All hoteliers suffering through the lockdowns are well aware of the immediate need for ramping up technology, both to enable physical distancing and to keep operations running smoothly on a lean team. But what next? How do we continue to innovate after we’ve ‘solved’ the near-term challenges imposed by COVID?
To understand what role tech will play going forward for hotels, I’ve brought together four CEOs covering a wide range of functionalities within a hotel including:
- Alexander Shashou, Co-Founder & President, ALICE
- John Smallwood, CEO, Travel Outlook
- Parminder Batra, CEO, TraknProtect
- Saar Fabrikant, President & CEO, b4
How will technology aid in the recovery for hotels when travel resumes?
Shashou: We have to reimagine the entire guest-staff relationship to minimize the need for human touch and to allow for hotels to run at lower staff counts as they build back up to full occupancy.
Smallwood: The quickest way to let guests who cancelled know that their hotel has reopened is through direct email; this will be an invaluable tool. The email needs to clearly outline when the hotel will be open, what specials are available and how they can book, meaning that all rates and promotions must already be operating flawlessly in the hotel’s website.
Fabrikant: I believe ‘contactless’ will be the new currency in hospitality for a while. Integrations are also going to assist hotels – the more systems integrated, the less human involvement needed. A third idea is ‘last mile delivery’ which could assist in room service to give people a sense of comfort (if the technology can become affordable to hotels).
Batra: Any technology that will enable contactless check-in as well as zero interaction with the door handles, locks or in-room controls will be key. Voice-based controls and guest interactions are also ideal technology enablers. Robotic service and cleaning technologies will also aid in the recovery by ensuring verified cleanliness and enabling the gradual re-onboarding of human teams to ensure a limited chance of COVID-19 relapses.
What will customer behavior look like in the months after the lockdown subsides?
Fabrikant: As I mentioned before, ‘contactless’ will be critical. Until consumer confidence is back to pre-pandemic levels, I think people will feel more comfortable with more automation as opposed to the ‘high touch by hotels staff’ approach that properties typically go for. Deskless check-ins and check-outs are going to have to be even more secure and reliable.
Batra: Guests will be hesitant to go to hotels or use restaurants and bars for fear of surface virus or as a result of conditioned social distancing. The ability of BLE (Bluetooth low-energy)-connected sensors to detect heatmap changes for employees and guests as they move about the property will be key to identifying and pinpointing potential COVID-19 cases in real time as well as providing the data to mitigate the issues.
Smallwood: Hotels will need to make their strategy for containing the virus in their rooms and common areas clear in all marketing materials, and it will be reassuring to guests to see these in place at the hotel when they arrive. If the hotel has a check-in app, these should be made clear there, too. Each room will need to have items clearly visible at check-in to assist with protection such as throwaway masks, branded hand sanitizers and effective soaps for handwashing. A note explaining how the room was cleaned and hand-signed by the executive housekeeper would be nice, too. The need for these will gradually fall away over time.
Shashou: On the human interaction side, frictionless check-in, messaging guests and digital ordering with all be critical. These technologies exist and are mature enough now to be widely adopted so that guests can float through hotels keeping to themselves until we collectively regain confidence.
What longstanding travel trends have been brought about by the pandemic?
Shashou: On the larger scale, we are seeing a trend towards digitalization in operations that has held the industry back for years. Now that hotels will be so focused on leaner operations, they will be more proactive in turning to software to manage all their workflows. Next would be multi-skilled workforces. Just yesterday I was speaking to a concierge who currently is one of the few keeping the hotel clean during shutdown by taking on the role of front desk, housekeeper, engineer and chef. As we scale back up, hotels might look to have staff play multiple roles. So that nothing gets lost in the shuffle as staff share the workload across themselves, software can be used to track that each task has gotten done. On the smaller scale, I imagine BYOD (bring your own device) will become more of an acceptable option for hotel staff who want to run hotel software on their own devices rather than touching devices that have traded many hands.
Batra: New trends will spotlight contactless interactions between staff and guests. Next and crucial will be an increase in time spent by the staff cleaning, in contrast to rushing to clean rooms quickly.
Smallwood: Like all other hotel reservations and call center teams, during the first ten days of the COVID-19 crisis, our call center agents were inundated with calls to cancel or postpone. Now that the call volume has temporarily softened, rather than laying off staff, we’re using this quiet phase to upskill our team. We believe that people are going want a human voice to explain and reassure them about softened deposit and cancellation requirements. During this critical recovery period, every call will be disproportionately valuable for hotels.
Fabrikant: To reiterate, one huge trend will be contactless payments. Bypassing the terminal at the front desk – whether you give the card to the front desk agent or insert it yourself into the terminal handed to you by them – should be avoided. If you submit your card to the hotel via a paper credit card authorization form to provide a group deposit, how many people touch that form on the hotel side before it is destroyed or shredded, if at all? All that has to go away.