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Most hotel chiefs remain focused on managing a cash crunch as their top priority. But some hoteliers look at technology investment as crucial to strengthening their operations despite a plunge in revenue. Several hotel companies are investing in automation to make operations more efficient and comply with pandemic safety protocols.

Hoteliers have been painting two different pictures of how technology trends might affect their sector.

In one vision, the largest and best-funded players will consolidate the sector, and their tech-savviness will be a key factor propelling their momentum. A case in point: Executives at Wyndham have said they expect to add many new properties in the next year. Wyndham says its tech skills, such as a new app, add to its appeal.

Yet there’s an alternate vision of the future, too. It sees technology vendors democratizing software and gadgetry that only large companies had before.

That trend in democratizing tech could help smaller hotel groups such as Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula Hotels weather the downturn better than first expected as compared to the giants.

“We’re just launching our digital workplace, which will help connect our 13,000 colleagues around the world and give them a voice,” said Monika Nerger, global chief information officer for Mandarin Oriental, during an a recent webinar. “It’s a central digital workplace. It’s where you start your day. It’s where you get all your information in the language that you prefer to communicate in. You can chat with colleagues via mobile, and you can stay on top of all the changes that seem to be happening overnight.”

In a similar tech move, Peninsula Hotels announced in September it would move to a new property management system that would enable more automation.

Some vendors have claimed client wins despite the dire times. For instance, Control4 installed its automation system in Espacio, a luxury hotel in Waikiki, to digitize many of the interactions between staff and guests. Criton, an Edinburgh-based startup that helps hotels build mobile apps, said Thursday it had signed its largest contract to date.

Marriott cleaning electrostatic fogger

Marriott is disinfecting some surfaces with devices like this electrostatic fogger. Source: Marriott

It’s still too early to pinpoint which pieces of technology are proving the most popular with hotel operators. But potential winners were on display at the world’s largest hotel technology conference, held virtually this year: Cyber HITEC (the Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition and Conference), which drew 1,840 registered participants in late October.

Levels and type of tech spending depend on what kind of guest will drive most of the revenue in the next few years. Planning has become tricky. Hoteliers are questioning whether business travel funded by loose expense accounts will rebound to the same level previously.

“With work changing and people changing, what might be the change in demand for hotel rooms?” asked Ted Teng, former president and CEO of The Leading Hotels of the World, during a session at HITEC. “As a guest, do I really, really need 300 square-feet of a room with amenities and points that are all funded by a rate that’s funded by OPM, or ‘Other People’s Money”?”

In the old world, many guests stayed at a hotel on their company’s or client’s expense account, and they were willing to be lavish.

In the post-pandemic world, distributed and remote workers may still travel, but what they expect from hotels may change, Teng said. Travelers may prioritize hotels with reliable technological amenities, such as speedy Wi-Fi, over more aesthetic pleasures.

“Maybe all I need is about 100 square feet with a good bed, a good bath, great technology, and a very efficiently designed hotel room,” Teng said. “The design inspiration may come from business class seats or cruise cabins…. In these hotels I envision, services will be limited. Perhaps a robot brings linens and towels, and there’s no housekeeping during the stay.”

New Hotel Tech for a New Era

In recent months vendors have been shining their brightest promotional spotlights on contactless tech and modernized management software.

“Covid-19 has shown us that mobile orders and click-and-collect are now integral parts of this new guest journey,” said Carla Milovanov, senior vice president, digital and technology at Accor Europe, which has been trialing technology to create “digital-first” restaurants. New tech enables guests to order food and drink from a property’s online menu with their smartphones. The brand is testing the tech at some Mercure and ibis Styles test properties in the UK.

Hoteliers are reviewing many tools related to pandemic protocols. One eye-catching one is a Roomba-style robot from Xenex. It senses when no one is in a room and then casts an ultraviolet light, intending to kill viruses.

Improving hotel valet is another buzzy topic, according to Steve D’Erasmo, director, software engineering property at Hilton Worldwide. In one solution, managers hand devices to valet parkers, who scan vehicle identification numbers and give the guest a chit with a computer chip that valets can scan later to recognize a vehicle. For self-parking lots, new contactless kiosks let a driver wave their hand to collect a ticket or open a gate instead of pushing a button.

Smarter Smart TVs for Hotels

Many tech providers pitched their products as durable solutions for use beyond the pandemic.

LYNK-Cloud-HITEC2020 sample smart TV screen

Sample screen of how a hotel could use Samsung’s new Lynk Cloud to manage their smart TVs across properties with set-top boxes from Catapult Tech. Source: Samsung

A new generation of Samsung Hospitality TVs and related software services strive to help hotels better understand how their guests consume content. Hoteliers typically have to sign contracts for offering cable TV channels or “over-the-top” providers like Netflix and HBO. But they often don’t know which ones guests use and, thus, are worth continuing to buy.

“One thing we’re all waiting for across the hospitality industry is when do we move from free-to-the-guest content to more over-the-top content,” said David Thomson, Pineapple Hospitality’s chief information officer. “Certainly, with the reduced booking volumes we’re seeing, we’re looking more closely at anywhere we’re spending money that may not be valuable to our guests. One of those is channel selection. Do I need to have premium content anymore? Do guests actually use it?”

Samsung this week debuted Lynk Cloud, a platform that, along with a set-top box from Catapult Tech, lets hoteliers analyze the activity on any hospitality TV. It can be easily programmed to display custom messages, such as pandemic-related precautions or specials in a restaurant. The smart TVs can also easily share data with hotel marketers and managers anonymized information about how guests use the TV. Pineapple has been piloting the tech at The Maxwell Hotel in Seattle.

Another hot topic has been improving behind-the-scenes operations. The Amadeus Service Optimization solution is one of a few tech offerings that aim to help hoteliers make more efficient use of smaller staffs. Amadeus’s tool lets hoteliers create “groups” of hotels and assign key users access to manage those hotels in a centralized fashion. Hoteliers can coordinate and track centralized call center activities for guest requests and shared engineering and maintenance staff between nearby properties with the software, the company said.

Many hotels are also re-evaluating their security precautions in light of a spate of alleged hackings of travel company systems this year. Bleeping Computer reported on Tuesday that it saw hackers selling online what appeared to be a database containing 5.8 million user records from RedDoorz is a Singapore-based hotel management company in Southeast Asia. The company hasn’t publicly commented on the story but previously said no sensitive information like credit cards was stolen.

Photo Credit: All in-room technology used at The Peninsula Hotels (owned by HSH, or Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels) is designed and developed in-house by a team of electronic, software, and hardware engineers. HSH