fortunately, COVID has created opportunities for labor cost reduction as well; many hotels have suspended daily guest-room cleaning; removed minibars; closed public spaces like gyms, executive lounges and business centers; and made other changes that may help to offset some of the COVID-related costs.

This week I will highlight some free and lower-cost technologies that should be on your radar. This isn’t to say that some of the bigger-ticket items may not have a place in some hotels (and I’ll cover some of them in the future). It’s just that these are ones you can evaluate without giving your financial controller a heart attack. As before, I welcome others who have (or are planning) similar offerings to contact me so I can consider including them in future articles.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing I saw this week is completely free, and potentially quite impactful for almost any hotel. PurpleCloud Technologies is in final pre-release testing of a lite version of their platform that is focused on maximizing the effectiveness of cleaning processes through checklists, training, messaging, and audit. PurpleCloud CR (Covid Response) is largely focused on the guest room but can also address public spaces and back-of-house areas. You can  see a sneak preview, more detailed than on the company website, here. It comes with built-in checklists that hotels can modify to suit their needs. As with the main PurpleCloud platform (which I covered in a prior column), staff can verify that they have completed each task, add comments, and take pictures. In addition to providing management reports and cleanliness audits for the hotel, the company is in the process of adding the capability to send an email to the arriving guest for a specific room, identifying the staff member who cleaned it and documenting each task that was performed. I think this is a powerful concept for giving the guest peace of mind – and the price is certainly right!

In a similar vein, a few restaurants have installed kitchen webcams and provide a QR code at each table that patrons can scan to watch their meals being prepared. The idea is that they will have more confidence if the hygiene processes of the kitchen are made visible to them. This idea predates COVID, but more restaurants are now looking at it as they search for ways to reassure diners that they take every appropriate hygiene precaution. The webcam setups are typically inexpensive do-it-yourself jobs, which can work just fine. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised, particularly with larger kitchens, to see someone develop an app that will automatically link to the right camera for a particular dish.

Reducing contact with potentially infected surfaces is a common theme, as evidenced by a stronger push towards already-familiar technologies such as mobile check-in and key, service chatbots, and contactless payment. All of these enable the guest to avoid touching anything except their own phone, tablet, watch, or credit card. Taking this a step further, Lodging Interactive this week announced an inexpensive product called MyMenusOnline, which replaces shared restaurant menus with a mobile web page that is accessible to diners via a scannable QR code or NFC tag. Restaurants can easily maintain their menus, add daily specials, remove sold out items, and the like.

Many hotels are (or will be) offering limited dining options, with takeout food as an option for closed or reduced capacity dining rooms. Shift4 Payments is offering a standalone online ordering solution with a turnkey setup process that could be useful for hotels that don’t already support online ordering. SkyTab Takeout is being offered free of charge, with no setup fees, order fees or monthly fees.

Hotel apps can reduce touchpoints by enabling guests to use their own phone for more interactions with the hotel. Hotels needing an app can take advantage of an offer from Criton, a company I covered in this column last fall. They are offering their standard white-label app free of charge and with no obligation until 2021. You won’t get every contactless capability for free, since some require integrations that have costs, but it’s a start.

Voice recognition systems like Volara and Angie reduce the need to touch surfaces like thermostats, light switches, and TV remotes in the guest room. Due to costs and privacy concerns, adoption of voice technologies in guest rooms has been limited overall, but many believe that COVID-19 could accelerate it, and they may be correct: voice is clearly a safer alternative to touching shared surfaces.

One small but important surface that has raised high levels of concern is the elevator button. A famous and funny YouTube video shows why you shouldn’t actually remove the buttons entirely, but supplementing them with voice activation could make sense. I’m not aware of any mature products that do this, but I found one company that seems to be making such a system (priced at €599 for up to 12 floors), and another that has one apparently under development in response to Covid-19. These are both small companies and I can’t vouch for them, but I like the idea!

I was intrigued by this low-cost solution for eliminating the need for guests or staff to touch the door handle when entering a guest room. Some might view it as tacky, but it’s definitely ingenious!

When it comes to monitoring staff health, thermal imaging is a critical element. There are many thermal imaging systems, and some can get quite expensive. Amazon sells some for a few hundred dollars, but these are generally designed for industrial use rather than to measure skin temperature (which itself is a useful but imperfect proxy for body temperature). There are, however, some in the $1,500-$2,500 retail price range that are designed for face recognition and skin temperature measurement, such as Thermal Seek Scan, Hikvision Bullet Cameras, Newovi Visionera, and Hushida. One of these would generally be enough to handle a single staff entrance at even a large hotel. Some of them could also work for guest entrances and even be minimally intrusive, but the costs can get much higher because of the need in many hotels to cover multiple entrances, as well as to have a staff member monitoring each device and intercepting guests with high temperatures.

What interesting COVID-related technologies have you seen, or are you working on? I expect at least one more installment in this series and would love to hear from you!

Douglas Rice

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