Already in 2020, the travel industry lost 51% of its workforce—38% of total U.S. jobs lost due to the pandemic— and the sector is projected to contract by $1.2 trillion by the end of this year. The financial hardship caused by this sudden contraction of hospitality services—from hotels to restaurants to airlines—is hard to overstate.
However, the travel industry is a key part of the global economy. From emerging countries highly dependent on international visitors for their economic growth to more developed economies who rely on the industry to keep unemployment low, travel connects the world not just through experiences but through financial ties that keep the global economy running.
That is why it’s not enough to bemoan the crisis facing the travel industry today: we must instead envision a future that allows people around the world to travel once again, safely and securely.
That future had already begun to arrive before the start of the pandemic. Nearly a decade ago, technologies began to appear that allowed guests to reserve hotel rooms and other basic services on their smartphones. However, hotels and other businesses were wary of adopting too many technological solutions. After all, this is an industry that revolves around offering a high caliber of service.
Today, however, that mindset is shifting. For one thing, a new generation of consumers—specifically Millennials and Gen Z—want to feel empowered to control their travel through the mobile devices with which they’ve come of age. This is fundamentally changing how societies look at concepts of service. However, the pandemic and the health risks posed by human contact have dramatically increased the pace at which contactless travel is both desired and necessary.
Contactless travel refers to using cloud-based innovation to move the key contact points of travel—from making reservations to checking into a hotel room to ordering room service or paying for services—from an external process dependent on another human being onto a smart device.
Some forward-looking enterprises were already embracing contactless processes, including mobile check-in, digital keys, and the ability to request amenities via a smart phone. Virgin Hotels, for example, has long been a pioneer of the digital hotel experience. An early adopter of contactless check-ins, the properties empowered guests to bypass a traditional front desk for a self-directed experience.
“Guests are seeking frictionless options that will allow them to circumvent long lines or crowds, preferring self-service options along each step of their journey,” says Denise Walker, Vice President of IT at Virgin. “High-touch surfaces in our guestrooms will be eliminated or limited for both guest and teammates safety.”
Today, they are extending that contactless experience into the room itself, deploying technology (similar to other voice-activated AI) to allow guests to request amenities like extra towels or room service. In today’s world, that’s another potentially hazardous interaction with another person that can be avoided. In the future, it could be just one more example of how AI and robotics have changed the nature of travel entirely.
That future will build on the progress being made today. Another decade from now, machine learning and robotics will streamline many operations we require people for today, from self-cleaning toilets to room service delivered by robotic butler. You will order these services, and many more, by effortlessly speaking into your mobile device. You will communicate directly with the building itself to set temperatures, lighting, and other environmental factors before you even arrive in your room.
Of course, these changes will require other shifts in mindset. Just as we have been learning over the last few years that technology can enable and enhance hospitality and service, rather than be its poor imitation, so we will need to rethink what hotel staff are able to do with their working time once freed from repetitive and time-consuming tasks. They will be able to devote more time to hyper-personalizing each guest’s stay and creating a more customer-centric experience than even the most luxurious resort has managed in the past.
Finally, these new cloud-based systems not only improve health and safety conditions today and enable technological innovation in the future, but also provide a more secure experience. Rather than providing credit card and other sensitive information to whoever may be at the front desk of a hotel, guests will use their own devices and be protected by the security of cloud systems. While a back-office employee running an outdated version of a Windows operating system could lead to a catastrophic data breach today, the contactless travel of the future will be subject to strict regulations and tight security protocols.
While travel in many parts of the world continues to be on hold due to COVID-19, the appetite for travel remains. That is because it is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. People have felt driven to explore new places and seek out new people since the dawn of time, and that instinct will not stop now. The challenge we face is embracing a new experience, based on contactless travel and enabled by the cloud, which will make that travel safe in the short-term and optimized for the future.
About the Author
Mukund Mohan is Vice President of Hospitality Strategy at Infor. Before joining Infor, Mohan worked at MICROS where he held various positions including the role of director, strategic major accounts. Mohan’s past contributions have spanned three continents and across multiple hotel chains. As project director, Mohan led an enterprise central reservation system project, managed third party interfaces as interface product manager and established global support deployment standards as global support manager while working for MICROS Hotel Systems’ R&D division. Mohan has an engineering degree in computer science technology and holds certifications in information systems management.