Definitely Doug 7/14/23: What Was New at HITEC 2023?

7.14.2023
by Doug Rice
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With HITEC 2023 now in the rear-view mirror, it’s time for a wrap-up of what was new, different, and interesting on the show floor. As usual, I tried to visit every first-time exhibitor for at least an overview. There were 89 newbies, of which I was able to visit 75. One was a complete no-show, while 13 others had unattended booths when visited.

The Dueling Shows

Everybody has been asking about the impact of The Hospitality Show (“The Show”), the inaugural of which was scheduled in Las Vegas during the same week as HITEC in Toronto. While I only attended HITEC, I spoke with several vendor executives who attended both. The HITEC vibe was somewhat upbeat; most exhibitors felt that traffic was light, but quality was high. Attendance suffered significantly due to major flight disruptions at the start of the week, which caused many to arrive a day or two late (or not at all). Others arrived on time but left early to fly to Las Vegas to catch part of The Show. I knew that some HITEC regulars had chosen Las Vegas this year, but it was few enough that from a networking standpoint, HITEC still felt like the usual annual chance to catch up with old friends – some of whom you would inevitably miss even if you were both there.

Reports on The Show were generally positive, despite the flak that the organizers American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) and Questex took for scheduling it at the same time as HITEC. Floor traffic was described as light, particularly on the second day, but the event met its objective of getting business buyers rather than just IT leaders; several vendors commented that this was what they really needed. Conference sessions were well-attended, high quality, and relevant. I look forward to attending next year, when the dates will not conflict.

Emerging Tech Trends at HITEC

I learned years ago that if you want to see emerging technologies at HITEC, your best bet is to concentrate on the small booths around the edges of the show floor, where startups and early-stage companies usually dominate. To be sure, established vendors sometimes launch blockbuster innovations, but mostly they just refine or enhance already-familiar products; with large customer bases and recognized names, they have much less challenge communicating what they are doing to the industry. And while some of the first-time exhibitors offer nothing particularly new, others have ideas that could potentially disrupt incumbents or even create new categories. That is what I look for as I walk the exhibit floor.

I organized what I saw into some major themes, which I will outline here. After that I will move on to some of the specific “notable” new products I found.

Artificial Intelligence (AI): It would be hard to say that anything dominated the trends as much as AI. It might be easier to list the companies that did NOT claim to use AI than those that did. Unfortunately, most of the claims are simply marketing-speak and will not hold up to scrutiny. And with just a few minutes to spend with each vendor, it was impossible to dive deep enough under the covers to tell which ones were real vs. wishful thinking.

I plan to do a more in-depth look at AI in a future blog, but first-time exhibitors that had at least credible-on-the-surface AI claims included Tenyx (contact center), co-exhibitors Stobee and Asksuite (chatbot), Myma.ai (also chatbot), LocalEyes (a chatbot with a particular strength in local businesses and activities around the hotel), and Pricingservice.ai (Entrepreneur 20X participant offering revenue management as a service). The chatbots join a large set of existing players. Chatbots have become largely commoditized; I know of more than 100 selling into hospitality today, and few really stand out from the crowd. Some do appear to be emerging that use generative AI, but most are still using natural language processing plus rules engines, older technologies which are much more limited in their ability to seem human.

Personalization and Upselling: For many hoteliers, the holy grail is the ability to present a personalized, custom offering to each guest, based on factors such as size/makeup of the party, inferred or known demographics, days of the week, length of stay, history, and other factors. While there are many limitations to doing this at scale, there are more and more products chipping away at the edges. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms play a role here, but mostly as a source of data, where they are largely similar. The innovation I saw was happening more at the fringes of the distribution process, particularly in direct channels or direct post-booking communications. Emerging companies I would look at closer in this category include Booking Whizz, dot.cy, Thynk, and UrVenue.

Robotics: In case you missed it, I recently wrote about the rise of robotics (and not just for saving labor) in a two-part series here and here. I said the area was starting to gain real traction, and that was in evidence at HITEC, with three new vendors (Aethon, Piaggio Fast Forward, and Robotis) joining prior exhibitors Relay Robotics and Tailos (formerly Maidbot). I predict that in another year, we will have at least three more robot companies exhibiting, and there will be more focus on specific use cases. Today, some of the vendors seem to still be exploring the opportunities, and plan to adapt their products to meet some of the best opportunities over the next year.

Reconciliations: Staff shortages have highlighted the number of time-consuming manual reconciliation processes that hotels need to undertake to make certain that revenue and profit do not slip through the cracks. These are being met by targeted products (x-quic’s OTA Savings audits and reconciles commissions due to online travel agents, which are often wrong due to reservation changes at or after check-in), embedded capabilities in existing products such as reconciling bank credits to credit card transactions, and tools to automate manual processes (robotic process automation companies Robosize ME, a first-time exhibitor, and Aphy, a contestant in this year’s Entrepreneur 20x competition).

Tipping: Several companies were exhibiting digital tipping capabilities for the first time, including buku, Kickfin, and Tip&Go (two others, Grazzy, and TipYo, were exhibiting at The Show but not at HITEC). Some of these companies still have payroll tax compliance on their roadmap (or are ignoring it), and most still do not support the most guest-friendly settlement method, which is charging tips the guest folio so they can be seamlessly included in expense reports. I expect this space will both grow and shake out some competitors over the coming year, with winners supporting payroll integration for tax reporting, integration with Property Management Systems for folio charges, app integration for “set and forget” automated tipping, and early/immediate access to some or all tip income through direct deposit. These are needed to recognize the end objective of getting more money in the hands of tipped employees without hotels having to raise wages.

Ten Products of Note

There were plenty of new products of interest this year. I have highlighted ten that caught my eye here. I only had a few minutes to visit each one, just enough to learn what the product does and not nearly enough to really assess it. Not all these ideas may pass a closer inspection, but I found them interesting enough to want to learn more. They all have promise, although some are early stage and may need quite a bit of refinement.

Hovr (gethovr.com) was showing a toolkit that could make any website more interactive and immersive, adding videos, pop-ups, and other rich content. Only a single line of inserted HTML is required on the website itself; the platform allows you to then overlay the material where you want, and it responds to mouse actions by the user, showing a popup when you hover over certain words, or playing a video. It enables re-use of social media videos, case studies, marketing shots and more on a website to highlight key features, showcase reviews, and answer FAQs.

bodhi (bodhi.software) is a cloud-based building management platform that centrally monitors, analyzes, schedules and controls all of the hotel’s technology from a single interface, including lighting, climate, water, electrical metering, audio/visual and other building technologies. They have partnered with numerous common providers of sensors and controls to hospitality. Overall, it was impressive, although their architecture currently supports only online door locks, which are rare in hotels.

Omnifi (omnifi.io; as of July 13, the website still shows them in stealth mode) launched a new cabling product at HITEC that embeds Ethernet cable within a rectangular strip made of a firm foam, which can be run through plenum, false ceilings, or along ceilings (it is paintable and could be made to look like a simple crown molding). Together with switches and cloud control, flexible cable housing provides new options for improving cabling within existing buildings, and the vendor claims significant cost savings.

Goki (gokitech.com) was showing a Wi-Fi door lock that could be opened by a traditional or mobile key or by a numeric code. Online locks have distinct advantages in security and usability but can suffer from the cost of wired power or batteries needed for Wi-Fi connectivity, This is why most hotel locks are offline or use a low-power signal like Bluetooth to communicate. Goki uses rechargeable batteries that need to be rotated 3-4 times per year, which for many hotels may be a reasonable tradeoff for the additional functionality and security (especially since the locks send battery-low warnings). Unlike traditional hotel locks, Goki locks are suitable for unattended locations.

PAUL Tech (paul.tech) is an established German company, just entering the North American market with an unusual building technology that use sensors to learn and optimize the use of energy to heat water, while also measuring potential contaminants. As it learns the building, it may recommend further components such as a heat pump, ultra-filtration, or a photovoltaic system. The energy savings claims sound interesting; heating hot water is a major contributor to hotel energy usage.

PassiveBolt (passivebolt.com) won the HITEC Entrepreneur 20X Judge’s Choice competition; it is the first commercial application of new W3C digital self-sovereign identity standards that I have seen in hotels, with a single app capable of storing multiple digital keys (hotel, rental car, home, office) and verifying the identity of the person presenting them. I highlighted the company and technology, and why it matters, in this blog a few months ago.

Buk (buk.technology), another Entrepreneur 20X competitor, was showing a solution that sells hotel rooms as Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). But in a twist from earlier NFT products in the market, the hotel retains control over resale rules, so that third-party distributors cannot arbitrarily buy them up and then undercut the hotel’s retail pricing. I am still skeptical that many hotels will buy in to the concept soon, but it addresses some of the concerns of earlier innovations and may get early traction in certain markets.

Hotel Genie (hotelgenie.app) replaces the guest room phone with a combination Alexa/bedside tablet/mobile app. It represents a maturing of voice activation by integrating it with touch-pad or mobile app requests. You can ask Alexa to call the front desk, or if voice commands are not your thing, you can push a button on the bedside tablet or mobile app to be connected. The tablet provides everything needed to replace the traditional guest room phone, including emergency calls and hotel extensions. The app can also act as a staff alert device.

Yipy (yipy.io) provides an app for recording and reporting staff compliance to standards. You can set it up with standards from a brand or management company, and then customize as needed.  Supervisors can measure compliance to standards by front desk, housekeeping, or other staff by completing custom checklists. Staff can view the standards they will be held to, and audit results highlight problem areas.

LounGenie (www.loungenie.com) had a product that looked great for a poolside or beach cabana at a five-star resort. About the size of a large ice chest, it includes a lockable safe for guest valuables, a USB charger inside the safe, and (surprise) an ice chest. It also has a call button to request service, and the entire unit can serve as a table.

Conclusion

That’s a wrap for my HITEC review. If I missed something you think I should have on my radar, please reach out. Since I only visited first-time exhibitors, I know there are innovations I did not see, whether from non-first-timers, companies not ready to exhibit, or ones that were not around when I stopped by. But if you have something truly new and different, I would very much like to hear about it!

Douglas Rice
Email: douglas.rice@hosptech.net
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ricedouglas

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