Hilton’s new health and safety protocols include heightened sanitation of rooms and letting guests know their room was cleaned and sanitized by placing a seal on the door. Guests also are encouraged to use mobile key to access their rooms rather than handle a key card. Various technology platforms are being integrated into hotels at a rapid rate as industry leaders and consumers call for contactless engagement with hotels in the age of COVID-19.

Hotel tech hits fast-forward button

Industry quickly adopting programs to reassure guests and modernize business

In its new Safe Stay program borne from the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Hotel & Lodging Association recommends hotels use “contactless” engagement with guests now and in the future.

Nearly every hotel company is eliminating touchpoints in their franchised hotels, which means mandating the use of such programs as mobile applications for guests to check in and out, to unlock their rooms and communicate with the hotel staff.

Technological solutions in operations and guest management were emerging in hotels before the COVID-19 pandemic. But experts say the implementation of the next generation of tech is rapidly unfolding as owners, operators, employees and guests manage health and safety concerns for the sake of business recovery.

Technology is driving change in an industry known for being resistant to new ways of operating. Hotels that don’t embrace the digital reality of today will be left behind when the industry gets back to business.

LISTEN: DIGITAL REALITY: Listen to Episode 272 of Lodging Leaders podcast, which explores the adoption on new hotel technology in the age of COVID-19.

“In terms of the disruption we are seeing all around us, I think the one thing that’s really interesting … is that COVID isn’t really changing things but rather it’s accelerating the change that was already going to happen,” said Raj Singh, CEO of Go Moment, creator of Ivy, a digital concierge that interacts with hotel guests via SMS texting, voice and web chats.

Singh was a panelist in Long Live Lodging’s digital conference, LodgingStream: A Brave New World. He participated in a session on innovation.

The pandemic, he said, has forced the industry to “hit the accelerator button” on integrating technological solutions into their operations. Customers are demanding it.

Since mid-March, when the World Health Organization deemed the novel coronavirus a global pandemic and the Trump administration declared the outbreak a national emergency, consumers began using technology to accomplish tasks they previously performed face to face.

Singh noted that Instacart, the online grocery shopping and delivery service, reported it delivered $100 million worth of groceries per week in April, the level of business it expected to be doing by 2024.

According to RBC Capital Markets, Instacart said in April that customer demand had grown by 300 percent year over year.

Likewise, hoteliers have to think ahead as they plan reopening strategies.

“Hotels have to hit the fast forward button,” Singh said. “We have to think five to 10 years out. Guests don’t want to talk to people face to face. They don’t desire the communication that had previously defined our industry.”

WATCH: INNOVATION TRIGGERED: Tune in to LodgingStream’s session in which leaders in hospitality’s future business models discuss how the COVID-19 crisis has sped up the adoption of technology applications.

Doing Nothing Is Not An Option

Intelity, a software vendor that provides mobile check-in and mobile key, reported that long before the COVID-19 outbreak, hotel guests were ready to use technology to make their stay more seamless.

Intelity noted the following:

  • A 2017 survey by Hospitality Technology magazine revealed 62 percent of respondents said they want to use a handheld device to request service.
  • A year ago, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported 70 percent of millennial travelers surveyed prefer to book at hotels that offer keyless entry and mobile payments.
  • Also in April 2019, Criton reported 58 percent of hotel guests it surveyed would welcome and use mobile check-in.

Adam Harris, founder and CEO of Cloudbeds, a property management system that operates in the cloud, was also a panelist in LodgingStream’s session on innovation. Cloudbeds technology integrates with other programs to enable such applications as mobile check-in and communication with guests and hotel staff on mobile devices.

Harris said his “biggest fear” is that state legislatures or public agencies will adopt brand standards on safety-related technology that will actually flatten the curve on innovation. He noted that nine out of 10 hotel property management systems operate on-premise and cannot connect to the cloud.

Overall, experts agree the industry needs to get out of its own way to develop technological solutions that will enable hotels to do business in the future as travel and hospitality will not return to its post-pandemic days.

WEIGHING THE COST: Hotel Tech Report published its “Wager Framework For Crisis Innovation Decisions” in its latest quarterly review on technology innovations, which opens by asking hoteliers to consider various scenarios and weigh the benefits in upgrading their property’s technology in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. “The only unacceptable outcome is the one where the world does not come to an end and we do not improve our tech and operational processes,” writes Jordan Hollander, CEO.

Jordan Hollander, CEO of Hotel Tech Report, an online site that reviews technology products and services available in the hospitality industry, was also a panelist in the Innovation Triggered session.

He noted that along with technology that helps guests feel secure are programs focused on managing employees and their tasks. Then there are operational systems for property management, sales and marketing and revenue management.

Building a new technology stack can be overwhelming and, therefore, daunting. “Hoteliers don’t really know what they want,” he said, and might be reluctant to invest in new applications if the technology does not add value to their business.

The expectation of another wave of a coronavirus outbreak has prompted developers of technology to consider how to better care for the emotional wellbeing of guests.

HELLO, IT’S ME: Simplify Reality in March released a COVID-19 messaging app it developed by using machine-learning technology. Users type “hello” to trigger the chat which will help answer their COVID-19 questions.

Customer Engagement

Parshant Jain is a medical doctor who co-founded a tele-medicine application in India.

He now lives in Santa Monica, California, where he founded Simplify Reality, which developed a customer-service program that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to go beyond filling orders or finalizing a sale.

The first iteration of Simplify Reality’s technology focused on delivering food and beverages to people attending sporting events – tens of thousands of people packed into a stadium. Something we won’t see for months and maybe even years.

Jain’s latest program serves the hospitality industry. He developed an application that engages guests on social media throughout the booking journey. In many cases, planning a trip is an emotional experience. Today, travel consumers want a lot of reassurance that their decisions are wise and safe.

Simplify Reality’s program uses emotional AI that senses, learns about and interacts with human emotions.

Emotional AI reacts to consumer sentiments displayed through social media posts, texting, voice and even facial expressions.

Travel can summon all kinds of feels in people and Jain expects hotel guests will display a heightened level of emotion in the age of COVID-19.

“Definitely there is a change in how guests are looking forward in the future to engage with the hotel,” Jain said.

“People are more concerned about their safety, and, when they are in the hotel, how they will engage with hotel staff. These are real and genuine emotions, and they are communicated via social media all the time.”

AI is constantly developing based on its interaction with people in specific settings. AI uses history and current situations to evolve its ability to communicate with people, saying the right thing at the right time.

“Sentiment analysis in AI is very big,” Jain said. “It goes beyond saying I am happy, I am neutral or I am sad.”

For example, if a guest posts a photo of her hotel stay on social media, what she’s chosen to post reveals her sentiment at the time. “That’s where AI comes into the picture,” Jain said. It combines the guest’s historical data with his or her current effort and enables the hotel to share a message that is valuable to that guest.

AI transforms customer service into customer engagement.

Simplify Reality aims to enable hotels to not only improve customer service during the coronavirus age, but to find new ways to engage with the customer.

To fully connect with guests, Simplify Reality’s AI program uses the four pillars of customer engagement: Acknowledgement, association, amplification and action.

“These are the emotional factors that everybody works around,” Jain said, citing a study reported in the Harvard Business Review.

“Acknowledgement is saying that I love this brand, I love to stay with you or you suck. Either way you acknowledge that.” Responding to the guest’s sentiment helps change a negative view to a neutral one, Jain said. “AI accomplishes that.”

The next pillar of association “makes guests feel that you are with them.” If the social media post says they had a fantastic time, the hotel can respond by sharing their joy and offering them an upgrade or a free amenity on the next visit.

Amplification is when the AI application encourages guests to spread the word. And action is the return on investment when people become engaged with the hotel. That’s when the hotel can do a soft promotion that results in bookings. “AI is doing something way beyond to make that hotel selection happen,” Jain said.

FIVE REASONS WHY: Intelity shares the results of several different traveler surveys to make the argument that technology is indeed the future of hospitality. The data is from surveys conducted long before the COVID-19 global outbreak. Today’s guest demand for a safer stay is driving hotels to adopt new tech solutions in the name of competition.

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