For the few old-school hoteliers still harbouring an apathetic attitude towards technology, Covid-19 must have been a tough pill to swallow. At a time of social distancing and sanitiser, where personal interactions are being kept to a minimum, the traditional virtues of meet and greet feel somewhat obsolete. Not that personalisation has been abandoned. Far from it. Instead, more hoteliers across Europe are now leveraging the power of technology to help them cope with the unique demands of the pandemic.

When Covid hit, hotels were faced with the prospect of closing their doors – at least temporarily – and then reopening them in a market characterised by limited travel, lower occupancy rates and restrictions on social interactions. There could be no conditions more challenging to the hospitality sector, but hotels have moved with speed and agility to remap guest journeys and employee work patterns, and to leverage technology to deliver the best possible service in challenging times.

“Every step along the guest journey has been impacted by Covid-19,” remarks Carla Milovanov, senior vice-president for global technology and customer services at Accor: “We can think of the digital keys that we’re developing now, but also selfservice check-in solutions, food orders and payments, and hybrid meeting solutions.”


Number of Hyatt hotels where digital keys are available via the company’s mobile app.


Not only do these high-functioning digital solutions enhance safety, but they also precipitate interaction between staff and guests. When ordinary administrative tasks are automated, there is more time for meaningful personal interactions. “This allows us to automate the ordinary and give more time for personalisation,” Milovanov says. “On the other hand, the rise of paperless solutions to communicate with guests – whether you’re using apps, the internet or screens – helps us to pass powerful messages both to teams and customers on how to behave and how to be respectful of others’ health in real time.”

She touches on the biggest challenge in terms of technology implementation – complexity. As hi-tech solutions can impact so many aspects of hotel operation, the big question for Milovanov and Accor was where to focus its power first.

Fortunately, the answer was straightforward. The first priority for Accor, and other hotel chains, was to implement technologies that would protect their guests from infection. “Ultimately, we wish there were a silver bullet we could roll out, but that is not the case,” says Arielle Quick, chief continent lodging services officer at Marriott. “Technology is an ecosystem, a suite of solutions with many potential applications, but hygiene and cleanliness are the top priority.”

“Technology is an ecosystem, a suite of solutions with many potential applications, but hygiene and cleanliness are the top priority.”

Safety in separation

For Marriott, the launch of the Global Cleanliness Council was the platform for a multi-pronged approach to the industry’s health and safety challenges. New technologies invariably became a vital resource in tackling the pandemic at the hotel level.

“In April 2020, one of the first things we did in EMEA was to find the best minds, both internally and externally, which led to the launch of the Global Cleanliness Council in order to reach the next level of cleanliness standards,” Quick explains. “We already had a robust hygiene protocol and it works well, but we adapted it to deal with the unique demands of Covid-19 and rolled it out immediately.”

Looking closely at how to counter the spread of the virus, Marriott began using electrostatic sprayers with the highest class of disinfectants permitted by the CDC and WHO in all public spaces from the lobby to the gym, as well as using UV technology to sanitise not only room keys, but also any device that is shared by the employees working in the hotel.

The sprayers can rapidly clean and disinfect large areas, including guest rooms and lobbies, with hospitalgrade disinfectants, and the frequency of cleaning processes has increased. Meanwhile, UV technology has since become commonplace across the industry.

Hyatt announced its Global Care and Cleanliness Commitment in April 2020. The commitment seeks to enhance cleanliness protocols and operational practice and focuses on operational health and hygiene procedures, technology and even the design of spaces within the hotel.

“We are prioritising technologies and digital solutions that make a difference for our guests and give them more control and flexibility over their experiences,” explains Julia Vander Ploeg, Hyatt’s global head of digital and technology. “For example, our digital team has worked quickly to ensure our hotels can seamlessly adopt QR code technology, making it easy for F&B teams to support mobile menus and payment for restaurant order pick-up or knock-and-go room service.”

For Accor, the development of its Allsafe label was a key part of its first response to the need for higher standards of hygiene. Allsafe represents some of the most stringent cleaning standards and operational protocols in the hospitality sector, and it has had a marked impact on operational procedures. This has enabled hotels to rapidly implement the latest health and safety recommendations for guest areas, the back office and catering spaces.

A fundamental part of these recommendations was, and still is, social distancing. Limiting close personal contact is the cornerstone of the response to a highly infectious virus – an end goal that is seemingly difficult to achieve in a hospitality setting. Once again, technology has been vital here, helping to rework the guest journey and the delivery of hotel services to limit person-to-person contact.

“We launched a suite of mobile services, starting with our mobile key,” says Quick. “While this application is not new, it has accelerated quickly. Guests can now have their key on a mobile app, which also allows them to check in, check out, chat with staff and request services.”

Through Marriott’s Bonvoy mobile app, guests can gain access to their room and any public area, including the parking garage. They can also request anything from extra blankets and pillows to housekeeping and luggage assistance, as well as ordering food and beverages with the mobile dining function. Hyatt has also made its digital key available at more than 600 properties worldwide through its World of Hyatt mobile app.

“We have done a lot around F&B and food safety, which are critical,” Quick continues. “In some markets, hotel restaurants have remained open, so we have implemented alternative solutions for menus, including LED screens and QR codes.”

The important principle here is to leverage digital means to communicate with guests to provide services and information. “Prior to arrival, guests receive detailed information about new protocols such as social distancing measures and Hyatt’s face coverings requirement,” says Vander Ploeg. “Nearly all Hyatt hotels globally now offer enhanced check-in and check-out for guests, allowing for heightened transparency in their journey.”

Even without a mobile app, guests are still kept informed and up to date with the latest information, although the apps do offer more functionality for those who err on the side of caution.

“We use something quite basic, in fact almost lowtech – pre-arrival emails – as well as QR codes on arrival in the lobby, so you can scan and check the latest rules in place,” notes Milovanov. “We also use in-room communication via TV and/or QR codes. It looks simplistic, but it is reassuring, and we have placed digital messages all along the guest’s journey.”

What hotels realised early on, however, was that in different regions – and among guests – there was no uniform response to the virus. Unfortunately, regulations vary in different markets as restrictions are imposed and relaxed. Also, some guests want to act as if nothing has changed, while others do not want to use public spaces at all and instead choose to isolate in their rooms.

“There really is a balance to be struck,” Quick adds. “There is a greater need now to provide a safe, but also human, experience.”

Managing expectations

Of course, keeping the personal touch in a socially distanced and highly sanitised environment is a major challenge. The focus of technological and procedural innovation has, therefore, been predominantly directed to the guest journey. The other side of the coin, however, is the hotel’s own management systems. Here, technology is being leveraged to keep the business alive in a time of low revenue.

“We are already planning for the after crisis,” says Milovanov. “You know that our owners have a cash problem today, so we are developing technologies around PMS integration and contactless solutions that are easier to onboard and more cost-effective, as they require less capex and more opex. We are giving them the opportunity to still invest with us on what’s needed, without jeopardising their survival.”

Accor’s revenue management system is already fully digitised, so there was no need to rework the technology, but what has changed is the way it prices its services according to owners’ ability to pay, which is based on occupancy.

“Staff interaction is also currently one of our key topics, as we push the usage of back office apps like ordering, client request, housekeeping or maintenance tools to be more efficient and have more guest interaction,” Milovanov adds. Hyatt, like some of its competitors, had travelled far along the road to digitalisation before the pandemic. In recent years, it has dedicated significant efforts to evolving and integrating its technology stack, including its mobile app, property management system and service optimisation tools, with the aim of providing a more seamless experience for both employees and guests.

“This foundational work of putting systems and services closer to our guests and colleagues has allowed us to more quickly meet guests’ needs in real time, and at the onset of the pandemic this optimisation prepared us to swiftly adjust colleague protocols,” says Vander Ploeg. “It also allowed us to better understand anticipated check-in time and housekeeping preferences, so colleagues are better positioned to care for our guests and increase their comfort and confidence in travelling.”

None of the technology Quick, Milovanov and Vander Ploeg are talking about is brand new, either in the back office or in guest areas, but the approach to its implementation has taken on a new urgency in the last 12 months.

“Covid is an accelerator of many things, not least mobile keys, and it has given us a broader view on what is happening in terms of hotel technology,” says Quick. “We have had to balance the response to the pandemic with the desire to serve our guests and provide hospitality services. That means finding the right balance between digital and personal services.”

In the industry’s most challenging year to date, it has done well to achieve that balance. The acceleration of digitalisation caused by the pandemic could well change the face of hospitality forever.