Definitely Doug 9/18/20: Macro Tech Trends for the Post-COVID Future (Part one)

by Doug Rice

Macro Tech Trends for the Post-COVID Future  (Part one)

Over the past six months, this column has focused mostly on hospitality technologies and issues that were triggered by COVID-19. Innovation has flourished during that time, from both established industry technology providers and from startups. At last count I had identified nearly 300 startups in the space since the beginning of the year, some of them with very interesting technologies.

Of course, most companies that started in 2020 are not yet “ready for prime time” – it takes time to build a product and a company that can really have an impact. But the trend is clear: 2020 will, for all its pain, go down as a year in which many of the future industry technology leaders were born. This last happened at scale during the great recession of 2008-2009, and it seems like this time the level of activity is even greater.

So, in this installment and the next one or two, I want to recap the areas where innovation has been the greatest. I will not be doing a deep dive on any one area, but will rather try to paint the broader context, while referencing some of my earlier articles and providing a few updates where relevant.

There are four trends I will cover in total. Together they cover most of the landscape of innovation in hospitality tech so far in 2020. The most active trend is technologies that facilitate contactless interactions with guests, and that will be this week’s topic. In the next one or two installments I will cover the other three, which are health and sanitation, social distancing, and communication.

While some of the specific innovations may fade away in the post-COVID world, I suspect that many of them will stay. Indeed, some of the COVID-inspired approaches offer significant advantages in terms of guest service, guest choice, and labor reduction, which should all be welcome assuming that the cost is reasonable.

Contactless innovation has permeated every corner of the space, as guests and staff alike seek to find ways to avoid touching things (or people!) that might carry infection. Indeed, it is hard to find a technology provider that has not introduced at least one new feature to facilitate this, and some pre-existing technologies that had only limited market penetration pre-COVID have found entire new lives.

Undoubtedly you have heard about or seen some, maybe even many, of the innovations in contactless. But it is hard to keep track of them all, and most likely you missed at least a few. Some of these are deployed and available, while others are under development and may hit the market soon. I will not name the companies in the latter category because if history is any guide, not all of them will make it to successful launch, and some that I have seen are still operating in stealth mode. But if the ideas are appealing, ask around (or watch my future columns). And everything I will mention here is something I have heard hoteliers asking for, so I expect most of them will come to pass.

Perhaps the single biggest trend in contactless is putting everything that used to require interaction with hotel staff onto the guest’s mobile device. This is not technically contactless, of course, but the mobile phone is the one device that the guest is going to be comfortable using without concern that someone else may contaminate it. And for bonus points, it is also the one device that the hotel will not be held responsible for if it does cause an infection.

Of course, the BYOD trend has been around for years, and many hotels have long offered some services via the guest mobile device. But compared to what is happening today, the list of services was historically quite limited. Despite some very capable products, relatively few hotels were willing to spend the money to truly enable mobile support for all or even most services.

While functionality has increased and platform prices have come down, there has been another factor at work. It is expensive and complex to integrate with as many as 10 to 20 disparate systems (many of which varied from hotel to hotel within a brand) that support the various guest room technologies, outlets, and services offered by many hotels. This led to limited features and/or inconsistency from one hotel to the next within the same brand, and a “dumbing down” of the app’s capabilities. For cost and brand consistency, most hotels with mobile apps supported just a few items like booking, check-in, mobile key, and maybe text requests, and usage was generally quite low. Even as recently as February, I had not found a hotel group that was getting much usage of mobile key, with most reporting low single-digit percentages; the highest penetration I heard was still under 10%.

With COVID, there is a greater imperative to get services onto the mobile phone. What’s new in this area? On my list would be remote video links to the front desk and concierge staff; check-in with ID verification, contactless payment, and of course mobile key; restaurant reservations (including for outlets that did not take reservations pre-COVID but where reservations and even table assignments are now needed to maintain social distancing and compliance with spacing requirements); food and beverage menus, ordering, staff paging, and payment (more detail in this blog from January); and the guest room compendium.

Check-out, folio review and delivery, and restaurant check review and delivery are also becoming more common as features. Reservations for hotel facilities such as the fitness center, business center or lobby computers, and even pool seating are also now necessary at many hotels, and are simple to incorporate on the guest phone. Some hotel groups and vendors are looking at providing automated and contactless tipping for housekeepers, bell staff, and others using their app (more thoughts on contactless tipping here).

There is also much more rapid adoption of messaging technologies and AI chatbots (covered here last month), to eliminate the need to interact personally with staff or to use the guest room telephone or tablet. Many apps now provide support for requests for housekeeping preferences, scheduling, and frequency – all of them much more customized than pre-COVID. Controls for in-room entertainment systems, lighting, and climate control have been around for a while and continue to draw interest, although the integration requirements often make these more challenging.

Some of the innovations on the mobile phone address the “how” rather than the “what”. Mobile apps are a good option for repeat guests for long-stay resorts, but most other guests will not download an app for a short, one-time stay. I like the approach some vendors have introduced, where they text the guest (based on permission obtained at the time of booking or from a post-booking email); this can provide all the functionality without requiring an app download.

One system I saw texts the guest on the day of arrival with a link to check-in. The link opens to a mobile-optimized HTML page that can scan their ID, match it to their face using the phone’s camera, collect missing information, and give them their room assignment and mobile key. Another link provides access to other functions, and a simple text message response goes directly to an AI chatbot. Another text, sent a few days prior to arrival, can allow the guest to provide their housekeeping and other preferences so that the hotel can prepare for their arrival.

Voice response is another technology that COVID has made more compelling. It still has its issues (see my earlier blog here) but is a good option for many simpler requests, and can even replace the high-touch guest room phone and/or remote control with a touch-free device. Hotels are finally overcoming the issues with contactless payment as well. While the contactless payment ecosystem still is not well tuned to the unique nature of lodging transactions, many hotels have found they can live with the downsides. Some kiosk applications, such as for grab-and-go outlets, have adopted not only for contactless payment, but are also providing the kiosk functionality through the guest mobile phone to avoid the need for touching the kiosk screen.

Finally, delivery robots, while still expensive, are getting another look from some hotels. New robotic cleaning and disinfecting technologies, some of them more reasonable in cost, are now appearing as well.

All in all, we have seen more innovation in the way guests can interact with hotels in the last six months that in the past several years taken together. That will be a legacy of COVID-19, and one of its few silver linings.

Come back next time for more on COVID innovation!

Douglas Rice

Discover Return On Experience

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