What’s on the minds of hoteliers? What’s keeping them up at night? And what makes travelers happy and eager to return? Some of the best places to have these candid discussions are at the industry’s conferences and events, and this year’s lineup has not disappointed. From AAHOACON and BITAC, to HITEC and The Hospitality Show, I’ve been traveling steadily, attending 13 events since January.
Yes, the meetings business is growing, up 30% this year. Additionally, eight out of 10 business travelers expect to take trips to events in the next six months. It’s great to be on the road catching up with industry colleagues and meeting new faces.
Word on the street
Each meeting I’ve attended has elevated similar themes this year related to the newest technology. The one thing all these events had in common was a resounding discussion of AI and its impact on the future of hospitality.
The question on everyone’s lips: How will AI be applied to hotels, and what will it enable them to do? There’s a lot of speculation over what it can do, but there is still not enough evidence to support what it will do if, and when, implemented. Regardless of the uncertainty, CIOs at the brands are putting plans together to answer the question “What is our position on AI?” AI is nebulous now as we know it, but as an industry, we need to be prepared to do more than just talk about it. We must be ready to act with developed technologies when the time comes.
Some people say they believe that AI will not help the labor shortage, as hotels will always require housekeepers to clean the rooms and engineers to make repairs. Others say they believe in the evolution of robots for room cleaning and other services, such as voice assistants, to ease labor challenges.
The idea that hotels can bypass the front desk and replace it with kiosks or mobile check-in apps was also a discussion point. It’s happening already if a guest takes that journey; at some hotels guests can easily check in remotely on their mobile devices, use mobile room keys, see and order services through the hotel’s app or in-room e-concierge, and check out without ever speaking to a hotel associate. Some people simply prefer limited engagement. But it’s not for everyone. Hotels must have flexible technology in place to support this methodology, while also enabling face-to-face staff interaction. It may not seem practical, but it is probable.
So, how are operators planning to leverage AI? Most discussions have focused on back-of-house applications vs. guest facing. One hotelier said his company plans to leverage ChatGPT to create written content for the organization. Another said they have AI applications in their call centers to manage customer reservations and complaints. Yet another said AI will be used to analyze company data to create fresh insights; for example, processing guest reviews to generate new ways to serve them. Although AI is at the early stages of its usefulness, how it is applied depends on the size of the business and what the hotel is trying to achieve. How it will be used to drive guest satisfaction and loyalty has yet to be discovered.
Combating sex trafficking with technology
At the AHLA Foundation’s No Room For Trafficking luncheon, talks centered on the industry’s anti-trafficking efforts and what we can do collectively as operators and vendors to combat this problem in hotels. Technology was part of the discussions I had with several attendees as a way to identify habits in the comings and goings of traffickers and their victims.
For example, electronic door lock solutions with audit trails can potentially be leveraged to help identify how many times doors are opened/shut, alerting management to the number of people frequently entering and exiting a room. Likewise, Wi-Fi solutions may also assist in detecting when there is a high concentration of people in a room, and employee safety buttons can call for immediate help when out-of-the-ordinary behaviors are witnessed by housekeeping staff. While the potential is there for technology to identify sex trafficking actions, it is not yet failproof. High Wi-Fi concentration may simply mean a family with teenagers who brought numerous mobile devices is in the room, and those devices are all connected to the hotel’s Wi-Fi.
As plans are being developed, albeit from federal, state, or local efforts, or hotel technology, information sharing will remain key to keeping this problem visible.
Labor shortage, data security still a concern
Most recently, I attended BITAC Independent to learn how this segment is navigating today’s operational challenges. Not surprising, the labor shortage continues to take a toll. Key to attracting and retaining workers is cultivating employees to be the best co-workers they can be – from managers down to line-level employees. A major topic of discussion was leveraging technology to improve staff-to-guest communication and offload tasks that technology applications can fill, and it needs to be backed by a strong network infrastructure to keep conversations flowing.
Protecting a hotel’s data from cyberattacks was also discussed at this event. Panelists said even hotels with limited budgets need to allocate financial resources to protect guests’ proprietary information and the asset as a whole. Not surprising, even these panel talks reverted back to AI and leveraging things like chatbots to streamline food orders or guest requests to offset labor challenges. If staffing remains a concern into the foreseeable future, then technology will continue to evolve to enable hoteliers to operate more efficiently.
With so many changes happening today, it’s more important than ever that hoteliers get back out there and attend industry educational and tradeshow events to hear what’s on people’s minds, share best practices, and learn how new technologies can help properties reduce costs and improve the guest experience.
For me, I will remain on the road with my ear to the ground. The second half of 2023 I’ll be traveling even more and look forward to sharing more insights as to what is happening in hospitality across the globe.