Hotel tech has always been a noisy sector, full of vendors shouting about their products. If anything, the pandemic has turned up the volume. Hoteliers are under pressure to make several modernizations at a time when revenues are low. Which ones should they prioritize?
“This will depend upon what the hotel already has, but in this current environment prioritizing contactless and guest and staff communications applications will be key,” said Carl Weldon, COO Europe for the Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals (HFTP) Association.
“Even if hotels already have systems such as property management, EPOS and other billing and information systems, these will need to be upgraded to mobile/tablet available versions. This will most likely also mean upgrading WiFi and other networks to make sure these applications can work effectively.”
The number of hotels offering contactless service was already rising, but the pandemic has accelerated the rollout. A survey of US hotels commissioned by software provider Oracle found that:
• 76% of hoteliers are providing contactless payment options.
• 36% of hoteliers provide self-service check-in.
• 59% of hotels have digital messaging services to limit staff and guest interactions.
• 42% are issuing smartphone-based bedroom keys.
Olive Tree Hotels & Resorts is a new company with $500 million to invest in acquisitions and operational infrastructure. Ava Chunjang, SVP of management and operations, explained why a contactless, keyless and paperless guest experience is important for the group: “We want to continue to improve the guest experience while increasing operational efficiencies. The more interaction and insight we have into each touchpoint along the digital guest journey, the more we are able to customize the guest experience, respond to their needs, and improve service quality.”
Contactless service is increasingly what hotel guests want, but the real driver for owners and operators is its ability to maximise efficiency. Automating operational procedures not only leaves a valuable data trail but deals well with having fewer employees on site.
Ideally, front office staff should not need to perform any processes on a computer in front of the guest; instead they can fulfil a concierge role as ambassadors for the hotel and the destination.
So, for both guests and hotel staff, automating pre-arrival communications, check-in, onsite messaging and upselling, check-out and payment makes absolute sense. Indeed, facilitating online payment throughout the guest’s journey is likely to increase average spend.
In contrast, from the guest’s point of view, the convenience of mobile door entry is questionable. For guests going in and out of their rooms several times a day, one could argue that a plastic swipe card is easier than using a mobile phone from which you need to find and open the hotel app each time.
A phone may need charging or topping up; a guest may even want to have their phone switched off but still gain entry to their room. However, such thoughts have largely been swept away by Covid concerns and the majority of brands are enthusiastically rolling out mobile door entry.
In March 2021, Accor announced its global rollout with an objective to equip 20,000 doors this year and all new hotel openings going forward. Cristina Cavaco, general manager, Ibis Styles London Gloucester Road, said: “The installation is super easy and fast. Literally anyone can do it with no engineer needed. We just need to plug a little piece of software in the back of the existing bedroom lock and it’s done. Then, with a staff app which is available on any android phone, we set up the time in the locks and it’s all up and running.”
Certainly, mobile door entry is a favoured solution in situations where there are no staff on the premises – e.g. serviced apartments and accommodation alternatives. In such cases, entering a PIN into the lock can also be a back-up option.
Another area where the pandemic has strongly influenced decision-making has been the extension of WiFi to outdoor dining areas. Even in northern Europe, as we continue to live with the virus this trend will continue whatever the weather thanks to WiFi extenders, heaters, and gazebo structures.
Marston’s operates 60 hotels (1,665 rooms) across the UK; some are rooms above its 1,365 pubs while others are purpose-built lodges. As a first step out of lockdown on 12 April, UK hospitality premises could only serve customers outside. This lasted until 17 May when indoor service resumed.
To prepare for this window of opportunity but also as a long-term investment, Marston’s identified 150 sites with the largest beer gardens and outdoor dining spaces. It spent an estimated £400,000 ($550,000) in installing new, super-powerful access points to improve its outdoor WiFi coverage, work that required onsite technicians to lay new cable.
Marston’s CEO Ralph Findlay wrote in the company’s annual report. “Our desire to operate safely led to an acceleration in the implementation of table ordering apps at a pace that would not have been thought possible prior to the pandemic.”
In a more specific example of a marketing investment, Remington, a US hotel management company with 76 properties, started using video and virtual tours in a bid to attract group business.
CEO and president Sloan Dean explained: “We are using video and 360-degree imagery in virtual tours to give meeting planners a clear sense of the space. So a lot of our meeting planners are not coming to the hotel. They are virtually walking around with the technology that we have.”
At a cost of $6,000 per hotel, Remington uses a Videolicious platform to create its own videos, plus Visiting Media’s True Tours for virtual tours. Discussions started before the pandemic. “This allowed us to change the way we were selling to our clients very early in the pandemic,” said Dean.
“We looked for companies that offered a quick ramp-up time and ease of usage and learning for our sales team and clients. We needed products that would be turnkey and integrate with all our systems,” he added.
Ultimately, the character of a hotel will dictate what tech is required, so a five-star hotel or resort may invest more in getting to know their guests via customer relationship management systems, while limited service and serviced apartment groups will budget for limiting or eliminating direct service.
The biggest required IT investments will continue to be in WiFi and connectivity hardware. Almost everything else — revenue management, upselling, housekeeping management apps, messaging — is now available remotely as software-as-a-service (SaaS). The best of these applications allow hoteliers to trial them in advance at no cost. In fact, no hotel should be paying upfront fees for technology these days.
“There are any number of new expense areas that we didn’t have in hotels that we do now,” said John Burns, president, Hospitality Technology Consulting.
“That said, they are easier to tolerate when they are SaaS so not a major capital investment. It’s one more line item that’s a few dollars per room per month. They’re not prohibitive.”