Digital adoption will set next generation of hoteliers apart

By Branigan Mulcahy

It’s no secret that COVID has accelerated our adoption of digital tools to keep us safe and help us become more efficient in many areas of our lives. Yet, many traditional hotel operators remain resistant to change, hesitant to adopt guest-facing digital technologies for fear of lack of adoption or fear of losing their “personal touch.” Meanwhile, there’s a whole set of next-generation hoteliers who are looking digital first—building long-term strategies to improve guest experiences and reduce labor hours.

In 2022, we will see the divide between innovative companies and change-resistant companies growing even wider. We think this split will have critical implications on determining which companies will come out of recovery as leaders, and which will come out as laggards. As the recovery unfolds, those who took an aggressive approach to digital adoption will likely end up as the winners.

Where is the innovation happening?

Innovative brands like Virgin Hotels, The Guild and Club 1 Hotels are pushing boundaries when it comes to technology adoption and digital experiences. Even more forward-thinking, independent hotels and entrepreneurs like The Local, a 20-room motel in Florida, are putting tech at the forefront of their brands and the guest experience. Regardless of property size, brand or style, embracing technology will pay dividends by engaging guests in a more personal and effective way.

For instance, The Local provides a truly contactless, end-to-end digital guest experience with no front desk, as check-in happens via a mobile app. Club 1 Hotels—a membership organization with a hotel management division that currently operates five hotels—also chooses to forgo the front desk and instead utilizes kiosks and a mobile app to register guests. It may be a radical idea for the hotel industry, but these innovative companies are looking outside the industry for inspiration: Short-term rentals, corporate housing and furnished apartments have been at the forefront of a tech-led check-in experience—and it works.

Why will innovative companies win?
Innovation is happening at a faster pace than ever before. Digital tools are changing our everyday experiences—from restaurants and grocery delivery to mobile banking and everything in between. Meanwhile, for myriad reasons, many lodging operators remain hesitant to evolve their offerings.

Here are three reasons why hoteliers who are placing a focus on innovation and digital adoption today will set themselves apart in the near future:

1. Better labor management
Labor shortage issues continue to create profound challenges. Hotels ended 2021 with half a million fewer jobs than at the end of 2020, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA). That means operators have to do more but with skeleton crews. Innovative technology is one way to help hotel managers rise to the challenge as they automate the mundane tasks that don’t require a human.

For example, a check-in kiosk or a mobile app with a digital room key can handle the heavy lifting of the check-in experience so that team members are freed up to complete other important tasks. The tech handles all the procedures that can be automated so operators can focus on providing hospitality through more valuable guest touchpoints, allowing staff to shift from data entry to being guest relationship managers.

That’s even more important today as hotels face high employee turnover. At the end of the day, there’s more resilience in the system when technology is involved. If your front-desk staff doesn’t show up, then is the front desk even really necessary?

2. Ability to drive more revenue
A digital guest experience opens up new opportunities to upsell and increase ancillary spend. What’s more, it leads to increased conversion as the opportunities are right at guests’ fingertips via kiosk or mobile app and can be surfaced in a personalized way.

For instance, if guests want a late checkout, there’s no need for them to pick up the phone and call the front desk. They can go to the app, pick their checkout time and know exactly how much they will pay. Not only does it benefit the operator because a staff member now isn’t called away to complete a task that can easily be automated, but it also provides a more seamless guest experience. Most guests are done with phone calls and long wait times. They want to quickly make their selection on a frictionless channel—and they want to do it at a time that’s convenient for them. Innovative technology makes it quicker and easier. And there are more opportunities to increase revenue when there are fewer barriers.

3. Amplifying the guest experience
All of this leads back to the guest experience. The hotel industry has long talked about the importance of providing a great guest experience—but that conversation hasn’t gone deep enough. The customer journey doesn’t start when a guest arrives at the hotel. It often starts in digital channels, before even booking. But you can’t make decisions about how to improve the guest experience if you don’t have the data to back it up.

Diving deep to learn more about who exactly is booking hotel rooms and what channels they are booking on has always been important to hoteliers. But as we navigate an ongoing pandemic in a constantly changing landscape and see a completely new group of travelers emerging, guest and business segmentation has never been more important. In short, hoteliers need a 360-degree view of their guests in order to provide a seamless omnichannel guest experience that spans all the digital touchpoints through to the on-property ones—and, in turn, builds loyalty.

It’s important to remember that a true omnichannel guest experience will meet guest needs on their own terms. So, for example, mobile check-in will be available for those guests who want to check-in and receive their key before arrival, and a kiosk available for those who may not be as comfortable with mobile apps. Either way, a live person should be available for assistance, whether that’s through a video call or in person.

If you choose to still have an employee on-site handling check-in, technology should perform the heavy lifting on the mundane tasks so that those at the front desk can add to the guest experience. After all, waiting in line at the front desk, and then idling while a front-desk agent punches in numbers on a computer before handing over a room key isn’t truly a hospitality touchpoint. Hoteliers need to balance the human element with the digital and remove as many pain points as possible so they can focus on the touchpoints that matter most.

It’s time to respond to the digital demand
As the world continues to change, hotel operators must be agile so they can adapt quickly. Digital adoption will set the next generation of hoteliers apart. Your customers have already adapted to a new world. They are looking to you to continue to innovate and make their experience better. Now’s the time to act, or be left behind.

Branigan Mulcahy cofounded Virdee in 2020 to help building owners provide visitors with seamless digital interactions by way of unified access, visitor authentication and remote assistance. Before cofounding Virdee, he spent 10-plus years in the real estate and lodging space, most recently at The Guild, building boutique hotel experiences within well-located multi-family and commercial properties.

This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.