Definitely Doug 9/24/21: On the Lookout for Innovation at HITEC

by Doug Rice

After 27 months of absence, the in-person HITEC event finally returns next week. I plan to be in Dallas  for all four days, and I look forward to seeing what innovations the exhibitors will have on display. As usual, I will spend most of my time scouring the booths of first-time exhibitors, since that’s where most of the truly innovative ideas are usually found. But if you’re an established industry technology company with something that is truly new and different, please reach out to me so I can find time to see it as well!

Most hoteliers who attend HITEC have some specific objectives in mind, based on projects they have planned or are contemplating for the coming year. This is entirely appropriate, but I hope they will also spend some time looking at the companies they have never seen before, even if just for a few seconds to see if what they do is relevant or interesting. After all, the established vendors already know how to reach you and tell you what they’re doing; neither you nor they need HITEC for that. But finding the new ones who may have great ideas that could solve some of your challenges requires that you spend some time looking for them. In my experience, HITEC is the best place to do that.

There has been much speculation about how big the show will be this year. Budgets are tight, travel restrictions are still in place at many companies, and for those based outside the U.S., travel is somewhere between challenging and impossible. Even some domestic attendees with family risk factors are nervous about traveling and mixing with crowds. Offsetting this, the HFTP Annual Convention and the HSMAI Marketing Strategy Conference are co-locating with HITEC for the first time, which should draw some additional attendance.

Exhibit floor bookings, which are published on the HFTP website, yield some clues. I have been watching them closely over recent weeks and speaking with companies who are exhibiting, as well as with some who have decided to sit this year out. One week out, I counted 249 booths reserved, which is down roughly 35% to 40% from pre-COVID levels but still respectable. Many regular exhibitors who are based overseas are missing, while others are present but have downsized substantially. Toronto-based Maestro PMS announced this week that it will attend virtually but maintain its booth for remote demo scheduling, as well as mobile device charging and refreshments for attendees. About 5% of the booth space was still available less than two weeks out, and that was after nearly 40 10x10 booths in the back and far right were axed from the floor plan.

As is my habit with HITEC, I spent weeks in advance researching the vendors I have not seen before, most of whom are to my knowledge first-time exhibitors. This year, my list was just over 50, down a bit from 2019 but still respectable. To be sure, I will find that many of these are me-too products in already-crowded categories, but a few will be new and different. Some will have products that were successful in other vertical markets and that seem like a good fit for hospitality. Sometimes this works, although many of these companies underestimate the sales, integration, and geographic challenges that the established vendors to hospitality know so well.

There are always a few hidden gems, and that’s what I will be looking for. In my next column, I will tell you what caught my interest. And if you’re at HITEC and see something that you think deserves a mention, please flag me down or email me to tell me about it!

Based on my advance research, here are some trends I expect to see. I’ll also mention some of the new exhibitors I plan to visit and why, but this is by no means an exhaustive list, just the ones that caught my eye. There might be one or two who have exhibited before but that I missed. Of course, some of the established vendors may have similar products, and I don’t mean to slight them, but their sophisticated marketing machines have probably reached you already if you’re a target.

A key caveat: at this point I have not seen the products from these first-time exhibitors, so I am reacting solely to their marketing messages. Some may just be well-animated PowerPoint presentations, but I plan to find out!

Guest Mobile Apps: It might be easier to count the exhibitors that are not offering guest mobile apps this year. The combination of a desire for contactless options and severe staffing shortages has led to a massive proliferation in options. Many property management system (PMS) vendors offer their own mobile app, as do some Wi-fi and locking providers, and a long-established group of app-centric vendors. Many point-of-sale (POS) vendors now offer food and beverage ordering apps, and there are numerous third-party options there as well.

Look for the ones that integrate with your existing tech stack and support as many functions as possible: reservations, check-in, check-out, mobile key, food and beverage, chat with hotel, service requests, push marketing messages, guest compendium, local directory, and activity reservations are just some of the things these apps can do. Some of the vendors can deploy their capabilities either within an existing hotel app (via Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs) or standalone, and some of the standalone options are deployed as responsive web pages, which can act like an app but can be invoked from an email or text message and do not require an app download. The latter feature, at least as an option, can help ensure that you can reach the majority of guests who will not be willing to download an app.

I am intrigued by Virdee, which is a post-COVID startup with an API approach that appears to address many of the issues I raised in my blog earlier this year on the guest arrival process. Also in this category, Ready offers support for contactless dining (covered in this blog); while Ready appears to be fairly well established in the restaurant industry, it will be interesting to see how well its product adapts to the needs of hotels.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), Text Messaging, Voice Response and Chatbots: This is a rapidly evolving area that I have covered in past blogs (load here, then scroll down, for AI/chatbots; click here for voice response), but it continues to improve and gather more interest. It has the potential, if done well, to improve customer service while simultaneously reducing required staff. In addition to the companies mentioned in those articles, new products I plan to check out at HITEC include Akia, Alexa for Hospitality, Evolution Virtual Agent (from established vendor Fourteen IP), MessageBox, and PolyAI.

Internet of Things (IoT): Many building controls, infrastructure, and security products are starting to be offered in network-addressable versions, meaning they can participate in orchestrated control and measurement systems that can help improve the guest experience, ensure security, and reduce energy consumption. Many of the early capabilities are limited but useful, but some of the more established vendors are investing in device connectivity and orchestration for the longer term. Advantech is a large established company with many IoT applications, but I have not run across them in hospitality before, so it will be interesting to see what they have. On a smaller and more focused scale, BarVision uses IoT technology to address liquor inventory control in real time; this is a simple application but one where IoT can offer capabilities that traditional solutions cannot.

Back Office: I see continuing development of back-office solutions that incorporate aspects of Robotic Process Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning to automate repetitive tasks, coordinate across multiple systems, and reduce labor while increasing accuracy. First-time exhibitors I plan to visit in this category include Docyt, Plate IQ, and Skystem.

Tipping: The need for cashless tipping solutions is greater than ever, as guests carry less and less cash while hotels need every possible financial incentive to attract staff. I covered several technologies and companies in this blog last summer but the space has continued to evolve. Three first time-exhibitors in the category that I plan to visit are eTip, Gratuii, and Youtip.

DC Power Distribution: My most recent blog addressed the emergence of technologies such as Power over Ethernet (PoE) and digital power, which are enabling significant construction cost reductions, as well as energy efficiency, by employing DC power backbones. I was pleased to see that two companies mentioned, Igor and Sinclair Digital, joined the exhibitor list and will be sharing a booth. That blog talked about what they were doing with PoE and digital power at The Sinclair Hotel in Fort Worth. If you would like to see this for yourself, they are conducting private tours and a rooftop reception at the hotel on Tuesday evening. Stop by their booth on Tuesday for an invitation if you want to get a first-hand look (or you can email them if you are unable to stop by).

Others that Caught My Attention: The remainder are mostly one-offs so I will not cite them as a trend, but they sound different and might be interesting. They include BEC Technologies (WAN solutions based on 4G LTE and 5G NR); Clear Touch (digital technologies for small/hybrid meetings); Fitness On Demand (digital fitness content for fitness facilities or guest rooms), FreshAir Sensor (detects tobacco or marijuana smoke), Grubhub (yes, the one you think; it will be interesting to see how they are marketing to hotels), HaloSOS (staff safety solution), Stay-N-Charge (managed electric vehicle charging solution) and Workjam (workforce orchestration).


For the companies mentioned here (with the exception of Igor and Sinclair Digital), I have done online research only, without even the most cursory review of what is real vs. just marketing hype. If you are looking for a solution in one of the areas mentioned and attending, by all means plan to take a quick look at these companies, but anything more than that, please do your own due diligence. And oh yes, remember to wear your mask!

Douglas Rice

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