As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps people 6 feet apart from one another, hotels have turned to technology to maintain the spirit of hospitality while also maintaining a safe distance.
Little of this technology is new—plenty of brands have offered keyless entry to guestrooms via apps for years—but the pandemic has put pressure on hoteliers to speed adoption and pressure on developers to increase what their programs and apps can do. “It just takes more investment,” Alex Shashou, president and co-founder of hotel operations platform Alice, said of hotels incorporating keyless entry. “It takes integration with the [property-management system and] upgrading your key infrastructure, so that takes a little bit longer, but we're starting to [see] things start to happen.”
“This isn't a flash in the pan pandemic,” said James Bishop, senior director, global demand partnerships at hotel technology company SiteMinder. “We're going to be managing social distancing—or not managing it, depending where you're from—for the next six to 12 months, until there's a vaccine in place.” As such, Bishop expects that finding ways to maintain a safe distance will be front-of-mind for travelers for the foreseeable future. “So I think it's very important that hotels are looking at every point in which they have contact with guests and seeing how they can minimize the risks,” he said. Technology can play a major role in that, he continued, from being able to collect data from guests before they arrive, being able to provide a guest with a mobile key using their own devices and being able to communicate effectively to guests through their own devices. “There's some safety and comfort in there,” Bishop said.
Moving Beyond Keyless Entry
Checking in and out is only one part of the guest experience, and developers are moving other contact points online as well.
For example, Maestro PMS and SilverWare POS have launched a mobile tableside ordering and payment platform for restaurants that lets guests order meals, split the check, add a tip and pay via their mobile devices or add the bill to their guestroom account. The platform can be customized for different outlets within the hotel, letting guests order more wine throughout the meal at a sit-down restaurant or order everything at once at the coffeeshop. Since the data is shared with the point-of-sale and property-management system, managers can view and track guest spend, identify meal preferences, apply discounts and manage loyalty points.
“Anyone who has used an online ordering app to place a delivery or pickup order from a restaurant will adapt seamlessly to this solution,” said Lucky Thalas, SilverWare EVP. “And given that the online ordering industry is driving many, many, many billions of dollars of revenue every year in the U.S., that's a lot of guests that can pick up on this technology quite easily.” Still, he emphasized, the platform is not meant to be like a delivery app, but to replicate a traditional dining experience, including a chat feature to talk with the servers.
Alice, meanwhile, is encouraging clients to build microsites where guests can read all the salient information, Shashou said—especially valuable as safety procedures change the way hotels operate by the day. “This microsite might have your new roomservice menu, your new [food-and-beverage] opening hours, the fact that you're now going to have to book [a reservation for] breakfast and book the pool if you'd like to use it where previously you could just go down, as well as the new COVID policies and explanation of everything that goes in security,” he said.
Bishop agreed, emphasizing the need to clearly communicate what the property is doing to ensure guests' safety before they arrive, and make it easy for guests to ask questions. “So we're seeing a lot more requests for that prearrival messaging, and customer relationship management platforms as well,” he said.
Similarly, housekeeping services are increasingly connected to messaging systems. “You should know your room is being cleaned so that you don't go back up to the room when the housekeeper is in there, because you don't want to cross paths with an individual if you don't have to,” Shashou said. Guests can use the apps or messaging systems to opt in or out of housekeeping services as necessary.
While apps can offer increasingly innovative ways to communicate with a hotel, sometimes a simple message can be best. “Simplicity's always been key, which is why messaging works so well,” Shashou said. “It's why QR codes work so well for menus.”
The simpler the technology is, he added, the lower the barriers to adoption are for hotel and guest alike, the higher the return on investment can be and the higher the guest engagement is likely to be. “Now, more than ever, hotel guests have a reason—a real reason—to allow a hotel to engage with them through text message,” Shashou said.
The Future of Mobile Communication
As more of the larger brands pivot to mobile technology, Bishop said, mobile communication is becoming less of a perk and more of an expectation for guests. “These sorts of things are going to filter down to smaller brands, even to the independent hotels,” he said.
“Convenience typically leads to necessity,” Thalas said. Things that once seemed like luxuries in the hospitality sector soon become necessities that guests expect up and down the chain scales. “And I think in this case, necessity will lead to convenience and guest adoption will continue to grow,” he said. “So it will become our normal.”