If you are still on the fence about which of the two competing trade shows to attend next week, then you are a master procrastinator. And if you wonder if you made the right choice, I guarantee you are not alone. But stay with me and I will try to provide some insight into whichever show(s) you plan to attend.
Each year since I have been writing this column, I have spent a few weeks prior to HITEC researching the exhibitors. I particularly focus on the first-timers, because experience tells me that is where I will find most of the interesting and potentially disruptive innovations. At the show itself, I visit as many of them as I can, to round out my initial research and to assess what is truly new and interesting. That results in my post-HITEC column.
This year will be a bit different. Much as I would like to, I cannot physically attend both HITEC and The Hospitality Show (“The Show”) without wasting too much time in what is already the busiest week of the year for me. But I have spent a lot of time studying the agenda and exhibitors of both shows, so this week’s column will be a preview comparison and guide to what to look for on the exhibit floors.
The TLDR version is: The Show has a very strong lineup of sessions and speakers and should be an excellent conference, if not all that heavily oriented to technology. HITEC has a much stronger exhibition floor if you want to see technology vendors and innovation, and has more technology content in the program.
As of last Friday, there were 334 confirmed exhibitors at HITEC (including 89 who are first-timers), and 309 for The Hospitality Show (all first-timers). A total of 73 companies are exhibiting at both shows. Total reserved exhibit space was 58% more at HITEC than at The Show, versus only 8% more exhibitors, reflecting a larger average booth size for HITEC.
But for technologists, these raw statistics are a bit misleading. At HITEC, 92% of the exhibitors and 94% of the exhibit space is devoted to companies that provide technology. For The Show, the corresponding numbers are 48% and 49% respectively (and that’s counting some companies where technology is just a small part of their hospitality business). In fairness, The Show was never promoted as a technology show, but more of a general hotel show with a significant technology component – which it is.
At The Show, 18% of exhibits will showcase non-technology services (like brokerages, staffing agencies, tax advisory services, renovation services, and the like). Another 16% represent hotel suppliers, of everything from food to cleaning equipment to bathroom amenities. 10% offer equipment and furnishings, and 5% are hotel companies. Technology is not segregated on The Show’s exhibit floor, so a revenue management system vendor may be squeezed between an ERC tax credit advisor and a bathroom amenity supplier.
In addition, The Show’s exhibit hours (nine hours over two days) are much shorter than HITEC’s (15 hours over three), and unlike HITEC, the exhibit show hours compete with some conference sessions that are likely to be well attended.
Based on my informal research, the attendee list at The Show will include a lot more senior non-technology executives than typically attend HITEC – a good number of hotel company CEOs and other business executives are planning to attend, as well as CIOs, COOs, and CTOs. Several are speaking at the conference, which will make it an interesting program. How many of them will visit the exhibit floor and how much time they will spend there, particularly given the strength of the competing conference program, is an open question.
Obviously, vendors exhibit at shows where the likely attendees align with their target audience. Some tech vendors sell primarily to specific departments within the larger hotel group corporate organizations, which will be well represented at The Show. Others sell to smaller groups, independents, or to specialized technologists at multiunit companies; those will be better represented at HITEC. Many sell to both, accounting for the 73 companies exhibiting at both shows.
As for the conference program, The Show offers a variety of options, including several sessions focusing on technology. Most of the sessions look interesting, although not necessarily from a technology standpoint. By my count, only three of twelve main-stage sessions will be of interest specifically to technologists. The breakout sessions split more evenly; I counted 14 sessions with significant technology elements vs. 13 without (although the organizer classifies only five as technology oriented, so I might have been overly generous).
The Show has confirmed some top-notch speakers, including CEOs of Marriott, BWH, Hyatt, Sonesta, Wyndham, MCR, Sage Hospitality, Red Roof, RLJ Lodging Trust, and United Airlines, and several COOs and CIOs as well. However, many of the technology sessions are vendor-heavy panels or, in a few cases, presentations by a single vendor. While I have a lot of respect for many of the individual speakers in these sessions, this format is often subtly (or not so subtly) biased and rarely as engaging as when the speakers have no commercial agendas to push.
HITEC’s conference program is more technology oriented, although some sessions are geared to other interests, such as finance or club management. There will be more technology meat in most of the sessions, and I give a lot of credit to the volunteer HITEC Advisory Council for pulling together a strong program, despite no budget other than for keynote speakers. It certainly has good material for the day-to-day practitioners who make up the bulk of the hoteliers who attend.
Having said that, true thought leaders for most emerging technologies (such as Web3, Generative AI, Natural Language Processing, and machine learning) spend 100% of their time working in their field, something virtually no one in the hospitality industry can do. If you want to know what is really happening in disciplines such as these, you need to get the best 100%’ers as speakers; you just will not find the same level of knowledge or presentation depth within our industry.
HITEC has never done a very good job of attracting top subject matter experts on emerging technologies from outside the hotel industry, and there are none on the agenda for Toronto. The Show does only slightly better, with one senior IBM executive speaking on Generative AI.
True thought leaders in emerging technologies rarely speak at conferences for free unless a key customer twists their arm. If organizers really want leading-edge technical content, they need to budget speaker fees and travel expenses for experts who have no commercial reason to attend. HITEC does this for keynote speakers, who typically cost at least $25,000 plus expenses; I would like to see them eliminate one keynote speaker and use the budget to get multiple thought leaders in emerging technologies (who typically can be had for a quarter or so of the cost). Most of the sessions on emerging technologies at HITEC (including ones I have spoken on) are nowhere near as good as ones I can find online from people and companies specializing in those technologies. Yet their knowledge is critical if hotel technologists are to help their businesses thrive in the years to come.
Another difference in the program is that The Show has several breakout sessions featuring speaker(s) from only one single vendor with a major commercial interest – never a good move if it is more than a brief sponsor message. HITEC rarely, if ever, lets a single vendor drive an educational session. At the very least, a panel with competitors will help keep commercial claims in check.
As for attendees, The Show promises to draw a diverse crowd from across the spectrum of the hotel industry, and it will not be short of top-notch hotel technologists. HITEC attendees will be much more technology oriented (with a smattering of representation from finance, clubs, and other disciplines). One of the drawing cards many technologists cite for HITEC is the opportunity to network with industry peers, away from day-to-day business concerns. It is harder to predict the attendance mix at The Show, but I expect the majority (I am guessing 75-90%) will be non-technologists. Having said that, The Show has done a good job of recruiting some of the top technology leaders in the industry as well, so while the numbers may be small, the purchasing power is not.
A last point of comparison is that HITEC will be much more international than The Show. Most of The Show’s speakers, attendees, and exhibitors will be from the U.S. Many international colleagues I have spoken with in recent weeks were not even aware of The Show when they made their plans to attend HITEC, and a few are not even now. This is important, because many hospitality technologies today are much further advanced and innovative in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia than in North America. With essentially no focus on overseas markets at The Show, there is risk of a tunnel vision with respect to innovation and the future of technology. It is a global market, and the U.S., with the dominance of large brands, is increasingly the follower rather than the leader. The big brands are just too difficult for most startups to penetrate, so they focus elsewhere.
What to Look for at the Exhibits
To get a sense of what will be on display, I categorized the technology exhibitors (based on the floor plans as of two weeks ago) into groupings such as front office, back office, guest-facing, and the like. As noted before, less than half of The Show exhibitors are technology providers (vs. almost all at HITEC), but even just among the tech vendors, there were significant mix differences.
The largest category at HITEC is guest-facing technology (19% of technology exhibitors, vs. 11% at The Show). On the other hand, back-office technology is most common at The Show (16%, vs. 14% at HITEC). Hardware vendors account for 15% of the mix at The Show vs. only 8% at HITEC. Communications vendors (encompassing networking and telephony) represent 15% of exhibitors at both shows. Marketing, sales, and distribution technology account for 10% of HITEC vendors vs. 5% at The Show, while operations technology is 11% of exhibitors at The Show vs. 7% at HITEC.
To understand future trends, I put a special focus on the new exhibitors each year. To be sure, many of them will not be successful, and established vendors as well as startups can produce great innovations. But I cannot think of a major area of technology innovation that was not preceded by a bunch of new companies showing off new concepts at major trade shows in the years leading up to their success. Looking at the new exhibitors each year as a group is usually a good indicator of what will be mainstream in a few years.
My comments that follow are based on a review of 89 first-time exhibitors at HITEC. For The Show, all exhibitors were first-time, but I identified and reviewed 40 that were either startups or early-stage companies, or that were larger companies serving other industries but entering hospitality (or the North American market) for the first time. Only four companies appeared on both lists, so there were 125 “new” exhibitors to review.
An important note before we dive in is that with just a few exceptions, I have done no due diligence on these companies or products. I base my summary almost entirely on published statements and claims, which we all know might occasionally be just a bit exaggerated. Caveat emptor!
Guest Journey Software. This was by far the largest category for new exhibitors, with 20 companies. I wrote about this evolving category last summer in a two-part blog (here and here), which discusses the reasons why this is so important to both revenue generation and cost reduction. It includes a host of capabilities to enable guests to manage every aspect their stay digitally. And whereas in prior years, guest journey focused mostly on check-in, check-out, text messaging, upselling, and mobile key, this year’s newcomers are filling in other gaps, including digital food and beverage ordering; mobile pay; local information, activities, and ticketing; digital compendiums; wayfinding; and digital tipping. None of these applications are new (many of them emerged during Covid or shortly before), but they are maturing and tuning their deployment models to meet the needs of more and more hotels.
Five new exhibitors are showing digital tipping platforms, a much-needed capability where the competitive field (mostly startups) is starting to get crowded. I wrote about digital tipping last summer; new companies I see this year include Grazzy and TipYo (both at The Show), and buku, Kickfin and Tip&Go (at HITEC). And as I surmised might happen in last summer’s article, established player Evention has now entered the field as well (also exhibiting at HITEC), both directly and working with existing tipping platforms to handle back-end tip distribution and reporting requirements.
Robotics. This was the second biggest category of new exhibitors, with a total of eight. Hardware robots were a topic of one of my recent blogs (two parts, here and here), and exhibitors to look for include Boston Intelligent Robotics, Keenon and Richtech Robotics (all at The Show), Robotis (at HITEC), and Piaggio Fast Forward and Tailos (at both events).
Software robots may not have the R2D2 personalities of some of the hardware robots, but can do a great job at automating repetitive, menial tasks (I covered Robotic Process Automation, or RPA, near the end of this article from about a year ago). While a few hotel companies are large enough to build their own RPA capabilities, the cost is far beyond the reach of most. However, both of the vendors that I mentioned in that article as targeting smaller hotel groups and individual hotels, Aphy and Robosize ME, are exhibiting at HITEC this year (Aphy will pitch in the E20X startup competition, in which Robosize ME won the Judge’s Choice Award last year). If you have not looked at RPA before, it is worth a detour.
Conversational AI. This was the next biggest category, with six new players this year, on top of at least a dozen established companies. Also known as chatbots when used in a hotel service context, I first wrote about them three years ago, and several of the companies mentioned in that article are still around and exhibiting at one of the shows.
It will be interesting to see whether conversational AI technology has advanced much with the explosion of generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) platforms in the past year. Most of the products I have seen to date can handle maybe 80-85% of guest requests automatically, with the remainder requiring human assistance. This seemed to be a plateau that was hard to get past using older AI technologies; will we see 90% or higher with newer ones? The field is getting very crowded and commoditized, and it has become increasingly challenging for products to stand out. Conversational AI is also starting to show up as an embedded capability in many legacy products that interface directly with guests, reducing the market opportunity for standalone chatbots.
Other Highlights. The remaining new exhibitors were spread over several more tightly defined categories. I cannot cover them all here but will call out some that caught my attention during my pre-show research.
Several shared the common element of generating incremental revenue or reducing costs in labor-intensive areas like parking (AirGarage and Pave Mobility at The Show; Premium Parking and SP+ at HITEC) and unattended retail sales (365 Retail Markets and Digit 7, both at The Show). Electric Vehicle charging is also a hot area (see my earlier blog here), with new exhibitors including Evercharge and Jule at HITEC and EvoCharge at The Show. EV charging is increasingly a source of revenue both through direct charging fees and through food and beverage revenue earned from day guests while vehicles are charging.
In the engineering domain, new exhibitors that sounded interesting included bodhi, with its Internet-of-Things (IoT) cloud-based building management platform at HITEC, and two companies in water management technologies (PAUL Tech at HITEC, and ESGWaterMetrics at The Show – the latter so new it had no published website listed or searchable). Location Tech (at The Show) provides technology to identify and/or alert based on sensors for staff alerts, facilities maintenance, water and environmental management, and other IoT applications.
Others that caught my attention include The Aggressive Good (food supply chain optimization, HITEC); Ready Credit (enables cash acceptance in cashless environments, The Show). PassiveBolt, which I covered in a blog three months ago, is also participating in E20x and exhibiting at the E20x pavilion; it is the first commercial product I have seen using Web3 self-sovereign identity to enable you to unlock not just one but multiple hotel rooms in different brands, as well as your home, rental car, and office, all with one mobile app.
Because of my focus on emerging technologies, I will be attending HITEC in Toronto rather than The Show. I will do my best to visit every first-time exhibitor, at least briefly. Having said that, with 89 stands to visit and only 15 hours of floor time, I will not have time to visit every single one, and it will be a quick look at most. If you are a first-time exhibitor at HITEC and I miss you, or if you are a startup or new to the industry and exhibiting only at The Show, please feel free to reach out to me at the contact information below and we can schedule some time the week of July 3 via a quick Zoom call.
I will write up my impressions from any notable new products and services I find in Toronto (or in follow-up calls) in my next blog, scheduled for July 14. I look forward to seeing many of you in Toronto, and hope that those who choose Las Vegas also have a great event!
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Youtip had rebranded as buku. They are separate and unrelated companies.