Contactless Tech in Hospitality 2020

by Wouter Geerts + Skift Team - Sep 2020

Skift Research Take

All the contactless tech that is receiving so much buzz in the hotel industry today pre-dates the current crisis. So it might not be revolutionary tech, but the impact on guest experience and engagement will certainly outlast the pandemic.

Report Overview

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of new technologies in the hotel industry, with contactless tech offerings at the forefront. Contactless technology offers hotels opportunities to reopen or continue operations in a responsible and safe way. But the impact of the adoption of these technologies will outlast this crisis.

The need for more contactless technology in hotels is clear when looking at the plethora of surveys pointing this out. In this report we add in two ways to the discussion.

Firstly, we discuss the efficacy and longevity of contactless technologies, particularly in light of ever changing consumer demands, and the issues with aging hotel technology which pre-date the current pandemic.

Secondly, we provide a clear and unbiased overview of the contactless tech that is available, discussing their advantages and drawbacks. We provide a market map which highlights 50 key tech vendors that are innovating the space, and we visualize the interactions between different types of technology used in hotels.

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • What surveys tell us about the need for more contactless tech in hotels.
  • The main types of contactless tech, their advantages and drawbacks.
  • Where contactless tech sits in the larger hotel tech stack.
  • Which contactless technologies will stick, and which might falter.
  • What the contactless tech vendor landscape looks like, and 50 vendors that are bringing contactless innovation to the hotel industry.

Executives Interviewed

  • Daan de Bruijn - Founder and CEO at Bookboost
  • Gertjan Dewaele - Product Director Innovation, Airline & Travel at Ingenico ePayments
  • Michael Driedger - CEO at Operto
  • Jason Dumas - Founder and CEO at Wireless Guardian
  • Patrick Dunphy - Chief Information Officer at HTNG
  • Tristan Gadsby - Founder and CEO at Alliants
  • Julie Grieve - Founder and CEO at Criton
  • Benjamin Jost - Co-founder and CEO at TrustYou
  • Eric Liebman - Global Head of Travel at Ingenico ePayments
  • Patrick Lomsdalen - Founder and CEO at Flexipass
  • David Mezuman - Co-founder and CEO at Wishbox
  • Casper Overbeek - Director of Customer Experience at CitizenM
  • Andrew Pirret - Vice President Product at Alliants
  • Stefan Renziehausen - Executive Director Operations at SABA Hospitality
  • Rahul Salgia - Founder and CEO at Digivalet
  • Jonathan Springford - Commercial Director at 4Suites
  • John Stojka - Co-founder at Sertifi
  • Selina Strobel - Marketing Manager at Code2Order
  • Byron Webster - Executive Director Sales & Marketing at SABA Hospitality
  • Matthijs Welle - CEO at Mews

Executive Summary

Contactless interactions have become crucial to the successful operation of a hotel during these times of crisis. Surveys are showing that guests want it, and hoteliers realize it. The result is a major jump in the uptake of contactless technology.

Most of the contactless technology that is being adopted now pre-dates the pandemic. Don’t expect much innovation to come out of this crisis as tech vendors and hotels are struggling to survive.

There are four popular types of technology which are seeing high levels of adoption at the moment:

Contactless payments: Most hotels still rely too heavily on credit card payments, when users increasingly want to use other forms of payment. This goes beyond accepting digital payments like Apple Pay or Google Pay, which really are just mobile wallets for physical credit cards. True alternative forms of payment, like Paypal, WeChat Pay, and AliPay are on the rise and offer prepaid opportunities for hotels.

Guest engagement tools: Messaging volumes have increased as hoteliers need to provide more health and safety information, while guests need a channel to request services. Linking these tools to workflow and staff collaboration tools releases their true potential.

Online check-in or self-service kiosks: Another technology that was pioneered years ago, but has become the standard addition — or integration — to property management systems since the crisis started. There is a reason this did not necessarily catch on before, as there are a lot of things to check and collect before someone can go to their room. Providing a clear tool, and where possible adopt a less convoluted approach, will enhance usability and increase conversion.

Keyless entry: The main discussion with keyless entry revolves around which technology will win. Most vendors today use Bluetooth technology which requires an app download, and needs the user to put their phone on the physical door lock. This has its drawbacks, and there are therefore other technologies being introduced, based on near-field communication technology or radio-frequency identification. It is likely that different technologies will continue to exist, especially since changing systems is a capital-heavy decision. Hoteliers, however, should be aware of the particulars of these systems when making their choice.

The adoption of the technologies set out above will add to the debate on the intrinsic nature of the hospitality industry: is it a human or technology driven industry. This debate will undoubtedly continue, but we look positively at the notion that the rise in adoption of contactless technology could be another push towards finding a healthy equilibrium between the use of advanced technology in a human-centred industry.

The real power of contactless technology might lie in the additional data and knowledge that hoteliers can gather from these tools. Contactless technology might not be as revolutionary as some make it out to be — it is mostly old tech after all — but its impact can be far reaching.


The Rapid Rise of Touchless Hotel Stays

We don’t need to spend much time analyzing how the current pandemic and its fallout have changed consumer behavior. Just look at the growth of home delivery while physical shops and restaurants are struggling.

Amazon saw second quarter revenues up by 40% compared to 2019. Uber’s delivery business — which includes Uber Eats, Uber Connect, and Uber Freight — was its saving grace, with gross bookings of Uber Delivery growing 113% year-over-year in the second quarter.

Shopping has been moving online for many years now, but it was certainly bolstered in the past months, with the Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce estimating that e-commerce sales in the U.S. grew by 44.5% during Q2, compared to Q2 2019.

Communication has also been forced online, as traveling has become fraught with uncertainty and fear. Companies like Zoom have benefited, seeing its share price rising from just under $69 on January 2nd to $458 on September 1st. A company with around 10 million daily users in December 2019, it is now counting over 300 million users each day.

Questions remain whether behavior changes initiated by the pandemic will last, and it is true that Zoom-fatigue might be a real thing. But there is no question that under the current circumstances, online shopping and virtual meetings offer a safer experience than the in-person alternative. The idea of being able to do these things without coming in contact with other customers is an attractive one.

In-person interaction is and will return as things get safer, but it is surely also true that the touchless experience, where it improves social or commercial interactions, will persist.

This is the idea behind a major push in the hospitality industry to adopt touchless or contactless technologies. Contactless tech is in a boom phase right now.

The importance of contactless interactions

Before we take a look at the types of contactless technology that hotels are implementing, it is important to place this issue in the broader travel landscape we are currently faced with.

COVID has completely upended the hotel industry, with many hotels closing temporarily, and some permanently. As the large majority of hotels have now luckily reopened, guest and staff safety has become the prime concern for hoteliers.

Cleaning protocols are front and center to ensure that the chance of infection in hotel properties is minimal. Many hotel booking sites have played into the notion that health and safety has become much more important to travelers as well. Booking.com, for example, has added a “properties that take health & safety measures” filter to its search results.

Deloitte Digital undertook a number of consumer surveys between April and July 2020, and found that 41% of respondents wanted to receive information outlining cleaning protocols. More importantly, 70% expects hand sanitizer to be available in hotel properties, and 79% of guests would feel more comfortable if provided with sanitizing wipes. 44% of hotel guests would prefer to take cleaning into their own hands during their stay, foregoing daily housekeeping services.

Next to added cleaning protocols, hotels in some areas like the United Kingdom or New York City are now also required to track and trace their guests. This has resulted in companies like Stampede or DoorSentinels to jump in and offer tech solutions to help hoteliers in this new requirement.

Some destinations have also recommended hotels should check guest and staff temperatures. Wireless Guardian CEO Jason Dumas told Skift Research that inquiries into their thermal cameras — which measure temperatures of anyone walking into the lobby and can automatically notify people with a raised temperature — had increased “drastically.”

With the added focus on health and safety, and social distancing, vacation rentals have been better placed to weather the current storm. Rentals tend to offer travelers more secluded alternatives to crowded hotel lobbies and elevators, although a recent Skift Research survey found that more travelers trust the cleaning protocols of branded hotels than any other type of accommodation.

Exhibit 1: Travel accommodation safety credentials are of prime importance

Contactless technology can add to the feeling of safety, especially as it allows for easier social distancing. A recent Skift and Oracle Hospitality survey found that increasing the frequency of cleaning (60% of respondents) was the most important change to make travelers feel more comfortable when staying in a hotel, but technology also contributed considerably. Contactless payments (35%), mobile room keys (26%), self-service check-in kiosks (23%), and digital messaging to avoid contact with staff (20%) were all significant factors.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) states in its safety guidelines that the use of “technology to reduce direct contact with guests, lobby population and front desk queue is encouraged, where feasible. In addition, contactless payment processes are encouraged, and when not available, employees should minimize contact as much as possible.”

While contactless tech might have been a “nice to have” — or a brand-driven feature — before the pandemic, its implementation is now more urgent.

Consumer sentiments around hotel tech are changing

Surveys have shown the growing expectation of technology during the hotel stay for some years now. Admittedly, most of these surveys are undertaken by companies with vested interests in bringing technology to the hotel space, and results can vary wildly based on how respondents are asked the question, but on average there is undoubtedly a growing hunger for hotels to offer the types of technologies that consumers use in their everyday lives.

According to a pre-pandemic study by Hospitality Technology, 72% of guests are more likely to return to a hotel if it has the technology they expect. According to a study by mobile key vendor OpenKey, technologies that guests expect from hotels include mobile payment facilities (66% of respondents), keyless entry (54%), and to a lesser extent in-room technology like iPads to control room features (27%) or voice assistants like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant (24%).

Since the pandemic, studies have shown that these expectations have seemingly increased. The aforementioned Deloitte Digital study found that at present, 60% of travelers prefer a hotel that offers contactless check-in and keyless room entry, and 57% want the ability to access guestroom controls and communicate with staff via their smartphone or a voice assistant. In a similar vein, Travelport found that 58% of hotel guests would like a contactless check-in/out option.

Criton, best known as a hotel app builder, did studies in March and August 2020, and although there were few comparable questions asked in both surveys, the main takeaway from the studies was that the willingness to download a hotel app increased from 73% to 80% during the COVID months. Respondents likely to use their mobile phone for room entry also increased slightly from 71% to 73% according to this study.

Focus on touchless, not frictionless

It is certainly not the case that hoteliers were dragging their heels when it came to adopting new contactless tools before the pandemic. Only look at some of the largest hotel franchises like Marriott and Hilton, and their efforts to adopt keyless entry or in-room technology which started rolling out in the mid-2010s.

An annual survey by Hospitality Technology showed that in 2017, only 15% of hoteliers saw themselves as leaders in the guest-facing technology space. This increased to 50% by 2019, highlighting the focus hoteliers have put on this in the past years. Barriers to faster adoption, however, included a lack of budget (45%), concerns around security and privacy (33%), and the inability to integrate with existing systems (31%).

These are all fair reasons to postpone the implementation of new technology. Just consider the costs associated with changing all door locks, or changing to a new property management system (PMS) which might be more self-service friendly. But the pandemic has provided contactless tech vendors with a new trick to pull out of their marketing hat.

Up to the beginning of this year, contactless tech was marketed as a way to reduce friction for travelers, although there was — and still is — a lively discussion in the hotel world on whether it is a good thing to try and reduce friction using technology in a human-driven industry. Today, contactless tech is less about reducing friction, and instead marketed as reducing touch and thereby increasing safety. It offers a way to reopen and operate hotels in a safe manner with limited human interaction. All of a sudden, it has found many willing hoteliers.

The aforementioned survey conducted in the middle of the pandemic by Skift and Oracle Hospitality, tracked views from both travelers and hoteliers, showing how hoteliers are on par with guests when it comes to their understanding of the importance of self-service tech.

Exhibit 2: Oracle and Skift study highlights importance of contactless tech

CEOs of major hotel chains are now also uniformly talking about their efforts. Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of Hyatt, for example, said during the company’s second quarter earnings call that Hyatt is “working hard to allow our guests to control their experience by completing the rollout of our enhanced digital engagement options including digital check-in, keyless entry, and housekeeping preferences. … Mobile food and beverage ordering will also be available at all participating hotels in the coming months.”

Chris Nassetta, CEO of Hilton Hotels, has highlighted their past investments in technology, and how that has benefited the company throughout this crisis. IHG CEO Keith Barr noted the major investment the company made a few years back to build a new tech stack called IHG Concerto, which allowed the company to swiftly add key contactless features.

Leeny Oberg, CFO at Marriott, might have provided the most interesting insight into the long term financial benefits of more tech-enabled stays. She said during Marriott’s second quarter call: “A lot of the work right now is focused on lowering the breakeven at these lower levels of demand. So whether you’re doing things more flexibly around how you’re managing certain departments, all the kind of contactless [technology] work that Arne [Sorenson, CEO of Marriott] was talking about, using technology that will change the way the guests interact with the hotel team, all of those things are tremendously helpful. We’ve reduced the breakeven occupancy by 300 to 500 basis points [3-5%] around the world. And that should be helpful in the much longer run.”

The Contactless Tech Landscape

Old tech in a new light

Contactless technology for the hotel industry has been around for a good few years. When Skift Research spoke to Jos Schaap, founder and former CEO of hotel PMS StayNTouch last year, he remembered how he started StayNTouch in 2012 to be more mobile and iPad friendly, so hotel staff could move away from behind the front desk.

The inclusion of self-service solutions for mobile and kiosk-based check-in was an important pillar of StayNTouch, according to Schaap. He said: “One of the things I thought I would see happen in the future is that guests would do more and more themselves with the PMS without realizing it. Everybody is so used to doing things themselves, on a smartphone or on a kiosk at the airport, so I thought if I can build a PMS that can run on devices for consumers, it would make life a lot easier for hoteliers down the road.”

StayNTouch was one of the first cloud-based PMS providers that successfully moved to a more mobile and self-service interface, and many others have followed.

Smartphones as contactless enablers

A number of tech advancements allowed StayNTouch, and other hotel tech vendors, to offer products which could compete with incumbent technology used in hotels for decades. Cloud computing and the advancements in network speed were certainly important, but especially for contactless technology, the improvements and proliferation of handheld devices over the past 10 years or so has had a major impact on how technology is used in society, and the hotel space.

Today, there are 3.5 billion smartphone users worldwide, almost 45% of the global population. This is up from 2.5 billion only 4 years ago. eMarketer estimates that 2020 will see 2.7 billion active users of messaging apps globally. This is offering a myriad of opportunities for hoteliers to tap into.

One area where COVID has already had an impact is the use of QR codes, with smartphone users scanning a matrix barcode with their phone camera, which automatically opens a website, app, or payment portal.

At least in the western world — as QR codes have had great penetration in Asia for years — QR codes have moved from gimmick to real utility in a matter of weeks. “If you would have talked to someone in Europe about QR codes six months ago, some people would have seen it, but the large majority has not ever used it once. Now there is a shift, right. Everyone knows what a QR code does and how that works. That is the result of the pandemic,” said Stefan Renziehausen of SABA Hospitality.

Hotel guests can scan QR codes to open the check-in website, or to go to the app store to download the hotel app. QR codes are used for room service, providing restaurant menus (like with this Tripadvisor tool), and directing guests to the ordering page. Requesting housekeeping can be done by scanning a QR code. Guests are asked to leave instant reviews of their stay using QR codes, and so forth. The QR code allows hoteliers to better utilize the technology that every guest has in their pocket today.

Native apps, app clips, and progressive web apps

One area that, since the proliferation of the smartphone, has been a contentious point is whether guests are willing to download a hotel app in order to receive an enhanced hotel experience. Also here, some changes are afoot, although COVID has little to do with it.

App technology has been around for more than a decade, but it has always been the question whether people are willing to download an app if they only stay in a hotel once or twice. A select few major hotel chains, often with strong loyalty programs, have been very successful in building their apps and using them to engage with their customers beyond the hotel stay.

CitizenM has launched its own app during COVID. With strong brand recognition, CitizenM has adopted an app-first strategy, promoting the app as a way for its regular guests to have the best experience. Casper Overbeek, director of customer experience at CitizenM said that “the big challenge is not only [getting guests to] download the app, but also how you stay on the first three or four screens in the phone.” The company does not solely rely on app downloads, and provides tablets in each bedroom so guests can access the features nonetheless.

We see many hotel tech startups moving away from app technology in favor of progressive web apps, a technology which has become faster over the past few years, boosting its uptake. A progressive web app is nothing more than having a native app experience in a web browser, including notifications and offline availability.

That is not to say that apps have no value. They offer a way for hotels to offer all their services in one place, and potentially allow for better outreach and data collection. More specifically for hotels, many door lock manufacturers that offer mobile keys work with Bluetooth technology. This requires a secure connection, which currently can only be provided through an app, whether that’s a proprietary hotel app or a third-party app like Flexipass.

Here also, however, we start to see alternatives, with 4Suites for example offering IoT-locks, which allows guests to open locks through a progressive web app. This does have the potential drawback of needing an internet connection.

To app or not to app will be a discussion that is set to continue for now. One interesting development which might sway hoteliers and guests one way or another is the recent introduction of app clips on Apple devices with its iOS14 operating system release, something Android has already offered for a while now. Tristan Gadsby of Alliants called it a “middle ground” between a full app download and a website. Using a QR code, users can launch a small snippet of an app without the need to download the full app. This could become a great way for hotels to introduce their app to their guests, and offer a limited number of services that live in their app without forcing guests to download the full app. Whether and how this will catch on remains to be seen.

Four popular types of contactless tech

Let’s highlight the most important contactless technologies that have seen increased uptake during the pandemic, and discuss some of their main characteristics and challenges.

We will discuss four main technologies that have already been touched upon earlier in this report: online or self-service check-in, keyless entry, guest engagement tools including messaging and online ordering, and mobile payments. In discussions with industry experts these were put forward consistently as the technologies being adopted most by hoteliers.

The Skift and Oracle survey showed that many hoteliers have already implemented these technologies or are considering doing so in the near future.

Exhibit 3: Adoption rate of most popular contactless technologies

Contactless Payments

According to the survey results above, adding contactless payment options had the highest uptake amongst hoteliers. This was also put forward by Operto CEO Michael Driedger, who, since the pandemic started, had noticed that “most of the hotel companies realized that their biggest barrier to going contactless was their payment providers, because a lot of payment providers require them to physically collect credit cards. But I think during COVID they all solved this, they realized that was a huge problem, and they switched over their financing partners.”

Digital payments have increased rapidly since the millennium. Paypal was launched in 1999, Chinese giant Alibaba introduced AliPay four years later. WeChat Pay became available through WeChat in 2013, now having more than 800 million active monthly users.

Apple launched its Apple Pay app in 2014, and Google launched Android Pay, now called Google Pay, a year later. While these apps function as a wallet for physical credit cards, rather than a true alternative form of payment, Apple and Google Pay initiated a change in authentication requirements, where a biometric scan is used to authenticate the user, rather than an autograph or PIN code.

According to McKinsey, global revenues for all these types of digital payments were $1.8 trillion in 2018, and are predicted to climb to $2.7 trillion by 2023. This growing demand for digital payments offers great opportunities for hoteliers, but according to Eric Liebman, global head of travel at Ingenico ePayments, “most hotels are historically aligned just with only the major card brands; they use the four biggest card schemes: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and [a national provider like] Discover [in the U.S.] or JCB [in Japan].”

While older terminals in retail or hotel settings were built around credit cards, with swipe or chip technology, newer terminals now can provide QR codes for users of WeChat or AliPay to scan, or can even transact a direct bank transfer. While this opens up avenues to attract more customers, digital payments offer even bigger opportunities before the stay.

Liebman’s colleague and product director of innovation at Ingenico ePayments, Gertjan Dewaele highlighted how alternative forms of payment allow hotels to address customers who can’t, or don’t want to pay with credit cards. Just as importantly, allowing customers to book using alternative methods also provides a strong pre-paid alternative to credit cards, “which gives you the money in the bank the moment the customer reserves, while with credit cards you only get the money when the customer checks out.”

Especially in these times of uncertainty, this could result in a very different relationship with customers. Most hotels will have had to deal with high rates of cancellations, many of which involved no upfront payment. Airlines or cruise lines, in contrast, tend to take payment as soon as tickets are booked, and therefore were able to offer travel vouchers. Whether this resulted in the best customer service can be debated, but it certainly keeps the customer engaged with the brand, with fewer lost revenues.

Guest Engagement Tools

Guest messaging has grown in popularity as face-to-face interactions have become an issue, and tools to manage online messaging have seen one of the highest uptakes according to the Skift and Oracle survey. A pre-pandemic Hotel Technology survey also found that 45% of hoteliers said that this was the top priority for their guest-facing technology investments in 2020.

Skift Research covered guest engagement, and the messaging tools available on the market in An Expanded View of Hotel Loyalty Tech 2019.

Today, guest messaging can happen through native apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, or other local third-party apps, but also through hotels’ own in-app solutions, and voice assistants in hotel rooms. Chatbots are increasingly utilized to answer many of the questions and requests sent by guests.

Beyond the increasing uptake of messaging tools, voice assistants, and chatbots, there are some further developments which can be attributed to the current crisis.

  • The amount of messaging has gone up. With additional regulations, safety protocols, and the hotel wanting to ensure guests feel safe during their stay, this is not a surprise. With room service or housekeeping requests now managed more this way, guests might also be forced to use messaging services more to access amenities.

    Tristan Gadsby of Alliants, a guest engagement and messaging solutions provider said that “although occupancy is way down, we’ve actually seen the volumes of messaging with our customers remain almost the same as [normal] peak levels.” Other vendors confirmed that they had also seen more interactions between guests and hotel staff. Although procedures and protocols might revert back to ‘normal’ eventually, it is likely that messaging services will remain an integral part of guest engagement moving forward.

  • Food and beverage ordering is having its moment. Room service menus used to be found in paper directories, ordering was done using the in-room telephone. Paper is now a hazard, as are in-room telephones. Hotel restaurants are mostly closed, and not a viable alternative either. Food ordering tools have stepped into the void.

    When asked which app features were most used by hotel guests, CEO Julie Grieve of app-builder and guest engagement vendor Criton said that health and safety information was certainly a popular read, “but my god, do they want to order food through their phone,” she added.

  • A breakthrough for voice? Up to recently, Amazon had a leg up over main competitor Google when it came to getting its voice assistants into hotel rooms. Amazon introduced Alexa for Hospitality in 2018 to better accommodate the needs of hoteliers, and it was not until the end of August 2020 that Google finally jumped in as well. Both players will look at the current pandemic as a way of getting hotels to adopt their voice technology in hotel rooms, aiding contactless interactions.

    Voice technology, however, needs to be trained, and especially Google Assistant has so far had very little training in a hotel setting. Google and Amazon will be betting on companies specialized in travel voice assistants like Volara, to help train their technology. This will take a while, and unless Amazon and Google put more effort behind it, large scale uptake will remain unlikely.

  • Messaging provides real-time feedback from guests. This is not necessarily a COVID-related trend, but feedback is now more important than ever. The best way to get — and more importantly, keep track of — feedback is through a review and messaging tool.

    While feedback forms were filled out on paper sheets in the hotel room, or were emailed to the guest after their stay, messaging tools allow for far more instantaneous feedback, allowing hoteliers to make up for shortcomings while the guest is still in the hotel. Benjamin Jost, CEO of TrustYou said that since they introduced in-stay communication tools, they have seen volumes of in-stay feedback as high as four times as much as the feedback they would collect through post-stay reviews.

Online and Self-Service Check-In

Online check-in, or self-service check-in at a kiosk in the hotel lobby, is one of the most popular technology introductions since the start of the pandemic. Tripadvisor now even allows guests to rate the contactless check-in experience in their hotel review.

Exhibit 4: Tripadvisor asks guests to review the contactless check-in/out experience

Without fail, the traditional way of checking in guests involves close person-to-person interaction which hotels are looking to eliminate. Many PMSs already had, or have since the start of the pandemic, released online or self-service solutions. It is easier for cloud-based systems to offer this service, as older PMSs tend to be locked into mainframe connections or are installed on specific computers.

Some players have opted for in-lobby kiosks, while others provide a completely online solution. Many provide both. Some have to be completed through an app, while others use progressive web applications.

Third-party providers like Sertifi — best known for their e-signature solutions — have also entered this space, offering an online check-in service which can integrate with hotel PMS systems, and offer this service to hotels with PMSs that do not offer it themselves.

Uptake results seem mixed, and will likely just as much depend on hoteliers and how much they push the solution, but we can pick out two property management providers who introduced online check-in tools during the pandemic — although both had already started developing them before the pandemic. Guestline told Skift Research that their new online check-in features was used by between 25% and 60% of guests, depending on the hotel.

Mews CEO Matthijs Welle said that he had expected online check-in or self-service check-ins through their kiosks to skyrocket, but “we were previously doing between 15% and 20% of customers who checked themselves in, [and] I would have thought that would be 50 to 60% now. Well, you’re looking at like 20% to 25% [today].”

This shows there might still be a lot of demand for in-person check-ins. Michael Driedger of Operto highlighted why this is the case. “It takes a lot of training to train front desk staff, and now you’ve taken that person away, [and] turned it around to someone who’s never done it before.” He noted that people get frustrated and overwhelmed at kiosks as you need to do many things at once.

This is why online check-in seems to have taken off. It is not just so people don’t have to stand in line for an available kiosk, but also because the hotel can space out the different steps required to check-in to the room. Providing personal details, setting payment instructions, identity verification, receiving a room key etc.; all these steps can be done before the guest walks into the hotel lobby.

This has become even more important now, with extra safety protocols and additional requirements around track and trace or temperature checks. Driedger noted how the amount of interaction and data that needs to be captured has actually increased dramatically, and how the guest experience, as they walk into the hotel, can become very “data entry heavy” if it is not spaced out by the hotel beforehand.

Keyless Entry

Keyless entry, or using your smartphone to open the hotel room, was the least popular option amongst hoteliers according to the Skift and Oracle survey, likely because it would involve the largest capital expenditure from their side.

That said, according to Patrick Dunphy, chief information officer at hotel technology association HTNG, “you’re seeing a lot of the major hotel brands picking up their pace or increasing the velocity of their deployments,” including compatible locks increasingly becoming part of brand requirements.

Marriott franchise disclosure agreements seen by Skift Research indeed require franchisees to purchase compatible locks for its Mobile Key feature, estimated at around $75 to $220 per lock according to the agreement. On top they are required to pay a software and support fee of around $8 to $11 per room per year, and purchase a separate server to store guest entry information, estimated to cost between $10,000 and $16,000.

There are a few big hardware providers on the market, with Assa Abloy the largest. The company is the main provider for major companies like Marriott, counting over seven million hotel rooms with its locks. Other major players for keyless locks are Dormakaba and Salto Systems.

Locks from these providers work with Bluetooth technology, and guests need to download an app to allow for smartphone entry. These providers provide their own apps, but there are also specialized players like Flexipass or Zaplox who help hotels with setup, integration in the property management system, and provide a more customized app.

As already mentioned before, Bluetooth is the most used technology for keyless entry, but not without its doubters. Casper Overbeek of CitizenM said the company did many tests and decided “in the end we don’t want to go for an in-app functionality.” He believed it is “simply not convenient if you have your hands full with stuff like your luggage or whatever, and then need to open the app to click a button.”

Operto’s Michael Driedger, a keyless entry provider for hotels and short-term rentals, said that systems that require an app and use Bluetooth technology have seen low uptake because they are too complicated. “You need to physically take your phone and put it straight up to the door because the Bluetooth connection has to be made, but the app has to be on and Bluetooth needs to be on. So there’s many little things that can go wrong, that make it such that you can’t open the door, which is why the adoption rate at a guest level has been so low historically.”

Operto works with locks with keypads, providing guests with a code to enter, something which might be more expected by guests in rentals than hotels. CitizenM has found a middleground, using NFC-technology (near-field communication) where guests use their phone as their key, but don’t need to open an app.

Another alternative to Bluetooth-enabled locks are locks provided by 4Suites. These locks are connected to the cloud using internet of things (IoT) technology, and this connection to the cloud is used to open the door. Rather than needing an app, this method can work through a progressive web app, but does need an internet connection. This could be a problem in more remote locations.

Each hotelier will make up her or his own mind, and decide which technology solution works best for them.

Contactless Tech Vendor Map

Exhibit 5: 50 contactless tech vendors making waves

The True Impact of Contactless Tech – A Discussion

Having set out reasons for adoption of contactless technology, and the most popular types of tech presently seeing rapid uptake, in this final part of the report we will discuss some key takeaways from our conversations with industry experts.

Contactless tech will be less important than it seems now

This is a big statement to kick things off with. To clarify, it is clear that almost every hotel will eventually adopt some or all of the contactless technologies set out above. This is clearly a growth area with a lot of room to grow.

We believe, however, that surveys or success cases stating the importance of these technologies to guests should be read with a pinch of salt. Not only will the importance of contactless interactions undoubtedly diminish over the coming years, guests generally overstate the importance of hotel features when asked.

A case in point is a 2018 research paper published in the Cornell Hospitality Report, which shows that the vast majority of guests ‘overpredict’ what hotel amenities they will actually use. The authors surveyed 724 hotel guests staying in 33 different U.S. based hotels, questioning them before their stay about their anticipated use of hotel amenities, and then again afterwards about their actual use of amenities. Below we have visualized a selection of the findings.

Exhibit 6: Most hotel amenities are used less than expected by guests

The results show that we should be careful when assuming that the uptake of these new contactless technologies will be universal, even when guests say they want them in surveys. And when we consider the presence of these technologies as a determining factor in booking a hotel, their impact is likely to be even lower.

Of course, anticipating that there is free WiFi, or a seamless check-in process, could certainly impact booking behavior, but countless studies have found that price, location, and possibly brand, always trump any other factors. And considering the race is on for most hotels to implement these systems, the competitive advantage for hotels with contactless tech will soon be lost.

McKinsey introduced an interesting framework in a recent article to evaluate which COVID induced consumer trends and behaviors — and which technologies as an extension of that — will be here to stay, and which will likely fade. We can apply this to contactless technologies in the hotel space. Below is our view, but with the ever-changing situation this is very much an opinionated stance. Everyone should determine for themselves how they see different technologies evolve, and make decisions based on that.

Exhibit 7: Evaluating the future potential of contactless technologies

The human vs tech debate will continue

With the discussion above we do not try to discourage hoteliers from adopting these new technologies. Even if 20% of guests want to use mobile keys, it is important to cater to this group.

However, it is also important to consider how to communicate with guests who would rather have a physical key card. Matthijs Welle of Mews put it succinctly: “you need to figure out who [the] customers are [that want information and want to use the latest tech], then over-communicate to those customers. But at the same time, figure out who actually doesn’t care that much about it. And then how do you communicate less? Because it’s an annoyance to those customers who don’t really want to be bothered with it.”

The human vs technology debate is a classic one in the hospitality industry, and contactless tech will just be another avenue to continue this discussion. On one side of the divide are the tech proponents, who feel that travelers are now so used to technology in their daily lives or through the airline experience, with self-check-in for your flight and staffless luggage drop off, that they will expect the same at a hotel. On the other side are those who see the hospitality industry as a human-driven industry that is all about human interaction and connections.

Both sides have merits, and we therefore believe that hotels need to find a balance between tech deployment and human interaction. Contactless tech can be a perfect addition to finding this middleground.

Hoteliers should be careful not to overshoot in their use of technology. Completely contactless and staffless hotels work in certain settings — predominantly in Asia — but in general technology should help to improve the human interactions staff have with guests. This is the old cliche you will have heard and read many times, but that does not make it less true. It is easy to look at the current situation and feel that the hospitality industry has gone down the road of full tech adoption with no way to return, but this seems unlikely. Human interaction will remain important.

This is crystallized in a Travelport survey which found that 45% of respondents want access to their booking details on their smartphones 24/7, but almost the same amount of travelers (42%) hate it when there is no human to talk to about problems with a booking. It’s a mix of tech and human that wins the day.

Hoteliers should consider a number of questions before adopting contactless technologies:

  • Does the technology we are looking to implement really improve the guest experience? This is an important question, but too strategically inclined. Considering it in terms of the interaction guests have with hotel amenities, or hotel staff, can make this a more tactical exercise, and provide clearer answers.
  • Just as important is to ask how contactless technologies will impact hotel staff. How will it change the interactions with guests, and with fellow staff members? How much training is needed to learn new systems? This is especially important now that many hotels have thinned out staffing levels, and employees coming back from furlough.
  • What tools and solutions are available on the market, and who are the vendors providing them? Can these systems integrate with our current systems and how (easily)?
  • What is the return on investment? Having the latest technology or innovative solutions will not always be economically viable, and it is often the most efficient systems that catch on first. This is why we see guest messaging platforms, which work with a Software as a Service business model against a low monthly fee, registering higher uptake than mobile lock manufacturers, where there is still a major debate on which systems work best and require a high upfront investment. Just be aware in answering this question to take into consideration results which are hard to quantify in monetary value. Greater guest engagement through messaging services might result in happier guests, resulting indirectly in more return visits. Messaging volumes is a strong indicator of successful tech adoption

No true innovation when budgets are restrained

The pandemic has certainly pushed hoteliers to adopt new technology at a rate which would normally have taken years. David Mezuman, CEO of Wishbox said he believes that “we’ll see a completely different experience in many of the hotels worldwide.”

While this is likely true, we would caution against expecting any true innovation to come out of this crisis. Every crisis has some winners and contactless tech providers will undoubtedly be part of that group coming out of this crisis. But as we have already set out earlier in this report, much of the technology adopted now is old tech seen in a new light.

With budgets restrained, it is unlikely that real innovation will come out of this crisis. A recent study shows that of the almost 500 hotels surveyed about the impact of COVID, 42% said they cut technology budgets, and 53% were forced to ask for relief from their lenders. 41% asked for relief from their tech vendors.

Hotels budgets will be tight, but this research highlights something not often mentioned: it is not just hoteliers that have been hit hard by the current crisis. Many tech vendors have also been forced to furlough staff. Tech vendors have had to reduce R&D spending, have lost talent, and have had to make tough decisions on which projects to put on hold.

We will see evolutions in how technology, and particularly contactless technology, is used in hotels, but no real revolutions in how hoteliers operate or what tech is available to them.

True potential lies in the backend

The real revolution might happen behind the scenes, and even this is a process that has been going on for years. The pandemic has provided another major push for tech vendors to work together and integrate their systems to better accommodate the needs of hoteliers.

We have extensively discussed issues with integrating systems, especially when legacy PMSs are involved, in the Hotel Property Management Systems Landscape 2019 report. Many online check-in solutions have been launched by PMS vendors themselves, but third-party check-in solutions, as well as keyless entry vendors, mobile payment providers, and messaging services all tend to need an integration with the PMS to operate successfully.

The Hotel PMS Landscape report concludes: “In the past decade we have seen major changes in technology, which have ushered in a new era of PMS infrastructure, functionality, and vendor collaboration. Cloud computing, open API connectivity, marketplaces, and middleware layers are shaking up the sector. PMSs now find themselves in a position where they can start offering hoteliers a system that truly works for them, allowing for a mobile-first and less rigid approach.”

It is good to see newer players offering faster and cheaper integrations, while middleware players like Impala and Hapi can connect many different tech vendors through a single integration with them. Oracle Hospitality, one of the most prominent incumbents in the PMS space, held a successful innovation week at the start of the pandemic and seems to have really turned over a new leaf when it comes to working with other tech vendors.

This will benefit hoteliers, as the power of much of the contactless technology relies on its ability to connect to other systems. Think of a food and beverage ordering system. This system either has a built-in messaging function, or would likely need to be integrated with one, as well as with a payment platform and a workflow system. This will allow the guest to pay using their smartphone when ordering, while the system sends a message to the kitchen with the order, and tells room service staff to get ready to deliver the food when ready.

Similarly, guests have become more wary of having housekeepers enter their room, and so many hotels are looking to link their messaging tools with housekeeping tools, in an effort to ensure that staff only enters the room when requested.

But the potential is greater. Data capture and sharing between tech solutions could completely alter the hotel experience, where messaging tools and check-in systems or keyless entry systems can share data to send messages at exactly the right time; when a guest has checked in, or right after they enter their room.

This way, the hospitality industry could move closer to its true potential: an industry built on human interaction, underpinned by data driven decisions.

Conclusions

The pandemic has accelerated the switching of tech vendors, and adoption of new technologies. Contactless technology offers hotels opportunities to reopen or continue operations in a responsible and safe way. But the impact of the adoption of these technologies will outlast this crisis.

Most contactless tech, and especially the four buckets highlighted in this report — mobile payments, keyless entry, online and self-service check-in, and guest engagement tools — will evolve and continue to be used. A debate about the nature of the hospitality industry, and how technology fits into this, has been going on for decades. The rise in adoption of contactless technology could be another push towards finding a healthy equilibrium between the tech advocates and doubters.

The real power of contactless technology might lie in the additional data and knowledge that hoteliers can gather from these tools. So long we have been talking about the losing battle that hoteliers are fighting against big tech companies like Google, Booking Holdings, and the Expedia Group, which have all the consumer data in hand. The direct booking movement is one way to win back some of that consumer engagement, but up to now so many hoteliers were unable to make the most of the interactions with guests when they were at the hotel. Contactless tech provides an avenue and opportunity for hotels to better build — and track — that bond.

Competition to hotels also comes from alternative forms of accommodation, with particularly vacation rentals performing well during the crisis, as mentioned earlier in this report. Vacation rentals have historically been better at adopting new technologies like guest messaging, online check-in and keyless entry. The current crisis might close this gap, and hoteliers will find themselves on a more even technological footing with vacation rentals as we move ahead.

Contactless technology might not be as revolutionary as some make it out to be — it is mostly old tech after all — but its impact can be far reaching.


Further Reading