Before the Coronavirus, the hotel industry, similar to retail, had countless technology innovations at their fingertips. Yet, for many of us who stay in hotels frequently, stepping into a lobby often felt like stepping back into the 1990s or even earlier. Check-in was antiquated and done at the front desk where a guest physically signed documents. Check-out wasn’t much different. And entering your room was a decades-old experience. For example, despite the launch of virtual key technology in 2014, room entry was still performed almost exclusively using a key card – technology which, by the way, was introduced to the market in the 1970s.
Then, Coronavirus. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, since mid-February in the U.S., hotels have already lost more than $46 billion in room revenue, and are on pace to lose up to $400 million in room revenue per day based on current occupancy rates and revenue trends. In an era where guests needed reassurances that they were in a safe and clean environment, hotels began to understand that core to surviving this crisis was to adopt the customer-centric and technology-leveraged approaches implemented by brands in other sectors – like healthcare and automotive.
Mark Wilkinson-Brown, Chief Marketing Officer of Sitel Group, told Hospitality Management that “It has been a difficult time for the industry as a whole and while our data shows consumers have been more accepting than usual of challenges during this chaotic time, as we move into the ‘new normal’ and hotels reopen for business, the expectation for customer experience is higher than ever.”
According to Business Insider, hotel brands including InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG), Loews, and Best Western are adopting American Hotel & Lodging Association’s (AHLA) StaySafe campaign to “help facilitate everything from how to conduct a contactless check-in to a new set of cleaning standards and protocols.”
Here are some ways hotels are innovating:
Cleanliness Moves to the Forefront
Technology is more important than ever when enabling safety and cleanliness within hotels for both guests and associates. In a recent survey of nearly 4,600 respondents, the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman found that improved health and cleaning is the chief factor impacting the decision to stay at a hotel. According to this New York Times
In a past article, I mentioned that UVD Robots, autonomous, disinfecting robots that use UV-C light in hospitals, represented a next-gen technology that would be embraced amidst the pandemic. Now, as consumer expectation for hospital-grade disinfection extends beyond hospitals into everyday life, the travel and hospitality industries have been quick to embrace UVD Robots. Recently, UVD announced it was being used in airports and hotels worldwide, including Boston-based YOTEL.
“Right now it’s critical for the hospitality industry to not only enhance how we protect travelers but also provide them with reassurance that we’re taking every possible step from check-in to check-out,” said Trish Berry, General Manager, YOTEL Boston. An extension of YOTEL’s operation #SmartStay safety measures, the UVD Robot, named ‘Vi-YO-Let’, will offer an even deeper level of disinfection throughout high-touch public spaces and select cabins at YOTEL Boston.
AI Chatbots Streamline Customer Service
AI-powered chatbots allow users to chat online with an artificially intelligent “bot” the way they would chat with a live agent. Utilizing mobile apps as well as hotel websites and social media platforms, hotel chatbot platforms enable hotels to text message guests, answer questions and improve customer engagement. Chatbots allow businesses to provide 24/7 customer service, freeing up agents’ time to spend on more complex problems, and lowering costs. It also helps to fill the void when operating with reduced staff due to COVID-19.
Hotels like The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, Aloft Hotels, The Four Seasons and AccorHotels as well as online travel agencies (OTAs) like Booking.com are using Chatbots, as well as Holiday Inn
Virtual Experiences Allow Guests to “Try Before They Buy”
A recent survey by Sitel Group asked consumers what technology they believed travel and hospitality brands could leverage to create the most compelling customer experiences. Digital representatives (chatbots, voice automation, etc.) was first, followed by virtual reality simulations of guestrooms and public spaces to let travelers “try before they buy.”
A story by Hospitality Technology explained that after filming a hotel property in VR, the hotel can provide a headset with preloaded VR content to top clients, prospective guests or even tour operators to give customers a sneak-peek into newly refurbished hotels to spark the desire to travel and whet the travel appetite. Tech-savvy guests who already own a VR headset are even able to book hotel rooms from their headsets in some cases. The technology is also being used to train hotel staff in a contactless way.
Crowne Plaza Greater Noida, a leading business hotel in Delhi NCR, recently launched a VR-based physical Experience Centre on-site. According to a release, apart from 3D mapping of each and every facet of the hotel property, Virtual Reality provides a 360-degree tour of various hotel spaces from one point in the lobby.
Smart Home Technology Expands into Hotels
There is also a growing expectation for contactless experiences at hotels. Research by Criton found that when traveling again, 80 percent of hotel guests would download a hotel app that would enable them to check in, check out and get all information about the hotel—a 10 percent increase compared to March of this year.
Apps like Jurny use smart home technology entirely remotely and autonomously to enable short-term rentals. The platform could help convert rooms and units into furnished, automated, suites quickly and efficiently. Guests to book units and manage their entire stay through the Jurny app, with access to single-touch check-in and check-out, 24/7 virtual customer support, keyless entry, temperature control, WiFi connection and on-demand cleaning services that follow a 150-point CDC-compliant checklist.
Tim Burrow, owner of 121 Hotel in Nashville, said boutique hotels are at risk for closure without upgrades that drive bookings with this kind of advanced technology. According to Burrow, “My worry of the effect of COVID-19 on the hotel vanished virtually overnight,” upon implementing the Jurny app.
The hotel industry is hurting, with bookings down and massive losses in revenue. It’s an industry not unlike retail. However, one big difference is this industry has used their downtime to explore and invest in innovation that meets the expectations of the new consumer. They are doing it by first trying to LISTEN to their customers using technology platforms to UNDERSTAND how they need to react to serve their customers.
Having safe, contactless and next-gen solutions will build confidence and encourage guests to return. Retail should take a page from the hotel industry’s playbook and begin to reimagine what is possible in stores, from apps to chatbots and cleanliness. Those that don’t will likely become even less relevant in the eyes of consumers.