Hospitality’s Not-So-Distant Future

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In just a few years, hotel technology that is considered cutting edge today will be standard operating procedure.

Hospitality’s Not-So-Distant Future

By Michal Christine Escobar, Senior Editor - Hotels - 12/22/2020
Technologies of 'the hotel of the future' will be standard operating procedure in just a few years.

Ever present in daily life, COVID-19 has made an indelible impression on how humans live, work and enjoy recreation. As the saying goes: “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and so hospitality has evolved, adapted and invented to do its best to survive lockdowns, travel restrictions, sick guests, sick employees, and an astronomical loss of revenue. This is leading many hotels to invest in technologies that improve the guest experience, cut costs, and improve brand loyalty. But many of these technologies are not new. They’re not even new to hospitality. However, the urgency with which hotels are implementing them and the scale at which they’re being implemented is new. Once considered a “nice to have” or a “We’ll get to it later,” the implementation of IoT devices, high speed networks, contactless technologies and more is happening at warp speed — meaning that the hotel of the future, once three to five years out, is now just around the corner. By the time we’re all willing and able to travel again, our collective hotel experience could be significantly different from what we remember. Here’s a brief look at what might have changed.

FAST, FURIOUS & CONNECTED

The hotel of future will not materialize without first having a reliable, fast network in place to run its myriad of technologies. What do hotel networks of the future look like? According to Jady West, vice president of hospitality at Cox Communications, there will be pervasive Wi-Fi networks with Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), CBRS networks with private LTE for enterprise uses and deeper penetration of mobile networks with 5G technologies allowing customers to use enhanced applications.

Hotels will absolutely need to have these high-speed networks in place because of the sheer amount of data that will soon be required to provide guests with the experience they feel they deserve.

“Brands will become 100% reliant on data to help them understand each member of their loyalty program and how to cater to them,” West notes.

Where is all of this data coming from? In part, from IoT devices within the hotel itself.

“The coming IoT world will allow guests to interact with hospitality brands as easily as they breathe,” West adds. “Every search, movement or experience will produce data that will provide hoteliers a perfect digital copy of their guests.”

While the typical guestroom is already filled with a myriad of IoT devices, one area that will see more IoT adoption in the coming years is the guestroom bathroom.

“In the not-so-distant future we expect smart showers and mirrors equipped with sensors, automatic comfort settings and automated preference personalization via artificial intelligence (AI),” says  Emery Wolf, Co-founder and Utility Data Scientist at Shower Stream. “This data will be integrated into customer booking profiles, enabling automation for lights, sounds and comfort for guests. As the cost of IoT technology and data processes reduces, Wi-Fi connected chips are being integrated into many common devices, enabling opportunities to improve the customer experience while optimizing utility costs for operators.”

But IoT’s role won’t just be about improving the guest experience. It will also be about saving the hotel money and conserving resources. For example, smart thermostats will be able to tell if a guestroom is occupied. If unoccupied, the energy-management systems will be able to adjust the room’s temperature accordingly and optimize energy consumption in real-time year-round, says Robert Rauch, founder and CEO of RAR Hospitality.

Meanwhile bathrooms are the largest source of guest-generated expenses and damage for hotels because of behavioral water waste, Wolf explains, with 20 billion gallons of water and two billion kWh of energy wasted per year, costing the hotel industry $500 million annually. Smart showers will be able to deliver efficiency by conserving hot water by activating only when a guest is actually present.

The Benefit of Twinning

With so many hotels pinching pennies during these turbulent times, another area where hotels of the future will excel is in “twinning” — as in digitally. What is a digital twin? According to an Aug. 28 article on Forbes, How Are Digital Twins Used In Practice: 5 Real-World Examples Beyond Manufacturing, “A digital twin is a digital copy of an actual physical product, process, or ecosystem that can be used to run virtual simulations, using data to update and change the digital copy to reflect any changes in the real world.”

Companies can make adjustments to the digital twin first, see what the outcome is, and continue to tweak it until the final product is exactly what the company wants. By trialing it on the digital twin, the company saves inordinate amounts of time and money from being wasted on a “good idea” that really wasn’t very good at all.

One hotel brand that is taking on this process is citizenM.

“citizenM has undertaken an ambitious program of work in 2020 to digitize the process of constructing our unique hotels,” says citizenM CIO Mike Rawson. “We will have virtual replicas of citizenM hotels that provide us real-time insights about customer behaviors. The benefits will ultimately accrue for our guests by adding value and removing friction from their engagements with us. But citizenM will also benefit from faster hotel construction with lower costs from ultra-energy efficient hotels.”

citizenM plans to use its digital twin technology to improve things such as indoor navigation, track how much power/waste/water is used by the guest and how much is sustainably covered, optimize breakfast/meal queues and order flows, and even improve elevator use so that guests can “order an elevator” and prevent or reduce wait times.

AI’S ROLE GROWS & GROWS

Obviously, machine learning and AI will be a huge component of the hotel of the future. In fact, many hotels will soon realize they cannot efficiently or profitably run their business without the use of multiple AI programs. They’ll need these programs to analyze the data churned out by thousands of IoT devices to do everything from ordering more housekeeping supplies to offering a personalized guest experience. For instance, AI and machine learning will fuel algorithms that hoteliers can use to turn their hotels into “Smart Hotels” that welcome guests by name via a smart speaker when they enter their guestroom, West explains.

A simple greeting, however, will really be only the beginning when it comes to AI and guest interaction. LivePerson predicts that by 2021, every major hotel brand will unveil its own customer-
facing conversational AI. More than a chatbot, they will have unique personalities “with more empathy, love and understanding than we expect from machines.” Not only can these AI bots hold conversations the way humans do, they can instantly detect what a customer needs, then handle it right within a messaging conversation, or seamlessly loop in the right human contact into the conversation to get the job done.

Many hotels have already begun to use such AIs – Rose at The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas (HT’s 2019 Hotel Visionary Award winner) and Edward at Edwardian Hotels London (HT’s 2020 Hotel Visionary Award winner) are just two that come to mind.
AI will also be essential behind the scenes, helping to accomplish things that even the most highly skilled and experienced human couldn’t dream of doing. One example of this: revenue management. Hotels of the future will “rely on pricing algorithms supported by artificial intelligence to determine optimal prices based on analyzing historical, forecast and market data,” Rauch notes. “This tech is futuristic because the speed and complexity of the pricing decisions, and financial outcomes they generally produce, are unmatched by the most seasoned revenue manager using the most advanced solutions on the market only a few years ago.”

 

A BREATH OF FRESH AIR

With air quality becoming a major concern, HVAC technologies  —  rarely thought of by consumers prior to COVID-19 — will now need to be marketed to guests “in a way that increases their comfort level and confidence in a safer stay,” says Grant Patterson, Offering Manager, Honeywell Building Technologies.

A recent consumer survey by Carbon Lighthouse found that proof of a hotel’s indoor air quality (IAQ)  would impact where 77% of consumers decided to stay, with 52% willing to pay more to stay at a hotel with better IAQ, says JJ Steeley, EVP Customer Experience, Carbon Lighthouse. Consumers aren’t the only ones concerned about IAQ. Businesses that are negotiating event spaces are also asking for IAQ information prior to signing any contracts.

HVAC technologies, however, are expensive pieces of infrastructure that are not easily replaced. But that doesn’t mean hoteliers can’t improve on what they already have.

“Most hotel operators are weighing costs right now,” Patterson explains. “It might not be realistic to rip and replace systems. So we’re working with hoteliers to identify ways to enhance their current systems to improve air quality in the guest room and shared spaces like the hotel lobby.”  

Adding AI and data analytics technology — specifically for IAQ monitoring  — will also be necessary as providing the level of information needed is a “monumental task and one that simply can’t be done manually,” Steeley notes. “The good news is that these technologies exist today and can help hoteliers put the latest in Silicon Valley technology to use in their hotels and resorts.” 

For example, Carbon Lighthouse’s AI platform, CLUES, uses real building data combined with existing building systems, utility data and IoT sensors to analyze 1000x more data than traditional building management systems, better informing overall operations strategies, specifically energy management and carbon impact. CLUES then continues to measure, monitor and report impact as the energy use and demands of the property shift and evolve. 

Additionally, bi-polar ionization technology is another type of technology that is already being installed in hotel HVAC systems around the country, says Tony Abate, Vice President and Chief Technical Officer at AtmosAir Solutions. Hilton, Marriott, Loews, Kimpton, Doubletree and Gaylord are just a few hotel chains that have invested in and installed BPI indoor air quality technology. How does it work?

“The devices are similar to Pac-Man. HVAC systems proactively and continually emit ions that continually seek, attack and neutralize coronavirus in the air and on surfaces,” Abate says. “The devices work by producing bipolar ions that attach themselves to airborne viruses, odors and pollutants, rendering them inactive.”

 

PLEASE DON’T TOUCH

Another area where the pandemic has sped up innovation and technology adoption within hotels is the all-encompassing term “contactless technology.” Typically, this technology relies on the use of the guest’s smartphone to do things such as: check-in, unlock doors, order room service, have amenities delivered, chat with a concierge and make restaurant/spa/gym/pool reservations.

“Travelers are yearning to travel once again, while knowing their safety is top of mind for hotels, so it is assumed the need for touch-free technologies will become a standard in the world for years to come,” says Trish Berry, General Manager of YOTEL Boston.

For hotels that did not already have a mobile app available or in development prior to the pandemic, QR codes became the primary way they were able to quickly pivot and offer contactless technology. For this reason, they are “becoming a major part of consumer culture to accommodate today’s socially-distant world,” says Chuck Huang, CEO and founder, Citcon. And will likely remain a key player in the “tech stack” of the hotel of the future.

QR codes also come with a number of benefits. QR code payments are extremely secure because the codes are dynamically generated, Huang explains. This means they’re unique to each guest for each transaction which ensures the guest’s personal payment information is not compromised. And while mobile apps are often thought of first when it comes to ordering food or unlocking doors, QR codes can be used to accomplish these tasks as well.

As an added bonus, “QR code technology can also enhance hotel loyalty programs by collecting data on customer behaviors and retargeting them via marketing platforms that came with the mobile wallet,” Huang notes.

Contactless technology also means that guests will be able to control specific aspects of the guestroom without needing to physically touch anything. This will in part be driven by how “the entire human experience in 2020 has retrained society and reset the expectations around our experiences,” says Mike Thomas, President of Commercial Industries, NTT DATA Services.

In particular, he points out that with everyone staying home for most of 2020, consumers have grown accustomed to their personal creature comforts and “will want to keep that experience with them as they begin to travel again.”

David Millili, CEO of Angie Hospitality by Nomadix, agrees noting that smart home technology will be the driving force behind the smart hotel becoming a reality in just a couple years.

“I believe there will be an increase in voice-enabled, in-room guest assistants to remotely control thermostats, drapes, lights and more,” Millili adds. “These technologies eliminate contact with common surfaces and also provide a more convenient and modern experience for guests.”

NOT YET ROSEY THE ROBOT

The use of robots in hospitality settings has been hotly contested. Some view them as gimmicks meant to drive guest reservations while others feel they have real potential, especially when viewed through the lens of COVID-19.

“With our renovation at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott we added an autonomous robot that delivers items to guest rooms without the aid of a staff member,” says Jesse Hemphill, General Manager at the Norfolk Waterside Marriot. “The Relay robot from Savioke has been such a great feature for our guests that want to further practice social distancing and experience the next generation of hotel service.”

Robots are also seen by many in hospitality as a viable means of disinfecting and sanitizing various spaces within the hotel. Yotel Boston recently welcomed a new robot, Vi-Yo-Let to its team through a partnership with UVD Robots.

“[We’re] the only hotel to have a fully autonomous robot platform with integrated UVD light disinfection system,” says Trish Berry, General Manager of YOTEL Boston. “YOTEL deploys Vi-YO-Let in order to disinfect both air and surfaces within high-touch public spaces and selected cabins. The UVD robot is currently the only disinfection system available that is clinically proven to disinfect effectively while ‘on the move,’ and was awarded ‘robot of the year’ according to the International Federation of Robotics.”

And robots could become even more useful when viewed as data collectors. Maidbot, a company pioneering commercial service robotics, invented Rosie to be a floor cleaning robot but quickly found that Rosie’s ability to cover every square foot of large commercial spaces meant she could track important environmental data points for businesses such as temperature, humidity, and Wi-Fi signal strength. According to Maidbot, “Rosie evolved from being just the first commercial floor cleaning robot to the first indoor mobile data platform — mapping indoor data over physical space for the first time.”

New Revenue Sources

COVID-19 has shown hoteliers that keeping all of their revenue making eggs in one basket is no longer a great strategy. This is causing owners and operators to consider "net new revenue streams and business models to increase to increase the utilization of idle assets," says Jeanne Casey, Principal at MetaProp.

What kind of idle assets are we talking about?

According to Casey they include things such as co-working spaces, ghost kitchens, and embracing other similar models that are driven by the flexible use of space. 

"These may, in fact, be considered the most ‘futuristic’ technologies, as they were the furthest outside of traditional hoteliers roadmaps pre-COVID," Casey adds. "Some of the more cutting-edge hospitality brands have already begun to ideate and pilot co-working and ghost kitchen concepts to enable additional revenue streams that would complement and/or supplement their existing revenue lines in a post-pandemic world. These new business models are absolutely being born out of COIVD and the industry’s necessity to identify and enable net new revenue streams."

A NEW ERA

While some might feel that contactless technology will cost hospitality the warmth and “hands on” approach it is so famous for, others have a different point of view.

“Many hospitality traditionalists thought that [contactless technology] was an unnecessary expense and that it would take away from the ‘people’ aspect of hospitality,” says Jesse Hemphill, General Manager at the Norfolk Waterside Marriot. “I could not disagree more. The guest was already trending toward these items and in time would demand it to stay in your hotel. COVID-19 gave the transition an unexpected boost that will require hoteliers to adopt it if they want to stay competitive in the years to follow.

“Our MCLUB lounge for elite Bonvoy members has an automated espresso machine, self-serving wine dispenser and food items available 24 hours a day,” Hemphill explains. “The hotel has more friendly smiling attendants to service our guests in this area than it did before the renovation and the increase in technology. Technology in hotels is not to remove the ‘people’ aspect, but to allow the guest to customize their stay to match their preferences.”

Raj Singh, CEO, Go Moment couldn’t agree more.

“Right now, within the hotel industry we define guest experiences based on how closely they’re tied to human contact,” Singh says. “Warmth and personalized interactions translates into more deeply satisfied guests. Contactless technology makes us question that. But as an industry, we need to rethink interactions and how guests look at satisfaction, luxury, and overall hospitality. Contactless technology doesn’t diminish guest experience or render hotel staff unnecessary. It redefines both in meaningful ways. Contactless technology will move from a nice-to-have to being a central tool in a hotel’s technology stack. As central as a PMS is today.”