Definitely Doug 7/8/22: Trends and Innovations at HITEC 2022

by Doug Rice

If there was one thing said consistently by HITEC attendees in Orlando last week, it was that “HITEC is back.” While its official post-pandemic return may have been in September 2021, that event just wasn’t like the pre-COVID ones. Few international participants were there, and even many of the usual domestic exhibitors and attendees took a pass based on budgets, travel policies, or health concerns. But last week, none of these issues seemed to matter – even if a dozen or so people I saw in Orlando have since been laid low by COVID!

As I reported in my pre-HITEC blog, there were 89 first-time exhibitors scheduled to be on the show floor. While I usually try to see them all, this year there were just too many. As a result, I concentrated on the ones that sounded the most different and innovative. I also mixed in a few “regular” exhibitors whose press releases caught my attention or who reached out to me. I’m sure I missed some things I would have wanted to see; if I omitted something that you think merited inclusion in this article, please reach out to me using the contact information below. I’ll schedule some time for a closer look, and potentially cover it in a future column.

There were four major themes that many of the exhibitors I visited were trying to address, plus a few other specific products that are worth a mention.

Labor Hiring, Compensation, Recognition, and Retention

It was great to see a lot of technologies focusing on an issue that has been around for decades, but that has been drawn into sharp relief by the pandemic and the “great resignation.” There has never been a greater need to attract qualified staff, select the best ones, compensate them well, recognize good performance, and give them reasons to stay rather than leave.

Sprockets had a very simple but interesting approach to hiring, with a three-question survey that can be inserted via hyperlink into any job application process. These questions, about how the applicants react to natural-life situations, are also given to current staff. An artificial intelligence layer analyzes each applicant’s answers to see how well they match those of the best employees. I can’t say how well this works, but it makes intuitive sense. If it can reduce the likelihood of a bad fit by even 10%, it would have a big impact on productivity, retention, and recruiting costs. Every employer, work culture, and job is different, and this approach tries to measure a candidate’s fit to the actual situation rather than to some generic employer. I would be cautious about the potential impact on such a tool on diversity goals, however; if you’re not careful, it might cause you to hire too many people who are just like the ones you have!

Applause was a new entrant founded by a team of veteran entrepreneurs. While not fully launched (the website says it is in beta test and they described some pilots), I was impressed by the level of understanding of our complex industry that the team had assembled, and by the fit of the product to the need. It addresses two major issues, cashless tipping (which I wrote about in the early COVID days) and early wage access (where wages are made immediately available to employees at the end of each shift). It also enables recognition of top-performing employees (hence the name). One of their launch customers (I think from fast food) found that employees were calling off because they needed cash that day. They could get it if they took the day off and drove for Uber instead. Early wage access eliminated that issue and significantly improved attendance. And digital tipping, done right, can greatly increase the take-home pay of tipped staff, with little or no cost to the employer (depending on the vendor’s business model). My only question is, why wouldn’t every hotel want to offer that?

While I did not visit the Unifocus booth, I saw a press release saying that they also now offer both early wage access and digital tipping, and I hope to look at that product soon. There were numerous other tipping solutions also on display, including from youTip, eTip, and Canary Technologies (all of which exhibited previously), hifive (formerly known as TipX), and TipQwik. Still, not many hotels support digital tipping, and I have yet to see any integrations that allow tips to be posted to the guest folio. Such integration would enable the guest to opt in at any time (even permanently) to tip room attendants, and would greatly simplify their expense reporting for business travel.

Unfortunately, I have not found any tipping solution that works well for every hotel use case (housekeeping, bell staff, valet, and hosted bar service being the most common for cash tips); each solution seems to work better for some than for others. They differ in terms of whether and how the guest can identify the specific associate to receive the tip. Various approaches use names, photos, or QR codes associated with the hotel staff to accomplish this, or the guest’s room number in combination with housekeeping assignments.

QR codes assigned to a specific staff member or guest room can work well in some situations. However, they are insecure in locations where a malicious actor might surreptitiously replace them (and if that happens, the hotel may never find out – the employee will simply never receive the redirected tips). QR codes can also require repetitive data entry by the guest, and they can be less than convenient for the employee if they must open an app on their phone to display the QR code for the guest to scan. Dedicated links communicated by text message are more secure, but can also require repetitive data entry, and except for housekeeping, can make it harder to identify the person to receive the tip.

Still, I would not wait for the perfect solution before implementing digital tipping. Some use cases are handled quite well by today’s solutions, and for most hotels, housekeepers get the lion’s share of cash tips. Cashless tipping for them is comparatively easy in any hotel with automated housekeeping assignments; they can identify the right housekeeper to receive the tip from each guest and cleaning day. PMS integration is needed in order enable room charges, and mobile or front-desk check-in (or a text message sent right after) can allow the guest to opt in for every night of the stay, for only the days the room is serviced, or ad-hoc. Integration with PayPal, Venmo, Zelle and especially Apple Pay and Google Pay can also reduce the friction for guests and increase total tips.

Operational Optimization

Also highlighted by the severe labor shortage is the need to focus on labor productivity, something that has been woefully neglected by hotels in comparison to other industries in recent decades. It requires attention now, because most hotels can no longer just hire more staff when there’s too much to do.While created from a roll-up of existing companies, Actabl (the new name for the combination of Alice, Hotel Effectiveness, Profitsword, and Transcendent) appears to be squarely focused on doing more with less, and providing the metrics to manage productivity better. It will be interesting to watch what new capabilities emerge from the potential synergies of these companies.

Jolt is a relative newcomer to hotels, but is well established in restaurants, and was exhibiting a mature product that looked like it could address both restaurant and other hotel operational needs. It can monitor processes or metrics from various devices, and automatically generate workflows to raise alarms (such as an over-temperature freezer or guest-room device failure). As needed, it can schedule preventative or reactive maintenance, dispatch staff to check a device, complete operational checklists, and the like.

Robosize ME, which won the judges’ choice award in the Entrepreneur 20x (E20X) competition, automates almost any repetitive keyboard-and-screen task, and is priced based on labor savings. One common complaint of hospitality front- and back-office staff is that they want to be providing hospitality to customers, not staring at screens and entering data. I wrote about the company and its robotic process automation (RPA) technology last month, so I won’t repeat details here – but there are few hotels that couldn’t save labor and cost from using RPA.

PolyAI provides a natural language voice response for telephone calls that sounds surprisingly human, can take reservations, answer questions, and remember context within a call. Their technology is in use with restaurants, banks, and now a few hotels. It is also the engine used by Travel Outlook, which was exhibiting their new product Bella the Virtual Hotel Agent. If you haven’t looked at these technologies in a while, it’s time for an update: they are much improved in comparison with legacy voice response systems.

WrkSpot is a new entrant in the housekeeping management category. The functionality and integrations don’t yet match those of the mainstream and even some newer providers, but I have watched several recent entrants in this field grow very quickly, and the new ones can provide great opportunities for hotel companies whose needs they meet and who are willing to give them a try.

Guest Journey Management

COVID gave a big boost to dozens of existing and new products designed to manage the guest journey, contactlessly from the guest phone. These often start at or even before booking, and continue through pre-arrival, upsells, check-in, mobile key, chat, room controls, food and beverage ordering, activity scheduling, check-out, and post-stay survey and review collection. Indeed, it is difficult to find a property management system today that does not offer all or most of these capabilities either natively or via partners. And there were several independent vendors as well, many offering a mobile or responsive web app, but also in some cases a software development kit for integration with other solutions. I know of at least 72 products in the guest journey management space, and I’m sure there are many more that I haven’t identified.

Nevertheless, a lot of hotels are still undecided how to approach the digital guest journey, and even in a crowded field, new solutions are still coming onto the market. This year I saw three first-time exhibitors with products in the category, plus one previous exhibitor who expanded into it. First-timers included Duve and Operto (both quite complete with many integrations) and MyConect (an earlier stage product still with limited integrations, but supporting Oracle’s Opera). Canary Technologies has also entered this field, offering contactless check-in, check-out, upselling, and guest messaging, while incorporating preexisting functionality that helps hotels avoid the need to store sensitive data.

Voice & Text

Chatbots, increasingly powered by artificial intelligence and natural language processing, have become increasingly mainstream. I wrote in depth about them two years ago, and the basics haven’t changed even if some of the players have. The ones that are still around are generally more capable and intuitive, and several have been acquired by bigger companies. I saw only one new one this year, Quick text, but it was impressive in that if you tell it something during a conversation, it will remember it and not ask you again later. I couldn’t test this fully, but to the extent it works, it might actually be better than many humans, whose adherence to fixed scripts often seems to render them incapable of remembering information that was provided in anything other than the script’s predetermined sequence.

On the voice side, I mentioned PolyAI and Bella above, and there are well-known (if not yet widely adopted) solutions from the likes of Volara (now part of Uniguest) and Angie from Nomadix, as well as a platform for do-it-yourself solutions from Amazon’s Alexa for Hospitality. I did see an interesting new product from Aiello. It is the size and shape of a stylish alarm clock, but with an Android-based touch-screen display (about the size of a mobile phone) that provides very intuitive access to content (including photos of the facilities, menu items, or the like), services, and a phone; touch the phone icon and a dial pad appears, with speed-dials for in-house services. The voice response was quite good, which is not surprising since several people on their executive team came from senior positions in Google’s AI division. The product needs some localization for the US market (it debuted in Asia) but looked promising as a multifunctional replacement for the phone, alarm clock, bedside tablet, room controls, and TV remote.

Voice response in guest rooms is still a niche market, with many hotels concerned about privacy, cost, and form factor. I do expect more and more guests over time will start to use voice to interact with the hotel, but to me the big unknown is whether they will dictate into their phone (which is trained to their voice and vocabulary and which they believe rightly or wrongly to be secure) and let the phone interact with the hotel’s chatbot via text, or whether they will use a hotel-provided voice device. I would bet on most guests (and especially the future generations) preferring the first option, but I could well be wrong. In any case, in today’s market there is room for both options.

Other Products of Note

Two new entries into the guest room entertainment category were Edison Interactive and Telev8, both of which had fresh approaches to the challenge of finding all of the content a guest might want to watch, indexing it in a meaningful way, getting it onto the screen when they want it, and supporting their existing subscriptions and owned devices. No one can do it all, but it’s great to see new ideas and approaches, some of which might well take hold. An interesting twist in the Telev8 product is its ability to replace advertisements on some shows with ones that feature local businesses around the hotel – a new monetization opportunity – or that replace a competitor hotel’s ads with the hotel’s own.

Mobile ordering and payment products continue to evolve. While it may not fit the concept of some higher-end restaurants, these can greatly improve the productivity of wait staff, who should only need to go to the kitchen or bar to pick up and deliver orders (and maybe not even that, if other staff are assigned to that task). This means wait staff are paying more attention to customers, refilling drinks faster, and driving bigger checks – especially in sprawling venues such as beaches or pools.

Agilysys rolled out new functionality in this area, and MyMenu was showing a strong, point-of-sale independent product for menu display and ordering. Beachy won peoples’ choice in the E20X competition for their designed-for-direct-sunlight ordering device that works at the pool, the golf course, or outdoor catering events, and (in case you didn’t guess it from their name) the beach. xnPOS and payments platform Planet were showing a slick all-in one phone-sized point-of-sale and payment device that has been localized for some 40 countries, eliminating the need for wait staff to carry two devices to support pay-at-table. The GoTab stand was busy the times I passed, so I did not get to see the product, but my preview from their website looked interesting for its contactless capabilities.

One of the most interesting new companies was E20X competitor OTA Savings. It reconciles actual stays from the property management system with commissions paid to Expedia and, automatically identifying commission errors related to no-shows, cancellations, early check-outs, and adjustments. It charges just a percentage of the amount recovered, and eliminates the labor associated with manual reconciliation. It’s the closest thing I saw to a no-brainer, even from a high-risk startup; there is simply nothing to lose by trying it, and the potential for significant cost reduction.

Douglas Rice

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