Early ‘touchless’ technology adoption and being ahead of the curve during the crisis

Michael Driedger, CEO of Operto Guest Technologies, gives a snapshot of how and why boutique hotels are “well situated as innovators” to restore customer confidence.

With the recent global COVID19 pandemic, the subsequent lockdown and the inevitable negative impact on the boutique hotel industry, moving forwards, we all know that winning back the trust and confidence of travellers will be paramount. Ensuring properties are set up to meet the new guest expectations in a post-pandemic world is critical. In my opinion, boutique hotels are well situated as innovators to make that move.  

From their earliest days, boutique hotels have always been more unique, iconic and memorable than their larger cookie cutter counterparts. They broke from the mould early, with many responding quickly over the years to new technology available in order to allow improvements.

Back in 2010, on a trip to West Hollywood, I remember checking into a boutique hotel where what was once the front desk had been turned into a bar. Instead of a traditional check-in arrangement, staff had iPads and would greet guests in the lobby and check them in ‘on foot’. They had a reader to scan credit cards and another reader to activate a keycard. It was a memorable stay even ten years on, and I remember thinking how smart it was to turn a boring front desk which cost the proprietor money, into something that could generate (potentially lots) of revenue.

However, as it turned out, I was lucky enough to arrive early, before the check-in rush, so my experience with this process was smoother than my colleagues who all arrived (en masse) later that day. This is when things became a little chaotic with 3 staff running around with iPads trying to figure out who needed to be checked in next in a lobby full of people with bags. The process may have been a good idea, but it wasn’t quite seamless. 

Fast forward seven years when Operto began working with The Annex, a boutique hotel in downtown Toronto. When we partnered together, the goal was to improve on what I had experienced in West Hollywood but with the additional ability to have everyone checked in before they even arrived. The concept was to allow a guest and go directly to their room. No front desk and no collecting keys from the bar or restaurant. This switch to complete remote check-in and keyless entry has been largely made possible by more modern credit card payments, open APIs from more sophisticated modern property management systems, suitable locks and near-universal usage of smartphones by guests. 

The team at The Annex expanded on this and put in place even more innovative guest experience strategies. They built systems, through their guest app, that allowed guests to pre-order goods and services like wine, a crib, or food before they arrived. As the Operto software was fully integrated with the guest app, a guest could go straight to their room, use their check-in code, which then alerted the restaurant or guest services team to bring the desired item to their room. 

What The Annex created was the perfect hotel experience to survive and thrive when the city of Toronto was shut down on March 23rd 2020. 

Despite lockdown, the hotel was allowed to re-open during the pandemic and hosted front line workers from the nearby university hospital. It took less than a week to fill the 24-bed boutique hotel. The Smart Stay experience and the eliminated human interaction, allowed for front line workers to come and go whilst ensuring distancing from others. It also allowed hotel staff to leave things outside the doors for delivery using existing technologies the hotel had already implemented to improve the guest experience. 

Another great example of technology adoption of this kind is Mint House which operates an apartment-style boutique hotel chain in multiple cities across the United States. Even before the global pandemic, Mint House referred to themselves as having “hotel amenities, with no contact”. Being in several cities put them at a disadvantage, as they had to adjust to multiple city strategies at different stages and severity during the crisis, but the keyless entry technology they are using to save costs in their distributed inventory has paid off. They took a similar tack as The Annex, which allowed them to come out even stronger than before.

Around the world, early technology adoption to ensure sustainable business through the crisis has become a common theme. Breakfast, a boutique hotelcapsule hotel, and homes operator in Hiroshima was hit harder than most. The entire country was locked down and shut off from the rest of the world early on, forcing Japan to be entirely reliant on local tourism. However, because of its ability to be touchless, the hotel was able to have three times the number of bookings of its competitors. 

Over the last short years, boutique operators really have been the earliest innovators, in particular around technology and guest experience, but now innovation is being addressed and accessed from all over the lodging industry. The survivors, and the future of the lodging industry, really will depend in part on the innovations that are adopted over the next six-12 months. This move forward may be one of the only positives to come out of a very difficult time for our industry.

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