4 takeaways from this week's HITEC gathering

Futurist Mike Walsh delivered the keynote at this year's HITEC event in Houston. (Hotel Management)

HOUSTON -  Artificial intelligence. Big data. Data security. Each of these topics is an important facet of running a successful business in 2018, but they are also poorly understood by many in the industry. These topics were also on the tip of everyone’s tongue at this year’s Hospitality Industry Technology Exhibition & Conference, held at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, and with good reason. Hotels around the world are being forced to confront or adapt to major changes in technology each year, and the changes are happening faster than ever.

Here are the four biggest trends heard on the floor of HITEC, day one:

1. Personalization is the Holy Grail

Hotels want guest data in order to flesh out the hotel experience through predictive analytics, but if hotels fail to make good use of this information, guests are less likely to hand it over in the future. On top of this, many guests that want to see hotels predict their desires ahead of time are still too young to buy a room.

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According to Mike Walsh, futurist and HITEC keynote speaker, the world’s youngest consumers, children, are already being trained to reap the benefits of predictive technology through online advertisements and content curation, as well as Amazon’s fulfillment services. Because of this, Walsh says that when these guests eventually begin shopping for rooms, they won’t be satisfied with getting what they asked for. They will want businesses to have digital crystal balls to stay one step ahead. In fact, one step might be conservative.

“It’s not enough to find the data, you must turn it into a story about transformation and change,” Walsh said.

In a panel discussion on adopting brand standards for technology, Neil Foster, IT consultant at digital hotel services company Tech-Tonic Hospitality Services, said that from a loyalty perspective hotels absolutely want to know more about guests’ lives, but they only want information that is pertinent to business use cases.

“The more we know, it’s a huge win,” Foster said. “Personalization is only going to become more and more of a big deal… without getting weird about it.”

2. It's Time to Define Data Security

Foster’s closing remark about the “weirdness” of in-depth personalization cannot be ignored. Today’s data-security climate is characterized by a mistrust of businesses and a driving need from consumers to know that their data is being handled with care.

Jake Necessary, VP and chief information security officer at Interstate Hotels & Resorts, said the hotel industry needs to clearly define the concept of privacy as soon as possible in order to avoid future controversy and regain consumer trust. When discussing the European Union’s recent passage of the General Data Protection Regulation, Necessary said these regulations wouldn’t have come as such a shock to U.S. businesses if privacy policies were already properly defined in the country.

It's difficult to promote data privacy without fully defining the concept. Photo credit: Getty Images/NicoElNino

“All GDPR did was hold us to a date to figure all of this out,” he said.

Julie Snyder, lead information security & privacy engineer at Mitre and privacy capability co-lead, International Association of Privacy Professionals faculty, joked during the panel that the first cybersecurity model was developed in 1969 as Kubler Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief,” and elaborated that this is so because many businesses still do not have an adequate plan in place for cybersecurity. Necessary said that the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, often referred to as PCI compliance, is not a framework for security but a blueprint for compliance, and in many cases it is all that hotels have to fall back on.

“PCI doesn’t protect data, it’s a report,” Necessary said. “I found that a lot of hotels that transition into our operations have no security program. These are just statements that unqualified people answer at the end of the day. You can say you filled out one form for PCI compliance at 800 hotels but that doesn’t work; all of those hotels are different.”

3.  "Future Proofing" May Actually Exist

Jay Sigona, senior director of enterprise program development and implementation at Choice Hotels International, pondered on a panel whether or not the concept of “future proofing,” the act of buying or developing technology to protect against having to implement new updates rapidly in the future, is even possible in today’s world.

Sigona described the concept as “chasing a dream that might not exist,” partly because the hotel industry has high fixed costs and is one of the most mature industries in the world. However, Pradip Mulji, president at lodging controls for Sound Wifi Networks, said growing integration in the industry between vendors could be one way to create future proofing in hotels.

“When we adopted text-based messaging for our hotels, I thought we would be inundated with people requesting things on our guest-facing app,” Mulji said. “It is getting that way, but we didn’t expect the other benefits. Because we can text them back, we can text them surveys and they fill them out more frequently than at check-out. When someone texts, the expectation is that it will be taken care of, and since everything is integrated there is no chance of a request being dropped. It goes right to an attendant, or maintenance.”

“Historically hotels have been held ransom by various vendors due to high switching costs for programs,” Sigona said. “As we demand more integration, I think this is as close as we can get to future proofing.”

4. Leave AI to Tech Giants

If you ask 10 HITEC attendees where they think artificial intelligence can best serve the hotel industry, you’ll more than likely end up with 10 different answers. However, Balaji Krishnamurthy, global strategy & corporate development executive and chief strategy officer at technology solutions provider Sabre Corporation, said the development of AI is best left in the hands of data giants, and then put to use when it is fully developed.

“The reality of this stuff is that it’s extremely hard to develop. That’s why Facebook, Google and Amazon are leading the charge, backed up by their massive amounts of data,” Krishnamurthy said. “Spend more time on experimentation rather than implementation.”