By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors
Driven by the need to control costs and attract and retain customers in a highly competitive environment, the travel & hospitality world has undergone a mind-boggling transformation that has been brought about by innovations in technology with no end in sight.
Time was when planning a holiday or business trip entailed a call to one’s travel agent, relying on the trusted words of friends and a perusal of a good guidebook to ensure positive buying choices. No more! Thanks to digitalization and other breakthroughs and the internet, travelers can book their own flights and hotels online, decide to stay in a stranger’s home rather than a hotel and enter an unfamiliar restaurant armed with online reviews served out on their mobile devices while connected to their hotel’s Wi-Fi. In other words, we’ve become Do It Yourself travelers who plan, manage and book travel on line.
Tech has changed the industry landscape, inside and out – Consider this: Low cost airlines have proliferated globally spurring a huge upsurge in international air travel so that now more than 1.5 billion travelers annually cross their national borders to go somewhere. In the airports, travelers relied on airline service agents once to assist with travel needs. Today, however, if you’re transiting Dubai International, Washington Dulles or Boston’s Logan airports, you’ll find some new kids on the block. They are polite, knowledgeable and helpful. But truth be told, they’re not real; they’re holograms. Projected in HD, the holograms sport names like Carla and Paige and speak in multiple languages, answering questions about security, flight and gate locations and airport navigation.
In September, Marriott became the world’s largest lodging provider with 1million hotel rooms and 30 hotel brands, following its purchase of Starwood. Airbnb, meanwhile, this summer usurped InterContinental Hotels and Hilton Worldwide as the world’s largest hotel chain—without owning or managing a single hotel by making it possible for users to rent out their spare rooms or vacant homes to strangers in some 190 countries around the world. The concept of staying in people’s homes when travelling dates back for centuries, but what technology has done is to make the option an easily-accessible global opportunity.
Driverless automobiles are now being road-tested. I can see it now: One day, we’ll arrive at the airport, our hotel limo will contact us with information about where to meet and their driverless Town-car will whisk us to our hotel while a recording promotes the hotel’s benefits and advises us on check-in procedures.
Once at the destination, Google Maps, currently the most-used app in the world, gives real-time traffic and accident updates, helping us navigate via automatic rerouting. All the while, in cities large and small, Uber and Lyft are giving the traditional local taxi industry a run for their money.
Today, check-in technology has finally reached the point that your credit card can be your key during your hotel stay. Because your hotel reservation has your past history, you go directly to your room. Your luggage arrives by robot. Dinner is available in the hotel’s restaurant while its limited staff is supported by tableside service calling buttons making the entire transaction quick and efficient.
Operational challenges like room assignment and food and beverage services are also being automated. Take a service as complex, yet personal, as room service. It used to be that you placed your order and were told it would take an hour. Today, several hotels have taken a page from the Jetson’s handbook and have turned to Rosie, the family’s robot maid, to speed up the process. The robot has a compartment where the “hot” food is placed. The robot then calls the elevator and rides it to the appropriate floor. On arrival (it never gets lost or takes a break), the robot calls your room to announce its presence and delivers your meal. No “tipping” required.
Cost is also driving other ways the industry’s service providers can save on staffing. Throughout Europe and some other parts of the world, your check is processed tableside to help avoid credit card theft and save labor costs. Select service and economy lodging brands have demonstrated that self-service and limited service hotels can meet the demands of their customers at lower costs. In high labor cost markets like Europe and Australia, some of these innovations have been introduced at some full-service and even luxury brands.
But, what about the future? These are just some of the operational ways the travel/hospitality industry – once a high-touch, low-tech service provider – is being transformed by technology. The pace of these changes will accelerate as labor costs rise and guests put a premium on expediency.
The challenge ahead now is not “how fast,” but how brands will differentiate their brand promises from each other with reduced human contact. To be sure, there will always be a group of travelers who value personal service. It remains to be seen if Big Data, cloud computing and soon even cognitive computing, will make a difference that resonates with them. Whatever the outcome, there’s no doubt the next few years will see travelers requiring a seamless process, increasingly personalized travel options and customized product offerings based on their profiles and past choices.