28 – HITEC 2019 Special Edition

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In this special edition episode of Suite Spot, Host Ryan Embree is joined by the head of Travel Media Group’s product and development team, Jason Lee, to share his key takeaways from the recent HITEC 2019 conference in Minneapolis. Ryan and Jason talk about all the hospitality tech innovations that were shared at the conference including Alexa for Hospitality and different AI systems. Jason also shares his ideas for what’s next for technology in the hotel industry and what that means for hoteliers moving forward.

Episode Transcript
Our podcast is produced as an audio resource. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human editing and may contain errors. Before republishing quotes, we ask that you reference the audio.

Ryan Embree: Welcome to Suite Spot where hoteliers check in and we check out what’s trending in hotel marketing. I’m your host, Ryan Embree. Hello everyone. Welcome to a special edition of the Suite Spot. I’m your host, Ryan Embree. And today’s episode we are going to be doing a recap of HITEC 2019 Minneapolis, which I had the pleasure to attend with our Vice President of Product Development Jason Lee who’s here to share some notes and thoughts with us about the conference itself. Now, Jason, you are the veteran of these types of conferences you’ve been multiple times, so just want to get some maybe initial thoughts on this year’s conference and comparison to years past.

Jason Lee: Yeah, I think, you know, a lot of these conferences have themes, you know, and our theme for sure this year I think even from the keynote on was making things easier on the guest and booking, and research in-stay, post-stay. Um, but frictionless technology in the travel space where that always hasn’t been the case in terms of the kind of technology the hotels deliver or hotel companies deliver to guests. So I think that that definitely was the theme this year in my opinion. Or maybe that’s just what I came away with in years past. I think there had been other types of AI or machine learning or these kinds of themes where we are now, that might be a little more commonplace. And, and you know, it’s really more about how do you apply these technologies to help guests have a better experience or an experience that they’re not feeling like, I’m, I’m using tech. They’re just, it’s frictionless, you know, it’s easy. So, um, and I think that is the next step. That’s the, that’s the evolution that the hotel industry has to take, especially as we’re, you know, starting to sunset legacy technology and booking and legacy GDS tech that is probably, you know, the, I think you’re starting to see a lot more, uh, advanced technology happening, uh, at the ground level work guests interact with hotel availability.

Ryan Embree: Customers are looking for that frictionless experience because they’re seeing that and experiencing that, um, in every other aspect of their life. So, you know, the hotel industry as a whole has the reputation for kind of lagging behind on some of these technologies. So when a customer walks in and still has to fill out maybe a breakfast form hanging on the outside of their door, you know, that’s not the same sort of frictionless technology that they’re experiencing on a daily basis and every other aspect of their lives. So the, the customer’s expectations are starting to rise. Do you, do you think the hotel industry can keep up? Why do you think they lag so far behind?

Jason Lee: It’s always about moving parts. I think that’s all technology. It’s about how do you, how do you satisfy the demands of privacy, the demands of security, to the maybe the expectations of revenue from a hotel. I want this kind of revenue, or I want this, I want guests to interact with me this way. And before you got into, or we’ve gotten into the mobile when where people are doing so much more. And I think even in the last couple of years, the statistics in terms of bookings continue to rise. But I’m always shocked when I see the number, you know, at around 50% or less in mobile bookings because you’re like, man, you do everything on a phone. Who’s going to their desktop to do that? But they still do. So. So to answer your question, I think there, it’s all of these, these technologies that are in, everybody has their own, Marriott has theirs, Hilton has theirs the GDS is another one, you know, Expedia and booking and what they’re doing in their various sites. All of those things have to come together at some point. And if you’re gonna, if you’re like, I’m going to call, I’m going to create a frictionless experience from somebody that can access me from all of these different points. I think it’s challenging, you know, where you look at an Airbnb or you or some of these other industries where it’s a single source it’s a single point, single point of entry.

Ryan Embree: Right. And, you know, I, I will say one thing, you know, and just on personal experience, uh, using the Marriott app during my stay at HITEC, uh, one of the cool features of that app was being able to actually get rewarded with reward points for not having housekeeping come into come into the room, which again, you know, you think about, um, in the past, you know, you put the little do not disturb sign on there, but now you’ve got an app essentially filling that void, that role. You’re getting incentivized. That’s obviously, you know, the hotel knowing that now through the app is saving time, uh, you know, checking if you actually did want this service or didn’t want the service. So I think things are becoming more efficient.

Jason Lee: Definitely.

Ryan Embree: Slowly but surely.

Jason Lee: You know, what’s interesting about my, I stay with Hilton, I stayed with Hilton, you stayed with Marriott, but I was at a Hilton in Minneapolis. And what was weird about my stay is that Hilton has phenomenal mobile technology. I love their mobile app I love, you know, the, the, you know, using your app for the key. And all of this stuff. But the hotel was using a third party SMS company at the same time. So I checked in and I got to push notification, oh, your room’s ready, you know, blah, blah, blah. And then, uh, after I got in, I got a text message and it said, “hey, you know, access this way.” And then I got a push notification that said, “oh, accesses this way.” You know? So it was I guess, you know, they want to, if you feel more comfortable via SMS or via the app, but I thought it was interesting because it didn’t feel very, it felt disconnected, the, you know. So, and I think, but I think again, it’s, it’s harnessing all of these, all of these technologies and what’s in, what was interesting to me is that, you know, going back a few years, maybe 2015, you saw like the emergence of chatbots and, and AI and you know, some early stuff there. And then you saw a little bit more in 16 and 17, 18 and, and then this year, you know, three companies in the, in the innovation side of it, uh, you know, the, the E20 Exhibition where new technologies brought out, you have three chatbot text companies, startups in 2019. And I think there’s, there’s something interesting in that, you know, why that they’re, you know, that they’re still even with big companies like Whistle at ALICE and other companies that are already in this space, brands adopting their own tech, that you’d have three startups entering the space right now.

Ryan Embree: Yeah, and I think that speaks to trying to create that frictionless experience and in different types of ways. You, like you mentioned, maybe somebody does feel a little bit more comfortable texting through SMS rather than, you know, downloading another app for their phone and, uh, adopting that sort of way of communication. So it is, it’s super interesting to kind of see this type of technology. I think it’s always telling to see you at those innovations in those startups, kind of where they believe the, the industry is headed. One of the cooler booths at the trade show actually was Alexa for hotels, Alexa for hospitality. Um, tell us a little bit about that. I know you got the opportunity to kind of check that out and see the technology. What do you think’s going on there?

Jason Lee: I think it’s really interesting. Uh, you know, I think the, you know, Marriott putting Alexa devices in all of their rooms or, or saying that that was an initiative of theirs, you know, brought a lot of, some people being critical of that move and also other people thinking that’s cool. Um, I might’ve been a little more of the critical side, like, like why would I use that? But then seeing all the integration points, um, I know they have, they’ve integrated with LG TVs, they’ve integrated with some like hard utilities like shower and you can, uh, you can connect up your room. So they were, they were demonstrating a way to connect your Alexa account to the room, and the room had a bunch of different Alexa touch points. One of them being the mirror, one of them being the TV, and then actual like you know, smaller Alexa devices by the, by the bedside where could access front desk stuff, you could turn, turn the shower on, you could turn the TV on, you could, you could lower the blinds. Like a lot of voice integration there, which I think is really interesting. I think it’s a very interesting thing. And the fact that they had set up a booth that was like an entire guest room to demonstrate it was definitely evidence that they’re serious about getting in the space.

Ryan Embree: Maybe when you originally heard it you were a little bit critical of the idea, but then kind of walking through and you know, using it as you practically would use it. If you were a guest in a hotel, you could actually start to see, “hey, this is pretty cool.”

Jason Lee: Yeah. And I have, I like Alexa, I have Alexa stuff at my house. And so I was really keen on, I was like, wow, that’s really cool. I could, there’s a lot I could do here, including having my own music and that kind of thing going on. But if I was a Google assistant person, what are the, what, what is it that it that gives me, and so if it’s a primary utility in a room that is where you access stuff and you need to have an account or something, I think then you could have that frictionless experience we were talking about where people have, they don’t, they maybe don’t like they have privacy concerns or other kinds of stuff. Then maybe having a room filled with Alexa devices might freak them out.

Ryan Embree: Right. And that, that was going to be my next point is I think we’re at an interesting crossroads right now where you have tech leaders in the industry really focusing on privacy. And then you have other companies, uh, like Alexa for hotels that they want, you know, they want to get personalization of your stay. You know, they would rather get as much data on you as possible in terms of trying to, you know, make your stay better, connect your Netflix account to, you know, the TV so you can, but there’s obviously some customers that don’t feel comfortable in doing that. What, like what are your thoughts on kind of that tug of war between personalization and data privacy?

Jason Lee: Yeah, I think that’s where you have to, that’s where you have to draw those really clear lines of so that someone who wants to be connected can, can easily connect in someone who wants to have privacy also sees transparency in that privacy. So it is, you’re right, it is a tug of war and you know, I think that they’re, you’re, you’re seeing more and more companies to your point, putting streaming services, making streaming services available where you have to put in your account and it’s not always apparent that your account information is securely being taken and, or that it’s being, or that you need to sign out when you check out or does it do it automatically. But at the same time, somebody like me, I love it because I can pick up right where I left off watching something on Hulu or watching something on Netflix. I absolutely love that because I don’t, I don’t care about what, flipping through channels. So, you know, but then on the other side, so I think turning on the TV is always an interesting experience in, in hotels because we, you know, we get Mario Lopez telling us about the latest movies, right, on a lot of TV screens. We as soon as you turn the TV on and then you have another, another time you turn the TV on and it’s a bunch of logos for, for all the streaming services and you know, and so what do you as a guest, you know, I don’t want, maybe I don’t want either. Maybe I want to be able to access that somehow in another way or have that preference be automatically given to me where it’s like, hey, I just want regular TV. I just want to turn it on and watch the news that that should be an option.

Jason Lee: So as we, as we start to, I think as an industry, as we start to serve everyone’s need, right? I think there is like there is you know, places in entertainment and connectivity where you can create areas where someone who is more tech-minded who would love to get into and use these services can do that. But it’s not a prerequisite to the staying in the room or to enjoying your stay. I always like wonder like how long is there going to be a telephone in a guest room? Like how long is that? At what point is a telephone going to go away? But then at the same time you think about this huge amount of baby boomer travelers that are out there, that baby boomer traveler still has a home phone. You know, you, you look at other generations, they don’t, nobody has a home phone. So, but there’s still that comfort and being able to pick up and dial the front desk or dial room service that way.

Ryan Embree: Absolutely. It’s a, it’s a comfort level thing and I completely agree with you because at the end of the day the hotel gives you the opportunity and puts an Alexa in your room and they say, you know, if you need anything, just ask Alexa and we’ll be right up with you know, towels or service or whatever you need. Um, I don’t know how confident I would be, you know, using that Alexa versus just picking up the phone and knowing that I’m interacting with someone on the other side. So I think it is a comfort level thing. It’s going to be an adoption process of, of just using the technology. But I agree with you, I think you need to cast a wide net when it comes to your customers because you know, it’s just like that age old kind of story at the front desk when, uh, somebody comes to check in and they know your name, they know your preferences. One guest could be very impressed by that and say, this is, this is service at its finest. They know everything about me, everything that I need for my travels. And then the customer behind you could be ,have that little creepy factor.

Jason Lee: And I think, I think the hotel industry has gone through all the iterations of this. And I, and I think Wi-Fi and connected, you know, being connected to the Internet, it was one of those. I mean I was in the hotel industry, Ryan, this tells you how old I am, where when somebody checked in, we asked them if they needed an ethernet cable. Do you need an Ethernet cable for your stay? You know, we had hotels where we were like, we were so proud of our, of our connected high speed Internet, but you had to have a cable to connect it. So then it turned into the early days of Wi-Fi where, you know, we had Wi-Fi modems for, for a laptop at the front desk where it’s like, we are, ok we don’t have wires anymore, we’re wireless. And they’re like, but I need a wire. And you’re like, well, here’s a, here’s a modem you can put into your, into your computer and use. Right. So I think, you know, tech, Tech advances are always, especially early on there, there could be, you know, difficult, but as generations catch up then they become a implied utility. You know, I look at people and they’re like free high-speed wireless Internet, uh, as an amenity and like almost like

Ryan Embree: Free parking?

Jason Lee: Yeah, like possibly they would not have Wi-Fi, right? Like this is a hotel with no Wi-Fi.

Ryan Embree: Right.

Jason Lee: The, you know, people would lose their minds because it’s an implied utility now.

Ryan Embree: Or flat-screen TVs!

Jason Lee: Or flat-screen TVs is another one! Yeah. Like, oh, okay, well that’s reassuring. But if you know, but I mean, you know, there were, there was a time in, in the early two thousands when we were doing advertising where hotels insisted that we did color TVs, color TVs with HBO. But I think, you know, like a hotel would still have black-and-white TVs. But I think that they’re the next generation of travelers, it could be an imply utility that there’s going to be every streaming service, every major streaming service available will be available to them. You know, for their need. It won’t be like, I am going to have to make sure that, that they have streaming services.

Ryan Embree: Right. And I think, I think the cool thing is, especially with something like an Alexa, you know, in a room, the, it’s not, yes, the, the technology is going to need some upgrades and things of that nature, but it won’t necessarily ever be, uh, outdated. Like we saw the iPod docks for example, and these hotels would invest so much, and that was like one of the coolest innovations was to walk in and see an Ipod dock for, uh, you know, on your, on your radio or on your, on your clock. Um, and then now it’s like, it’s, they’re still there, but no one really uses them anymore. So something like an Alexa that could, you know, get these updates and upgrades, you know, that’s really cool that we’ve kind of turned that corner now. Um, and I’m sure it’s reassuring to some of these hotel companies and investing in some of this, uh, some of this technology knowing that it’s not going to become outdated and maybe two or three years.

Jason Lee: Yeah and I would also say that the value proposition for some of these tech companies, going back to maybe chat bots and AI driven communication with the guest might have to do, you know, the value proposition to the hotel from, from these companies is that you could reduce staff or you don’t need as much staff to handle this. Especially looking at unemployment where it’s at and actually hiring and training staff being really tough if for some in some markets that you could be like, well, you know, this will handle every, everybody who needs something, you know, this, we can have them interact with this way, interact with you guys this way. I think it’s, it’s arrogant to think that guests want that. So you have to really balance tech with what guests are going to use. And then also, and my, this is me probably editorializing the hotel industry in general, but I still believe in hospitality. I still believe in the basic tenants of hospitality where you deliver, um, service, personalized service and, and you know, you still have someone that’s happy to hear from you on the phone that they don’t sound like they’re freaked out when you call them. Uh, you know, and, and that there is that there is actual hospitality and that someone is driving that experience.

Ryan Embree: Yeah. There’s a comfort level there to that. Again, and I completely agree with you. Um, you know, that’s, that’s one thing that um, you know, these tech companies definitely need to keep in mind that, that, that there is a human element involved in this stuff. So, uh, I know we had a really cool keynote. Wanted to get maybe some just final thoughts from you on, on the show, maybe, you know, any like final thoughts?

Jason Lee: Yeah, I think, I just think, you know, as an industry we’re, we’re ever evolving in tech and I think it does come down to creating experiences for guests that want experiences that way. So if you could have a multifacet, if you could afford a way to like reach guests in a bunch of different ways and, and that works for you. I think that, that, that’s, that’s headed there. But I also believe, you know, that in terms of where we’re headed next, I think the, you know, worse, I think it’s really interesting. One of the things he brought up was the, the, you have tech companies entering the brick-and-mortar space, like Amazon buying Whole Foods. Um, and even companies like Warby Parker, um, and, and Casper mattresses setting up retail locations. Um, I think there’s, there’s something fascinating in that in that, that, you know, you can go too far. You can, you can take stuff where you’re at a critical mass with people with their eyes on screens that they might want more of an analog experience from time to time. And I think there is, there’s some lessons in that. And I think, you know, you can’t, you can’t have a virtual hotel. It’s, uh, you, you know, it’s always going to be a brick-and-mortar location. But how a guest accesses you and how a guest experiences, or could imagine their experience with you in pre-stay I think is extremely important and how they interact with you in those early, early stages of booking. And I think that’s where he was getting at. He was getting at some of some of the, the, the pitfalls of companies that go by the wayside, and technologies that go by the wayside are that they don’t evolve fast enough and that they don’t evolve at the pace or they evolve too fast.

Jason Lee: They’re ahead of their time and they’re not at the pace of the consumer. And, uh, I, you know, I still believe that, that all of these technologies that people access for booking, so pre-stay, in-stay, post-stay, um, that, that they’re going to, there’s going to be a consolidation of, of how those technologies are delivered and, and ultimately how a guest’s ingest them. So, so I guess, uh, I don’t know, I don’t know if I’m making any points here, but I do, I’m, I’m a really excited about where we’re headed and I do feel like there is some, there’s some normalization that’s starting to happen in terms of, um, you know, consolidating technologies and making frictionless booking, frictionless in-stay experiences, and then, and then post-stay experiences, you know, that can be shared through social media or, you know, review sites.

Ryan Embree: I agree. I think if we, I think as an industry, if we move too quickly and push all this new technology, you know, on the guest and, you know, but we’re hearing maybe on the other side that we need what we need to disconnect from the screens. We need to disconnect from the technology. Then where are we left? You know, if we’ve implemented all of these, uh, you know, we don’t have anybody else on staff because it’s all, you know, it’s all, uh, you know, you can check in through the app, you don’t need anything like that. But now as you know, from a consumer standpoint, they do want that. They do want that, you know, so I completely agree with you. I think we need to, you know, move with caution but also be very calculated and in the tech decisions we make, but super exciting conference.

Ryan Embree: If you haven’t, you haven’t attended, uh, definitely encourage you to research it. Um, you know, we go on an annual basis, so a lot of great insight for technology and hotels. Jason, I want to thank you for joining me again on this, on this episode and we will see you next time.

Ryan Embree: To join our loyalty program. Be sure to subscribe and give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Suite Spot is produced by Travel Media Group. Our editor is Anne Sandoval with cover art by Bary Gordon and content support by Priscilla Osorio. I’m your host, Ryan Embree, and we hope you enjoyed your stay.

52 episodes