Industry experts say two technological improvements that have been talked about for years are poised to become a reality for hotels.
Hoteliers have been touting the potential benefits of greater automation and the addition of robotics to streamline operations and improve efficiency for a long time.
Michael Blake, chief technology officer for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said both are going to have a very real impact on hotel operations this year.
“There are a couple of things that are happening, which makes it a little more real this year. … Staffing shortages are real, and we continually see people having a hard time augmenting their current teams. And two, I think the robots are actually getting better,” he said.
In an email interview with Hotel News Now, Aimbridge Hospitality Chief Information Officer Andrew Arthurs said this falls in line with the types of technology guests want to support.
“Guests are quick to adopt technology that enhances their experience and reduces friction,” he said. “No one likes to wait in line or on hold, and many guests don’t carry cash, so we see increased adoption of self-service check-in, SMS messaging and mobile tipping. We also know guests expect an in-room tech experience that mirrors their experience at home. More and more guests are bringing their content on their mobile devices with the expectation that this content can be watched on their in-room TV. It needs to be an easy and obvious solution that works every time. “
Similarly, Scott Neslage, director of lodging operations at Indigo Road Hospitality, said mobile tipping is top on the list of tech investments.
“Guests really appreciate ways to acknowledge their service staff, and I also think a lot has ceased to carry cash as a habit,” he said, noting there are not many “great solutions” available to address that.
Here’s a look at the five top tech trends for 2023, as defined by Hospitality Technology Next Generation and the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
Arthurs said his company is prioritizing technology that makes operations more efficient.
“Aimbridge Hospitality is investing in emerging technologies that are intuitive and enable a better guest and employee experience,” he said. “We are making strategic investments in the areas of robotic process automation, employee-facing tech and business intelligence. There are exciting advances in AI and we’ve had some success working with our partners to leverage AI to create more personalized communications to our guests and for our associates, streamlining routine tasks.”
Blake said embracing artificial intelligence and automation in data analytics will be key in the industry’s broader efforts to enhance personalization and guest experience.
Robots can perform various functions within hotels, Blake said.
“Whether it’s serving, whether it’s cleaning, and some could define a [self-check-in kiosk] as a little bit of a robot, we’re seeing that touchless, self-use staff augmentation,” he said.
He noted the underlying technology and AI have advanced significantly in recent years to make it easier to operate robots in hotels.
“The thought processing is getting better,” he said. “I just think the robots are getting better and smarter.”
He said that the most striking example he has seen is a property with a perpetually understaffed coffee shop that found a way to stay open using a robot that could make drinks.
“They put in an actual robot that pours and measures,” he said.
At the same time, he said he doesn’t foresee robots “taking over everything.”
“I think they will increase,” he said. “With some of the staffing shortages, they’ll help through that, but will they 100% take over someone’s job? No. That’s not going to happen.”
Arthurs said implementing robotics as a solution to an efficiency problem makes sense.
“Technology that removes an operational bottleneck will drive efficiencies,” he said. “Robotic process automation, self-service check-in and mobile [food-and-beverage] ordering all fall into that category. We also see value in technology that helps cross-department communication, whether it’s a service-order solution where guest requests need to flow to multiple departments or an employee-facing app promoting employee engagement and awareness of events on property.”
Neslage agreed that tech investment should focus on elevating guest experience and alleviating staffing women.
“Reduced staffing levels have essentially become the new norm,” he said. “We’re interested in implementing and using technology that is intuitive and helpful for the team and is impactful on the guest experience.”
As more hotels look to embrace the responsibility of being environmentally friendly — and as more corporate partners demand that from them — technology will play a key role in making that happen, Blake said.
“We’re looking at everything from food-reduction to [electric vehicle] charging,” he said.
It’s getting easier for hotels to support electric vehicles on property, he said, especially as third-party suppliers crop up that will provide the infrastructure for charging.
“Electric vehicles have become more real,” Blake said. “They’re out there, and there’s more of an installed base. I think hotels, especially some along major corridors, might be making that investment.”
Blake said cybersecurity will always be among the most important tech trends for hoteliers to keep an eye on.
“I wish we didn’t ever have to talk about cybersecurity, but it’s perpetually going to be on our list,” he said. “We spent a lot of money on it, and we’ve made significant improvements, but so have the bad actors.”
He said the serious nature of cybersecurity threats is underlined by just how big some of those “bad actors” are.
“They come from all across the spectrum, from those just sending out stupid phishing notes to national states, and they all have a different kind of risk component,” he said.
He said breaches and ransomware attacks in particular can have huge implications on brand reputations and “absorb executive-level time and attention.”
Much like the demands of cybersecurity, hoteliers must keep an eye on how they collect, use and house consumer data to be in line with the various regulations around it, Blake said.
“As you go around the world, there’s different rules and regulations, and for those brands who want to have some common denominator of service, they just have to be cognizant that they can differ,” he said.
This will become more important as more countries, states and cities adopt similar rules to those in California and across Europe.
“There are going to be more laws around that are emerging and evolving, and you have to make sure your systems and processes comply with those,” he said. “A lot of times, good intentions around marketing or guests services may violate some of those rules.”
The hotel industry has a reputation for lagging behind in tech adoption, but significant progress has been made in recent years.
“We have made positive steps with tech modernization over the past few years, and I hope we will keep that momentum in 2023,” Arthurs said. “I would classify this as incremental progress and still very much a work in progress.”
One way to “catch up” is to make sure you’re making the right investments. Arthurs said Aimbridge spends “a considerable amount of time up-front evaluating new technologies and supplier capabilities.”
“We validate the financial viability of the supplier and the strength of the management team to give us confidence they have staying power,” he said. “We avoid long-term contracts and take advantage of subscription-based models where appropriate. As part of our deployment process, we identify pilot locations as proving grounds for the tech before we expand. We develop a hypothesis up front and use the pilot period to test it. The most important part of our pilot process is to analyze data and collect feedback from our owners, employees and guests.”
Neslage said in some way the shift to more vendor-driven technology across hotels has benefited smaller companies, including Indigo Road, when the bigger hotel companies have historically had an advantage in technology.
“The best analogy there is navigating a sailboat versus a cruise ship,” he said. “Both can get you across the ocean, but the sailboat can be a bit more nimble. That’s how we see ourselves — able to be more fluid to adapt the technology that works the best.”
Blake said the perception that hotels lag on tech is sometimes unfair, pointing out hotel brands are often the first to move on to new technologies if they can be shown to save money, as they were among the first to move to the cloud. But he said the big thing that has moved the industry forward on technology is an increasing willingness to collaborate with more companies, leaning on third-party vendors for solutions rather than trying to build from scratch in house.
“If you ask me, the number one impediment to the speed of adoption within our industry … was arrogance.”
Neslage said the perception that the industry lags is now “debatable.”
“Most modern independent hotels shouldn’t be lumped into this assumption and reputation,” he said. “They’re much more nimble and less encumbered than their branded counterparts.”
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