Anticipating guest needs in a post-pandemic world, hoteliers are exploring technology that reduces physical contact with staff and other guests.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—As people become more accustomed to social distancing, curbside pickup and contactless food delivery, hoteliers are taking note and exploring further technology that reduces physical contact.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the hotel industry had made moves toward contactless technology, such as mobile check-in and contactless payment options like Apply Pay, but it was far from an industry-wide adoption. As hoteliers navigate the road to recovery, they’re looking for ways to show guests their properties are safe to stay in, now and after the pandemic ends.
“The future is going to be about building trust, and customers are going to do business with businesses that they trust,” said Matthew Woodruff, EVP of guest excellence and chief brand partner officer at Hospitality Venture Management Group. Businesses that “don’t have the necessary standards, technology and protocol, (guests will) stop doing business with those places.”
HTNG has two groups holding regular virtual meetings to discuss how the industry is handling the pandemic, COO David Sjolander said.
The HTNG COVID 19 Hospitality & Travel Industry Workgroup Meeting is a weekly call during which hoteliers can learn how others are responding. The Hospitality Operations Revitalization Workgroup has an official charter and deliverables.
Over the past decade, communal spaces have been a trend in hotel design, as lobbies and other public spaces became a focus for work and social activities and some guestrooms got smaller, he said. The industry will have to look at how they manage people in these spaces now, he said. Some solutions will involve technology while others won’t, he said.
A couple hotel brand companies have rolled out mobile check-in through their loyalty apps, but usage typically has been low, he said. The pandemic might take that into higher gear, he said.
However, touch-screen kiosks as a way to bypass the hotel front desk likely will not come back into wider use, Sjolander said, noting this tech hasn’t caught on in the past.
“This doesn’t portend a re-emergence of kiosks unless there’s some way to have them be certified cleaned so that they can’t spread viruses,” he said.
The Hilton Honors app serves as a remote control for loyalty members’ travel experiences putting them in control of personalizing their stay, including the ability to choose their rooms, check in digitally and use their phones as keys, said Mike Gathright, SVP of customer channels at Hilton. Digital Key, as Hilton calls the mobile-enabled keyless entry, allows guests access through their phones to their room as well as the fitness center, pool and other hotel areas that require a key.
More than 4,800 Hilton properties in 48 countries have Digital Key, and adoption of this technology has increased steadily over the past five years, he said. This will remain an increasingly important aspect of the guest experience, and the company plans to continue rolling it out in other regions and to increase adoption through the recently announced Hilton CleanStay program, he said.
“Research indicates that consumers have heightened concerns regarding hygiene on their journey, and trust in cleanliness standards will be critical to restarting travel,” he said about the motivation for CleanStay program.
Along with its loyalty app, Hilton has rolled out Apple Pay at its managed properties in the Americas for contactless payments, he said. The company is looking at opportunities for franchisees to opt-in as well, he said.
At the property level
The majority of HVMG’s hotels are franchised through the major brands, most under Hilton and Marriott International flags, Woodruff said, noting much of the contactless technology under discussion is already in place.
Along with mobile check-in and keyless entry, the company is looking at an additional contactless pay system for guests who aren’t part of any loyalty programs, he said. With most of the loyalty programs, members can put their payment info into the system and do a mobile check-out through the app seamlessly, he said.
Cash is a rare form of payment now in hotels, and while HVMG’s properties discourage it, they will still accept it and have protocols around sanitizing it, he said.
“All of this stuff is on the table,” he said “It’s all going to be part of the guest experience, and that’s what’s going to be and what the guest is going to expect and what they’re going to want.”
A smartphone app for controlling different aspects of a guestroom, such as the temperature, television or lighting, can be worthwhile for a branded hotel, he said. But a guest staying in an independent hotel for a couple of days is less likely to want to download an app if they don’t intend to return to the property in the future, he said.
The downside to the contactless technology is it’s expensive to invest in, said Mike Marshall, president and CEO of Marshall Hotels & Resorts.
“They are expensive endeavors to get into, especially when you’re not bringing in any money right now and you’re not sure whether you can make your next mortgage payment, let alone pay the staff to install it,” he said.
The hotels doing business now are largely in the economy segment, where there’s not as much technology involved, he said. The guests staying in those hotels need to travel, but they’re not looking to spend a lot of money, he said.