2021 Review: The year in hotel tech

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Bluetooth controller screen of smart bedroom. (yipengge/Getty Images)

Insight Comment
2021 was a year when technology played a central role in the global hotel industry. Simpler and less costly tech solutions provided ways to cope with the pandemic and the staffing shortage.

2021 was the year that we learned to live with the virus. As the global economy cranked back into action out of a state of near hibernation, there were a number of consequences, including energy scarcities and price hikes, and a shortage of computer chips.

The hospitality industry experienced a staffing crisis across the board, as many employees were either laid off or did not return from furlough. On average, around 40 percent of hotel IT personnel were laid off, which changed leadership and decision-making in the technology space.

New attitude

Operators noted a change in attitude amongst hotel owners and brands. Whereas in the past, funding was only available when absolutely necessary, now there was a greater recognition of the long-term benefits of investing in technology.

Younger and smaller teams of executives at the major brands showed a heightened sense of urgency, increasingly recognizing the need for flexible, outsourced solutions.  
The recent global partnership between Accor and Mews is a significant example, making cloud-based property management systems (PMS) accessible to Accor’s portfolio of more than 5,200 hotels.

Several Accor properties and management companies have already onboarded the Mews PMS including Ibis, Mercure, Novotel, Mövenpick, Dalmata Hospitality Group, and RBH Hospitality Management.

Kevin Edwards, business development director, Alliants, said: “We have seen progress in hotels understanding the value of technology. The twin pressures of Covid and staff shortages have meant that hotels have had no alternative but to put technology at the heart of their businesses and they have been, happily, thrilled with the results. Far from putting barriers between the hotel and the guest, the relationship has only been improved.” 

Revenue management

Tech vendors aimed to meet the needs of an industry learning to operate with fewer employees. To cope with the scarcity of revenue managers, for example, several vendors are offering more  automation in their revenue management systems (RMS).  Atomize’s RMS, for instance, includes an Autopilot function which tells hoteliers to: “Sit back and relax. Switch on Autopilot and let the system automatically update your rates per room type.”

Upselling

In an operating environment when every dollar counts, the pandemic pushed hoteliers to improve their room service and be more creative in finding new sources of revenue and/or deploying attribute-based selling.

At the same time, digitalization of the guest journey reduced the face-to-face occasions for hotel staff to offer room upgrades, spa treatments, or F&B special offers.  So, the adoption of upselling software solutions accelerated.

Nor1, which claims to have the large installation base of any upsell provider, was bought by Oracle at the end of 2020. Other upsell providers include Oaky, GuestJoy, EasyWay, Roomdex and UpStay.

Internet of Things

Hotels have long had a foothold in the world of IoT through their use of occupancy sensors. Hotel managers took a closer look at extending IoT applications to help with repetitive manual processes. The popular rollout of online door locks was another example of how widespread IoT technology has become in the global hotel industry.

Guest data

The pandemic proved that it is not just young hotel guests who like digital services. After all, standing in line to check-in is not a popular pastime for any age group.
Coming out of lockdowns and welcoming guests once again made hoteliers think harder about what their guests actually want.

Hoteliers were under pressure to make their electronic communications more personal and similar to the AI-driven recommendations sent out by the ecommerce giants. Amazon, for example, claimed that its personalization engine accounts for a third of its sales.

Some hoteliers pursued a goal of consolidating several data sources to create single life-long guest profiles accessible to all hotel personnel.

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, citizenM and The Student Hotel were among the operators to adopt the use of customer data platforms (CPDs), a relatively new innovation for hotels.

Lifelong loyalty

citizenM’s chief commercial officer Lennert de Jong said: “The hospitality industry underperforms in having live customer data operationally available at all times and we fixed that. We invested heavily in the new customer data platform. A customer data platform is an interesting tech space to watch as it has been growing outside of the hospitality industry quite rapidly.”

Tom Magnuson, co-founder and CEO, Magnuson Hotels, added: “We have seen that the old methods favoured by the brands: using loyalty programmes to offer discounts and bring in guests that way don't work as well now that the leisure market is dominant. Owners are seeing their OTA charges grow as a consequence, as the big brands fall back on tested and expensive means.” 

“We believe that this year has marked the beginning of the end for these programmes, which rely on discount at the cost of the owner. The New Year will see us launch a strategy which rewards true loyalty, for the benefit of the owner and the guest. Only then can a lifelong relationship be assured."

A golden age for hotel tech?

The ability of hotel companies to consolidate their guest data all in one place is a good example of the central role that open APIs (application programming interfaces) are now playing in all aspects of our lives.

This is the technology that allows different systems to talk to each other, that, for instance, allows PayPal to make payments from your bank account, or streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify to distribute content.

Historically, the legacy IT systems developed by the global hotel brands were closed systems that could not easily integrate with external software.
The coming-of-age of open APIs has overcome some of these difficulties. Tech providers of integration hubs – firms like Impala and Hapi – are able to connect legacy systems to other software.

But even with the help of open APIs, detractors claim working with outdated hotel tech is a painful process, creating a patchwork that is not scalable.  

The industry is waiting to see if and when other global brands follow Accor’s lead and replace their legacy systems altogether with new, more agile solutions.  

For those properties and companies not tied to legacy tech, there is a vast choice of cloud-based SaaS products to cover almost everything a hotel does.

From loyalty, upselling and staff comms to building management and stock control, this pick-and-mix smorgasbord made some observe that we are living in a golden age of hotel technology.

However, since only 10 percent of the world’s hotels have moved their IT systems to the cloud, this golden age is still only accessible to the few, although many more are expected to follow.

Jane Pendlebury, CEO, HOSPA, said: “What was previously seen as hard to understand and expensive has evolved to become simpler and, with the help of the cloud, less costly."

Edwards added: "Hotels have increased their understanding of what technology can do, not just in areas such as self-check-in but throughout the guest journey. My only caution would be to ensure that, before hotels leap in, they truly understand that journey. Only then can they get the best out of the technology they choose to deploy".