Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Should you stay at a hotel yet?

As hotels come back online, guests are in for some major changes to the hospitality experience.

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Summer is (unofficially, at least) finally here, a time when hotels are usually booked to capacity with Americans fleeing for long-awaited getaways. Not this year.

As COVID-19 keeps Americans at home, hotel occupancy has plummeted, causing the hard-hit industry to lose more than $23 billion in room revenue since the pandemic began. 

Now, as hospitality slowly comes back online in a patchwork of stages across the country and world, guests are finding big changes to the hotel experience, many of them fueled by technology.

What can you expect on your next getaway? What are hotels doing to keep conditions sanitary while also keeping guests comfortable? The new normal is contactless and cutting edge, but can it also be comforting?

I connected with Vanessa Ogle, CEO of hotel technology company Enseo, which is one of the players in the sector that's developing products to help hospitality adapt to a post COVID-19 reality. Her insights should help prepare you for the new experience of your next overnight stay.

GN: What concerns are you hearing from guests when it comes to safely staying in hotels again? Are we going to see a quick bounce back, or have consumer habits changed more indelibly?

Vanessa Ogle: We find guests in three different camps: guests who are ready to get back on the road no matter what, guests who will never get out on the road again, and a very large group in the middle that says they want to get back to traveling, but they want more confidence that its safe to do so. The statistics show us that there is already a return to travel happening, as occupancies in the almost 2000 hotels we service have increased 1-2 percent each week, every week consistently for the last seven weeks. We now have properties that are in double digit occupancy and some properties that are about 50 percent occupancy. Over 30% of the hotels we service that had closed have scheduled to reopen.  As for consumer behavior, it has changed irrevocably; but part of that doesn't mean no travel, it means that consumers are now willing to communicate and have interpersonal relationships in a different way such as Zoom calls and Webex chat, which enables the Return to Readiness solutions such as having a phone as your remote control in the room and the ability to have a video session with a reception agent instead of a person standing behind a desk. This now is accepted as the new normal just as your used to seeing friends and family on the screen.

GN: Like most service industries, hotels are going to have to adapt. What kinds of new front desk services and technologies will patrons have to look forward to?

Vanessa Ogle: Technology will play a major role in the front desk experience. This technology will be used to protect guests, protect associates working at the front desk, and to enable a fast and safe entry into the guest room. Mobile phones are an increasingly important part of the check in process, and some brands have a very well thought out implement of strategy. From checking in to your room and even selecting it on your mobile phone and going all the way to using your phone as the key at the door. There are other products being launched; we are launching VERA, and she will be a video enhanced reception agent. For example, as soon as you walk up to the reception counter, you will be met by a live person who will be on a screen, with a very high resolution, high quality audio and video experience while you get to talk to someone who is an expert at that property and who will walk you through the check in process. Even if you don't have a mobile phone that cannot be used as a key, and for those properties that do not have all the technology – which is quite expensive – installed to have a mobile key in each room.

GN: How about the in-room and service experience during stays, what will change and what new strategies and technologies are being adopted?

Vanessa Ogle: There are technologies that have been played with as a novelty for years, and now those novelties transform into credible and critical pieces of communication and infrastructure, communicating to guests regarding the state and cleanliness of their room, as well as enabling them to have touchless control and interactivity with their room. For example, we now see room service robots being used to deliver food to the rooms, but we also the increased use of consumers own device as  EnseoCONNECT, allows guests to control their television, thermostat and lights in the room, all from the comfort of their own device. The entire environment can be controlled by touching your own phone without having to walk around and have additional physical touch points in the room. Brands are putting guest safety ahead of opportunities to put their brand in front of the guest by accelerating products like EnseoCONNECT to market. Another technology we're seeing in the room is a platform we have had for many years that could stream a live event into a guest room, and so now that has become so much more important, and hotels who are still planning to post a conference for example, will now be able to allow guests to choose whether they go down in person to watch the speaker, or whether they watch from the comfort of their own guest room.

GN: How might hospitality participate in strategies such as contact tracing?

Vanessa Ogle: One of my companies MadeSafe has recently repurposed a technology, which was previously used to geolocate where a housekeeper or a teacher was when there was an emergency.  We have now repurposed that technology to  keep track of when an associate gets within a specifically defined radius of another associate, for a period of time. This allows for an employer at an employee worksite to give these buttons to each of their employees, and then at sometime in the future, if one of those employees has found to have contracted COVID-19 or some other virus, they can immediately run a quick report and see what other employees that first person has been in proximity to, , allowing the employer to quarantine – or request to quarantine or work from home those that may have been affected.  It also allows the employees to return to work as soon as possible. 

GN: It's one thing to change operations to respond to the needs of a pandemic, quite another to ensure customers have a satisfying and personal experience. What growing pains will see as all this new tech is rolled out? What can hospitality do to help ease the transition for customers?

Vanessa Ogle: The most important thing that every hospitality company will have to do is to choose wisely.  We will have to roll out only technologies that work to retain customer and owner confidence in using technology in new ways.   So, choosing a technology that works for every guest, mobile phone or device, and network topography, those are the careful questions and research that will be undertaken as these new technologies are very carefully selected and implemented. To that end, choosing technologies that have a full platform behind them where you can manage and monitor the health and status of those technologies so that the people operating the platform, will know when a technology goes down before a guest is left hanging without a working solution.