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Touchless tech: How hotels are preparing for a post-COVID guest experience

By Mitra Sorrells | July 28, 2020


For the past few years, one of the biggest buzzwords in travel has been “seamless,” envisioned as a utopian experience in which every moment of a journey - before, during and after a trip - happens effortlessly and yet is customized to the needs and interests of the traveler. Then came COVID-19 – upending the travel industry, the way business is conducted and the expectations of consumers.  Seamless is of course still nice, but seemingly overnight, “contactless” has become even more valuable. Now that the coronavirus has made the world aware of the potential invisible risks associated with physical touch points, the goal of a hands-free experience has become paramount for both travelers and brands.  The shift toward contactless technology solutions has been developing for years, with hotels around the world offering digital check-in and digital room keys and in-room voice devices for some time.  But COVID-19 has accelerated this trend, creating new demand as hoteliers look for ways to eliminate any element of the experience that could create a risk for either guests or staff. And that’s keeping suppliers of travel-focused contactless technologies very busy. Touchless tech “Things are happening really, really fast and that causes a lot of panic among the hospitality industry to make quick decisions, to bring on a partner that can operate really fast,” says Joseph Ling, CEO of Singapore-based Vouch, a startup that creates digital concierge bots for hotels.  Ling says he is “hiring aggressively,” because his current team of 16 people in Singapore and Indonesia is not able to keep up with demand since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Before COVID hit, our sales cycle was six months to a year for hotels and hotel groups. Now two weeks is enough time for us to go all the way up to the CEO and present and get endorsement.” Vouch’s digital concierge system enables hotels to receive and respond to any sort of question or request from guests – from needing more towels, to ordering room service or making spa bookings – without the need for the guest to pick up a room phone or stand in line in the lobby. Guests access the bot using their personal mobile device and either scanning a QR code or putting the phone near an NFC tag, which Vouch creates to blend in with the property’s branding.  The bot can be updated as needed: When the COVID-19 crisis created the need to monitor the health of guests at the 790-room Pan Pacific Singapore, the luxury hotel added a self-reporting “health declaration” to its bot so it could keep track of guests who were not feeling well without having to deploy a member of its already reduced staff.  The issue of health screenings for both hotel guests and staff – something that was unheard of just a few months ago – is now a priority as occupancies begin to increase around the world. That was the impetus for the development of a new contactless temperature-check kiosk known as Janus that launched in May from IntraEdge. The kiosk can be set up in a lobby for guests and in an office for staff and provides a temperature reading within a tenth of a degree Fahrenheit accuracy in three to five seconds. The user then receives a "yes" or "no" as to whether they can proceed – in the case of a hotel, the property could determine next steps for guests. And the kiosk does not store the temperature data or transmit it to the host company.  "The Janus kiosks are developed as a privacy-first solution to sense temperature and verify identity with maximum convenience and safety,” says Dan Clarke, president of IntraEdge. “Nothing will be 'normal' about our 'new normal,' but we firmly believe Janus will make a positive difference in the lives and environments of businesses' re-opening through our contactless and secure solution while addressing any privacy concerns." The company is currently in talks with hospitality brands about using the new kiosk. Another new product in development is from Guestline, which provides tools including a property management system, channel manager, booking engine and payment solution for hotels.  The company is now developing a digital guest registration system.  “What we are working on currently is enabling guests to complete their details prior to arrival ... and for that information to be directly updated within the property management system, so when a guest arrives all they may need to do is pick up their key and walk directly to room,” says Hamzah Hafesji, senior product manager at Guestline. The company also recently created an interface between its point-of-sale product, EPoS, and Deliverect, which connects to food delivery services such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo. Hotels that use Guestline’s EPoS can now digitally manage restaurant and in-room dining and also drive business to customers outside of the property. On the beach Then there are technology products that have been built COVID-ready long before the virus came onto the industry’s radar. One such example is Beachy, winner of the Summit People’s Choice Award and runner-up in the Award for Travel Innovation (Emerging Category) at The Phocuswright Conference 2019. Beachy’s platform combines mapping technology and a reservation and payment system so hotel guests can reserve things like a lounge chair, umbrella or cabana at the pool or beach, all completely contactless. Things are happening really, really fast and that causes a lot of panic among the hospitality industry to make quick decisions, to bring on a partner that can operate really fast. Joseph Ling - Vouch Share this quote “Out of the box, our product was built for no lines and for contactless payment,” says David Stange, CEO of Beachy. “The point-of-sale systems and property management systems are the last things in hospitality to evolve. Some PMS comes out with its latest point-of-sale system but it still requires paper receipts, or it is Wi-Fi only and doesn’t work outside. That’s our niche - outside, at the pool, on the beach - everything we do is made to work on the sand, so being cellular-enabled for us is super important.” By enabling reservations, hotels can better control capacity and social distancing at their pools and beaches. Stange says in the last month he has had hundreds of inquiries from Europe and many more than that from around the United States. And at a time when hotels are struggling with record low RevPAR, he says the platform can also help them drive additional revenue. “What we are seeing is they are taking a section of their pool deck and monetizing it,” Stange says.  “We give them the data of what chairs are booked most often ... so properties are able to say these are $40 a day versus these are $20 a day because they have a firm understanding of what consumers are wanting as far as placement.” He says some clients are also adding upsell products such as better towels or dedicated food and beverage service bundled with certain chairs. Internal operations Along with solutions to create contactless experiences for guests, hotels are also seeking technology to protect staff by eliminating touch points in their internal operations. In mid-June, Nuvola released two new tools as part of its StayClean initiative, and both are available free through the end of 2020. Nuvola Checklists is a digital tool hotels can use to manage their recurring safety and cleaning procedures, for example to ensure hotel staff know which cleaning solutions to use on specific surface areas and how often high touch points should be cleaned. Nuvola Checkpoints is a QR code solution that allows hotel management to track and schedule when high-touch surfaces and locations with high foot traffic were cleaned and who cleaned them.  “We understand that our industry partners are working through a lot of new processes to get their properties back up and running,” says Juan Carlos Abello, founder and CEO of Nuvola. “Checklists and Checkpoints is a quick and efficient way hoteliers can ensure they provide a safe and clean environment for their staff and guests.”  Beyond what technology solutions to adopt, maybe one of the biggest questions facing hoteliers in a post-COVID world will be how much technology to adopt – both from a budgeting standpoint and as it relates to the impact it will have on the guest experience. “For a lot of hotels their objective post-COVID is to survive. They are looking to manage their cash flow and manage debt,” Hafesji says. “And we are seeing a trend in hotels saying traditionally this is something we wouldn’t take up, but now we realize guest experience will change. But we don’t want it to be completely contactless. “Will contact-free become the norm? Protecting the brand promise and guest experience is so important. I suspect many hotels will make conscious decisions on what technology they decide to procure and what technology they may wait on to see how quickly we recover globally and as an industry.” 

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