Embracing Innovation: How COVID-19 Evolved the Hospitality Technology Landscape

hospitality technology

The pandemic forced hoteliers to adapt at a lighting pace, implementing changes across their properties to facilitate safer environments for teams and travelers and more sustainable business models that could survive the downturn. Technology has aided these efforts, allowing owners and operators to enhance cleaning protocols and air filtration systems, rollout contactless initiatives to reduce in-person interactions, host safer meetings and events, leverage automation to drive efficiencies, and use sophisticated tools to gain insights from data that help capture demand and improve business. In an industry that has been historically slow and cautious when adopting and upgrading to new solutions, hotels have notably accelerated their embrace of technology over the past 15 months. But will this trend continue to reshape the industry’s approach to innovation? LODGING spoke with experts from across the industry to understand the current hotel technology landscape and what pandemic-era adoptions they expect will be a flash in the pan versus what will redefine industry standards going forward.

Rapid Ramp Up
The experts LODGING spoke with note that much of the technology that gained in popularity in the wake of COVID-19 was already available on the market and in the process of being piloted or rolled out across portfolios. For instance, Chris Silcock, executive vice president and chief commercial officer for Hilton Hotels & Resorts, says that the company was already expanding its Hilton Honors app features to include digital check-in and check-out and keyless entry to rooms and areas like pools and fitness centers. “Since its 2015 launch, Hilton’s Digital Key has expanded rapidly—now available in 80 percent of Hilton’s more than 6,500 hotels—and has been used to open over 111 million doors. Almost all new hotels adopt Digital Key before they open,” Silcock explains. COVID-19 prompted Hilton to double down on these efforts. “Last year alone, despite the pandemic, Digital Key rolled out to an additional 383 hotels and adoption has doubled.” In addition, guests can use their mobile devices for contactless payments at more than 2,500 Hilton hotels and as a remote control for in-room entertainment at participating properties.

“We quickly accelerated our efforts to ensure our guests had seamless, contactless, and controlled experiences around the world,” Silcock says. “Much of this work was in progress and used by millions of customers pre-pandemic. With the rapid rollout of Hilton CleanStay and many of our digital efforts, Hilton fast-tracked the pace of change, shaping the future for our industry, our customers, owners, and team members through ‘a decade of innovation’ in just 12 months.”

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Alex Alt, senior vice president and general manager for technology service provider Oracle Hospitality, says that hoteliers are indeed evolving at a faster pace today compared to previous years. For instance, deploying a mobile check-in/check-out application pre-COVID typically had a timeline of 12 to 18 months, but during the pandemic, Alt says some of his customers completed that same project in eight weeks. “Our customers have learned to operate at a pace that only the pandemic could have forced them to operate at, and I think it’s enlightened them and it’ll create a new pace of innovation and change here in our industry.”

Laura Calin, vice president of strategy and solutions management for Oracle Hospitality says the biggest trend she has seen amid the pandemic has been “the implementation of contactless, touchless solutions” and she expects that to continue. But an even larger shift has been in the adoption of technology that enables these rollouts to happen at a quicker speed and larger scale. Calin says hoteliers are increasingly investing in up-to-date, secure systems that allow them to respond quickly to the changing conditions. “Definitely the move to cloud is extremely strong, and it’s a very clear signal from all our customers that technology is the key to enabling the recovery of the industry.” She adds that open systems that allow for integrations provide even more flexibility to implement new solutions.

Raul Moronta, chief commercial officer for Remington Hotels, a hospitality services company, says it’s difficult to roll out change at a brand level in an industry where most technology is implemented at the property level—a process that takes multiple years compared to other industries’ setups to deploy new technologies automatically. However, he sees that changing in hospitality. “I do believe that the adoption of technology is going to continue to improve because we are at a point now that we are seeing, as an industry, that we need to evolve and evolve faster, and the pandemic is going to allow us the opportunity to do that.” He adds that the industry is increasingly moving away from in-house solutions, which can be slower and more expensive to develop, and turning to third-party technology providers.

Analytics and Efficiencies

The technological developments in the hotel industry are happening on two fronts, as Moronta sees it: operational efficiencies—like switching to contactless, keyless, and paperless solutions—and business analytics. The predictive analytics that have been used in revenue management systems in recent years are increasingly being adopted on the expense management side as hoteliers seek to improve profit margins amid stagnant revenue, Moronta says.

In late March, Remington Hotels announced a new branded reporting system, REMi, powered by Microsoft’s PowerBI. Through the collection of data correlating to five performance drivers (revenue growth, cost control, market share performance, asset maintenance, and associate engagement), the software provides reports that can be accessed from a computer or mobile device to help Remington’s leaders digest results, spot trends, respond proactively, and hold teams accountable for results. Remington has been using Microsoft’s PowerBI application for years, but began to accelerate the development of its branded system, REMi, over the last six months, Moronta says. Whereas the branded program once had 150 logins, it grew to 15,000 views a month in April and continues to rise. Users range from C-suite leaders and regional teams to general managers, and a recently launched portal allows owners to access to Remington’s data and insights as well.

For a management company whose portfolio encompasses both branded and independent hotels in various markets, a single reporting system allows Remington to centralize data and benchmark any hotel regardless of the day-to-day technology used at the property, Moronta says. The reporting can help leaders make more informed decisions based on real-time data. For instance, property-level teams have access to a tool that evaluates group business and incoming leads, allowing them to solicit business based on market segmentations, lead times, and peak times, Moronta explains. This kind of reporting allows hotel teams to be more granular and targeted in their approach. “Not every market segment is going to recover the same way. Technology allows us to have far better insights that help us formulate and drive our strategy and implement it a lot faster,” Moronta says. “My vision of the role of technology in our industry is to aid humans and help them make decisions.”

Elevating Service

The start of the COVID-19 crisis was defined by cutbacks: closing properties, furloughing or laying off staff, limiting amenities, and scrutinizing expenses for potential savings. Today, “there’s not much more costs to cut,” Alt says. “You cannot cut your way through recovery. And, in fact, most of our customers and most properties are adding back resources with a focus on revenue generation.”

Calin sees a big opportunity in technology that helps generate revenue while enhancing the guest experience. For instance, Oracle recently acquired Nor1, a hotel upsell platform that delivers more personalized offers to guests and drives ancillary spend. Adding these digital touchpoints to the guest experience generates a greater volume of data, which Calin says hoteliers will need to leverage technology to quickly analyze and turn into actionable insights. “AI and machine learning can play a role here in helping hoteliers understand guests, improve service, and create more revenue opportunities.” Calin also sees an opportunity for AI and machine learning to drive more automation and optimize hotel processes, reducing the amount of time teams spend on administrative tasks and reporting, which is particularly relevant amid the current staffing challenges that operators have been reporting. “Hotels will have to continue to operate with less staff. Doing more with less is here to stay,” Calin says.

Hoteliers are increasingly turning to technology to enhance personalization and service. An April 2021 global hospitality report from travel technology company Amadeus found that a significant portion of hoteliers expect that pandemic pivots like enhanced hygiene protocols (32 percent), reduced interactions between guests and staff (20 percent), scaled-back stayover cleaning (21 percent), and contactless technology are here to stay, with 30 percent saying that contactless technology that supports personalized experiences is one of the most exciting developments of the past year and 24 percent reporting that they plan to add those solutions.

In the next 12 months, Silcock says Hilton is working towards launching capabilities that give customers more choice and control in the booking process as well as how they engage with team members via their mobile devices on digital platforms. “Specifically, we’re working to remove current frustrations from the booking process—allowing customers to select a room with the exact features they want, personalize their stay with the products and services they are interested in, and search and select the brand and hotel that meets their needs via rich content and enhanced sort, search, and select capabilities,” Silcock explains. “While we cannot be certain what the future might hold, we are confident in our approach and will keep listening, evolving, and innovating to lead the industry and deliver exceptional guest experiences. That will include evolving our digital offerings in ways that create seamless travel experiences while maintaining the personal connections that deliver on the heart of hospitality.”

Health-Focused Upgrades

Last year, the InterContinental Houston–Medical Center became the first hotel to incorporate the Integrated Viral Protection (IVP) Bio Defense Indoor Air Protection Filtration System, a mobile plug-and-purify device designed to eliminate SARS-CoV-2, anthrax spores, and other airborne contaminants through a heated filter that does not impact the temperature of the ambient air. Designed by IVP founder and inventor, Monzer Hourani, a Houstonian who also serves as the head of the hotel’s ownership group, the system builds on the hotel’s existing procedures and protocols under the IHG Way of Clean program.

General Manager Jorge Landa tells LODGING that because of the hotel’s location in Houston Medical Center, the property has high-level sanitation, disinfection, and purification processes. When the IVP filtration system was put into place, Landa says guests noticed and shared positive feedback. “I personally believe this is going to be a technology that we’re going to continue to use in the future,” he says. “We’ve learned a lot from our experience with COVID-19, and I don’t think that we’re going to let all our guards down completely any time soon.”

The InterContinental Houston–Medical Center has also rolled out technology that reduces in-person interactions between guests and staff, Landa explains, including QR codes so that allow contactless ordering in its restaurant and virtual tours of the property. “With the pandemic, it’s even more important that we have touchless technology, and we really believe that this is going to continue to evolve.”

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Christine Killion is the editor of LODGING.