Brave new world

27 July 2021

To help safeguard guests from Covid-19 and improve contactless interactions, hoteliers are embracing technology like never before, but whether these short-term fixes will modernise the industry across the board remains to be seen. To dig a little deeper, Will Moffitt speaks to three tech leaders from across the hospitality sphere – from global operators to boutique brands – to find out how Covid-19 has affected the adoption of latent technologies, and how these changes will be manifested long-term.

Christian Palomino, vice-president, global IT at Meliá Hotels International

Enduring the pandemic’s full force, which shut down Meliá Hotel International (MHI)’s resorts and hotels, we were already thinking about the comeback and how technology could be different. As part of the Stay Safe with Meliá programme, MHI revamped the mobile app to increase on-site functionalities. The idea was to give freedom to guests, [and] therefore limiting contact with staff and other customers. Via the app, guests can order food and beverages contact-free, reserve breakfast time slots, find out hotel and local information, host interactive chats with guest services, access digital menus and self-check-in.

MHI has also extended its advanced analytics and predictive capabilities to deal with the lack of visibility on the evolution of the pandemic. In a fast-moving environment, we empowered data across the whole company with strong governance and the use of advanced analytics to provide insights to our business executives, so they could make fast and informed decisions. Ultimately, it is my belief that these compatibilities are critical for the sustainability of hotel companies, because this accelerated environment is going to stay.

We also saw the opportunity to use those lower operations’ months to act as a start-up and, therefore, accelerate the digitalisation programme. The ability to make fast and profound changes to the company with little impact on guests, operations and revenue is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when the hotels usually experience high occupancy. During the low months, we set up our Digital 360 program to transform our company, integrally. Robotics and Analytics 360, a new sourcing management platform and employee management system, are the main levers of this transformation. The teams are also implementing a new PMS [payment management system] across all their hotels, and moving their CRS from a legacy mainframe system into the cloud as part of the company’s bet on making good use of this time.

We began shifting into a cloud technology strategy in 2015, and this has proved to be immensely worthwhile during the worst months of the pandemic. The ability to reduce our digital distribution costs as the demand lowered was a relief for a shaken cash flow. At the same time, we were able to respond to all-time record peak demand when we released 20,000 room nights for free to Spain’s healthcare professionals. Meliá is not only making its digital channels more efficient with the movement into the cloud, but we are also using machine learning to improve the experience of customers.

I can already see that some of the concepts of agile development and DevOps, which are very well known to technologists, are starting to be used in business process and planning strategies. Data and automation are core elements of agility. The digitalisation of the sustainability strategy – core to MHI – from the sourcing process, through corporate and hotel operations to the customer experience is also a long-term bet. If we’ve learned something from this pandemic, it is about being more human and taking care of each other and our planet. Data and technology allow us to have strict control of what products we use, how we use it and the impact they have. We want to make sure our guests know we take good care of them and on their destinations.

Patrick Mendès, group chief commercial officer, sales, marketing, distribution and loyalty at Accor

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered and accelerated a palpable digital shift within the hospitality sector. Guests, naturally, view strict health and safety standards as essential criteria when deciding upon travel plans and accommodation. Technology – and its contactless nature – enables hotels to continue to deliver bespoke customer experiences while adjusting and adhering to Covid-secure safety measures, and ensuring the well-being of all parties.

We can see that apps and automated systems are increasingly being deployed to limit physical proximity during the guest journey and deliver a ‘contactless’ experience. For example, we recently launched a digital door entry solution, Accor Key, whereby on arrival guests receive their room key virtually upon downloading the digital key app; they will then be given access to rooms, meeting rooms and floors via lifts using their smartphone. This is an innovative technological answer to hotel access in the age of Covid, effective in reassuring guests and employees, and provides a more streamlined and convenient journey. It also complements our existing system, Property Management System FOLS Mobile, which ensures smooth arrival and check-in and with our various digital payment options.

Combined, these systems can – and have – transformed the arrival and departure processes into seamless guest and colleague experiences. In 2021, the Ibis Styles London Gloucester Road hotel became the first Accor property in Northern Europe to offer guests a fully digital experience, with contactless solutions at each stage of the stay. This marks the first hotel in a roll out that will be extended to half of our European estate in the next five years.

“Technology – and its contactless nature – enables hotels to continue to deliver bespoke customer experiences while adjusting and adhering to Covid-secure safety measures.”

Patrick Mendès, Accor

It’s also no secret that Covid-19 has deeply impacted the meeting and events [M&E] market: total digitalisation was rapidly implemented globally, and hybrid formats have become an essential element of business. In April 2021, Accor launched ALL [Accor Live Limitless] Connect, a new hybrid meetings concept powered by Microsoft Teams. This enables companies and organisers to plan physical meetings at hotels while simultaneously ensuring remote interaction with multiple external, virtual attendees.

We know that consumer behaviours now move faster than ever, and so, to maintain pace with these trends, we are also witnessing the acceleration of AI within the hospitality industry. As we are moving from the interactive to the predictive era, AI can react and adjust outcomes according to the search a guest enters online. It can be deployed to strengthen customer support capabilities, and can be used to suggest relevant actions for the hotelier, such as birthday wishes or anniversary celebrations. While AI is totally digital and ‘contactless’, the services it provides to hotels enhance the bespoke service guests seek when travelling to hotels. Indeed, these technological solutions are not designed to replace the unique human aspect of the hospitality sector but to enhance the personalised service it provides.

“The strongest indication of just how rapidly technology is expanding comes by way of AI, which aims to collate and interpret guest data and map user preferences to personalise the guest journey.”

Marco Conte, Dorchester Collection

In the longer term, we would expect these digital platforms and systems to complement a hybrid hospitality model; one that can easily adjust to virtual, contact-free requirements but, importantly, can continue to deliver a high-quality guest experience that anticipates their every need – what we term ‘augmented hospitality’.

Such systems are also important to the further development of our lifestyle loyalty programme, ALL. It offers our members advantages, rewards and unique experiences. The digitalisation of the in-hotel experience is a unique opportunity for us to engage our clients more fully with ALL, and help us sign up more members; we recently launched QR code-enabled enrolment as one way of achieving this. Wider adoption of ALL will, in turn, better promote and facilitate easier access for guests to ancillary services in our properties and the ALL ecosystem, whether that be food and beverage or entertainment experiences. We believe hotels are not only a place where guests stay, but also where they work, live and play, enjoying a variety of services such as ‘earn and burn’.

After all, hospitality is rooted in human values and is the heartbeat of the Accor ecosystem. We have a true passion for service and believe in the power of human relationships. Post-Covid, this spirit of hospitality will be reinforced and supported by technological solutions rather than replaced. The hotel industry must strike the right balance between pushing digitalisation as the innovative means to create a fast-paced world and providing flexibility and personalisation for our guests.

Marco Conte, resident manager at Dorchester Collection

It’s no secret that technology has become an integral part of our society, and the hotel industry needs to leverage the resources and systems at their disposal to retain loyal clients. Ultimately, by providing our clients with exceptional service and unrivalled accommodations, furnished with all the latest technologies, we can significantly enlarge the number of guests who choose our hotel for living. As technologies now influence every field of hotel development, up-to-date custom software for hospitality will help to deal with the competition, attract the attention of new customers, improve performance and succeed.

Contactless payments are particularly important in this area, helping to improve the speed of transactions. The emergence of mobile wallets and wearables has only expanded this domain. In the past, contactless payments have usually been seen as a convenience, but they have emerged as much more of a necessity in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many customers are reluctant to handle cash or use keypads to enter their PINs, while using contactless methods as much as possible can also help keep your employees safe too.

Perhaps the strongest indication of just how rapidly technology is expanding comes by way of AI, which aims to collate and interpret guest data and map user preferences to personalise the guest journey. The technology has enormous potential, but it is my opinion that while it will play a profound role in hotel technology, this method has only recently entered into the marketplace. We should never forget that all these technologies can improve our capacity to deliver experiences but cannot ever replace the human capacity to create relationships. That task – and privilege – is, now more than ever, up to hoteliers themselves.

Christian Palomino
Quotidian hotel actions have been given a significant technological boost, as the biggest players in the industry look to limit guest interaction with staff.
Patrick Mendès
Contactless engagement is here to stay, and is not limited to payments.
Marco Conte

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