03 – HITEC Special Edition

by | June 27, 2018

In this special edition episode of Suite Spot, we discuss the recent 2018 HITEC conference in Houston, TX. Host Ryan Embree is joined by several members of Travel Media Group‰’s product and development team and attendees of this year‰’s HITEC conference, as they give their key takeaways from the innovative technology conference.

Hear from Patrick O‰’Brien, Joey Schuster and Jason Lee as they discuss the future of technology in the hospitality industry. Learn about the rising use of AI and what that means for the customer experience. Plus, dive into blockchain and the potential for hotel data integration. This episode serves as a great technology blueprint for the modern-day hotelier.

Episode Transcript

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Ryan Embree: Welcome to Suite Spot where hoteliers check in and we check out what’s trending and hotel marketing. I’m your host, Ryan Embree. Hello everyone. This is your host. Ryan Embree. Again, welcome to Suite Spot. Thank you for listening. Today’s Suite Spot episode. We have a very special edition. We are going to be diving into and dissecting the most recent HITEC conference that happened in Houston, Texas, and we’re going to be talking with some of my peers here at Travel Media Group who had the chance to actually go out to Houston and we’re going to get some of their key takeaways and see what they got out of this conference and how this can be useful to listeners like you. So before we get started, HITEC is one of the world’s largest hospitality technology expositions. So this conference is all about hospitality industry technology or HITEC.

Ryan Embree: At the conference. There are many educational programs with some of the industry experts and [they] even have a global showcase of different hospitality technologies. So again, what we decided to do today for this episode is to talk with some of our team members that attended the conference and share some of the cutting edge new innovations that are coming up in the hospitality industry. Okay. So we have with us today, Patrick O’Brien, one of our digital product managers here at Travel Media Group. A Good Morning Patrick. How are you today?

Patrick O’Brien: I’m doing well. How are you doing?

Ryan Embree: I’m doing great. Thank you for being on the show with me today. I wanted to get started. You know, we had talked off air about this HITEC conference and sort of shift that you saw from years past to this year and I wanted you to kind of let our listeners know what you meant by that.

Patrick O’Brien: Sure. So I think probably for the last five or six years at least the conversations have always been geared around mobile, millennials, and big data. Those were the buzzwords that you heard at all the conferences and people trying to figure out how to, you know, obviously to capture the millennial audience and how to be more integrated in mobile. And use the opportunities in technology that’s available with mobile and then ultimately, you know, big data and there was this idea that I’ve got all this data and now I should be able to make everything happen and curate content for everybody automatically and create this great experience. Um, that shift, you know, you, you still heard some people talking about, but really the big focuses, now we’re on blockchain and artificial intelligence and AI and how those concepts really will be changing, you know, the way that hospitality industry does business.

Patrick O’Brien: Um, I did think it was kind of funny as well that there was one speaker talking about if you are, um, as a company looking to innovate on millennials and their needs, um, you’ve missed the boat. You’re too late and you really need to be looking at eight-year-old kids because they were, they are the first generation of users that have had all the content for them curated through Pandora, through Netflix. And um, you know, my kids don’t understand when they go to their grandparents’ house that they can’t get any song or any TV show or anything that they want on demand. And so it really is a shift in what people are looking at. And this was really the first year that you’re starting to see people move away from those traditional themes.

Ryan Embree: Yeah. And hoteliers – you know, we’ve talked about this before – need to be more intuitive to guests needs and the guest’s expectations are going to start rising and rising and hoteliers need to be ready for that. So from a revenue management standpoint, those trigger words that you mentioned, blockchain and AI, you know, how, how does that implement into revenue management?

Patrick O’Brien: Sure. So I think, um, both of them are going to be a little bit different and I think that you get people in the industry who are nervous, like, you know, AI is gonna take over all the jobs and we’re not going to have front desk people. And um, and it, and I think that’s fundamentally incorrect because hospitality is still hospitality and there is, there is a human element in there, but you look at AI’s ability to start answering, um, you know, specific guest needs because guests now with millennials and mobile and all of this, they’re expecting answers immediately and they want that feedback immediate. Um, and that’s not always easy to do when you’re at the front desk and you’re trying to check people in and you’ve got somebody that’s asking for more towels or to set a dinner appointment.

Patrick O’Brien: As the front desk, do you ask the person checking in to hold on so you can answer these questions or what? Well, AI has the ability to go in and, you know, um, they are using bots very effectively now to go in and answer these questions immediately and you know, provide that reporting and that insight to the hotel owner to the, to the front desk so that they really have the ability to focus more on the customer experience and those face to face interactions. But, you know, just the daily, “Hey, I forgot my razors, I need, I need some razors.” Um, you know, that can be answered by a Bot, you know, a message sent over to, you know, to housekeeping or somebody else to bring those up immediately without the front desk having to stop what they’re doing and set that up. So that’s all really interesting. And there are um, you know, companies out there and organizations that are really getting into that, um, uh, you know, we’re starting to look at that and some of our own products now and how to alleviate some of the, sort of, the manual work, um, so that we can better perform service and better offer service to our customers.

Patrick O’Brien: I think on blockchain and it was really interesting and revenue management as well because you look at specifically OTAs as people are booking rooms and having to reconcile that, hey, this guest stayed in my hotel, um, you know, and then we need to pay the commission or I guess canceled and they didn’t have, there were no show so we’re not going to pay a commission on that.

Patrick O’Brien: Well, they usually spend, I think they were saying, you know, somewhere from 30 to 45 days if not longer, just trying to go through all of those records each month, reconcile and pay commissions. Well, blockchain has the ability to instantly recognize through smart contracts that hey, this happened. Um, they met the cancellation window so we’re not paying or they didn’t meet the cancellation windows, so that happens and takes away all of that manual process. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have those departments anymore, it just means that their jobs shift and they’re able to, you know, maybe focus a little bit more on customer experiences, but as a hotel you’re going to start saving a lot of money. Then have the ability to, you know, ensure your rates are a bit more competitive and you’re not losing money in places that you shouldn’t have to lose money.

Ryan Embree: Absolutely. And it’s all about utilizing, leveraging technology for increased productivity and efficiency. So I did want you to bring up a really interesting point about the chatbots and we have kind of already talked about them a little bit, but I did want to get your take on it because you are our reputation guru here. You manage all of our reputation solutions for Travel Media Group. You mentioned some of the advantages, right? Being able to answer a traveler really quickly if they have a very simplified question. I want you to maybe expound upon maybe the cautions of using these chatbots or completely becoming dependent on them.

Patrick O’Brien: Sure. I mean there’s, there’s the ability to get it wrong. Like, um, I had always said, you know, like in hospitality, it’s, it’s something that you don’t notice until it goes wrong. So, um, you know, you may not notice that hey, they’re being really friendly and they’re being helpful and they’re giving me suggestions of places to go eat and do this, but then they get it wrong. All of a sudden you’re like, “oh, this was not the experience I was expecting.” Um, so, you know, if you have the expectation that you’re speaking to a human individual and that person just or that chat bot gets it completely wrong, that’s going to throw you out of that sort of that seamless experience. Um, you know, we notice it, um, you know, on the reputation space, there are companies out there that are using artificial intelligence and sort of machine learning and chatbots to answer reviews and that can be very cost effective.

Patrick O’Brien: But at the same time, um, you can truly get it wrong. You know, we saw an example where a company had answered and review where somebody had said, you know, overall, everything was pretty positive, but they just, they talked about the front desk was rude and not helpful. And the response came out saying, you know, “We are so glad you experienced the service that we want to show all of our guests.” That’s not, you know, that is not the hospitality that is not the face or the voice that you want for your company to have. So, you know, there are a lot of times it’s still, it’s still new. It’s still kind of training it, um, to be more effective so you don’t get it wrong because you run the risk of having this really great service setup and then all of a sudden it gets it wrong. And then the hotels like, “oh, I can’t do this anymore, this is, this is going to ruin our business.” Um, so it is that sort of careful implementation in getting it right, but making it a part of the customer experience instead of trying to have it completely take over the customer experience.

Ryan Embree: Gotcha. And yeah, there’s always going to be that personal touch in the hospitality industry. Right? So, you know, sometimes those chatbots can miss the mark, just like you said, I did want to get your feedback, you know, because we have these podcasts and talk about these new technologies out there. And I think the chatbot actually is a really good parallel for it, um, is, you know, thinking, Hey, if I’m not using these right now, I’m kinda falling behind. Do you think that, uh, you know, in the next five to 10 years, you know, AI, is that going to be a standard for hotels or are these hoteliers really falling behind or you still think that there’s, there’s some, uh, you know, room there?

Patrick O’Brien: I mean, I think it’ll be sooner than, you know, five to 10 years that it will, uh, it will be more integrated. I mean, you’re seeing, you know, Amazon coming in, um, you know, now with Alexa devices and there were a bunch of companies that we’re working on different types of artificial intelligence put into the hospitality segment. I think though, for me, the problem where you can run into which may slow things down a little bit in hospitality is you get these buzzwords and again, previous years it was mobile and then everybody’s like, oh, I’ve got to have an app. And then you learn that people aren’t going to download every app that they see. And um, it is specifically with, um, with AI is that people are like, oh, I’ve got to include this in, you know, my, my business strategy. And so sometimes they’re just adding AI or trying to add AI for the sole purpose of adding it.

Patrick O’Brien: Um, and so there are things that, there are projects that people put together that you do not need AI for that could be handled much easier and probably more cost effective[ly]. And then there’s other times where they’re like, well, you know, this machine should be able to know exactly what the guests wants at every point and check them in, answer every question and I don’t need a front desk staff anymore and everything’s going to be handled… and that’s too big. And so it is finding those right projects to start off with AI into slowly integrated. So it is more of truly an assistant, um, to, to your property. So I think you’re going to start seeing that, you know, much sooner than five to 10 years, but it probably will be at least five years before you start seeing full integration of, um, artificial intelligence in the booking and the guest experience aspect of the stay.

Ryan Embree: Absolutely. And it’s finding that balance, right? Especially with, you know, these brands that have to implement it, you know, they, they’re dealing with technology that they’ve really don’t have a protocol for. Having to implement this across an entire portfolio. It’s going to come with its challenge, obviously. If you were a listener that didn’t get the opportunity to attend the show. What tips would you give them? You know, having the knowledge that you do the industry about technology in general when it comes to their hotel.

Patrick O’Brien: Again, I think it’s, um, it, it comes down to research and the right fit. Um, you know, researching the technology that’s out there. There’s, there’s so much. And um, unfortunately, I think within the travel industry and hospitality space, um, you know, it’s so fragmented, there’s, you know, you’ve got all different systems and all different technologies and everybody’s trying to solve a problem. Um, and, the big thing is, are you solving a problem for the sake of utilizing technology or are you solving the problem for the sake of improving your guest experience? And, and that’s going to be the big thing is don’t add technology just because it’s cool. I mean, I like that. But add technology because it enhances the guest experience. And prior to implementation of any type of technology really is taking the moment to, you know, really spend more time evaluating what’s going on at your property and understanding what guests are talking about, um, you know, and whether that is through personal conversations with members of your team, if that’s through surveys, if that’s through online responses and reviews, what really is impacting your guests experience? And then coming up with technology that can easily be implemented to improve that.

Patrick O’Brien: Um, you look at the idea of voice activation and an Alexa or Google Home and those are all really exciting, but you also, in order for a guest to be able to utilize that, they’re going to have to know the right commands and so you’re training guests on, on how to do that. So, um, you know, how, how do you do that? Or again, is it just to be cool or is it because it would be easier for a guest to be laying in bed and say, Alexa, please turn off the lights so they don’t have to get back up and turn off the lights and they can go to bed. So it is really understanding what your guests need and not, I don’t think, you know, 10 years ago or 10 years in the future that’s not, that’s not going to change. It’s always going to be in hospitality, understanding the guest’s needs and being able to solve for that and to accommodate that.

Ryan Embree: I agree. And the best part right now is hoteliers have the most exposure to guests, data, you know, than ever, you know, analytics, preferences, they have it all. So it’s leveraging and utilizing that in the smartest way, which is really gonna help these hoteliers out. So very interesting points and topics. Uh, I appreciate your time today, Patrick. We’re actually going to be having you again on this show, on the Suite Spot where we’re going to be diving into the TripAdvisor algorithm, which most recently changed. Is that correct?

Patrick O’Brien: Yes.

Ryan Embree: Awesome. Awesome. So thank you again for your time and we’ll see you very soon. Sounds good. Thank you. We’ll be back in a moment with our next guest.

Ryan Embree: So let’s invite Joey Schuster in, one of our digital product managers at Travel Media Group. Good Morning Joe. How are you today?

Joey Schuster: I’m good. Good. Happy to be here.

Ryan Embree: Awesome. So obviously you have been to quite a number of these HITEC conferences before. You specialize at our company with a social media and websites. I wanted to get your opinion on what you’ve learned about social media and where that might be headed.

Joey Schuster: Sure. I mean, I think with social media. I mean it just every, every year you see more and more companies who are getting involved in some sort of some sorts of technologies. They’re, you know, wanting

Joey Schuster: to utilize AI or, or um, whatever the new hot button word is and try to figure out ways to incorporate it in all aspects of their business. But particularly you see it in social media, particularly probably more with ad spend. I think that’s where you get into, um, there’s a lot of companies out there now are trying to figure out how to automate, how adjustments are being made because that’s probably where there’s more human error of having to go in and kind of make changes, make adjustments and not let the spend go on for too long without, um, without adjustments being made. So I think there’s some really neat companies out there who are doing some things with that.

Joey Schuster: On the website side. I mean, I think probably more so moving towards a simplicity. Um, you know, I think there’s probably a time where people wanted really robust, really massive, um, websites and I think you probably just see somewhat of a shift into, into more of a simplicity, really drive customers down to specific areas. I’m not saying that there’s like a small amount of pages per se, but just definitely less, um, than maybe what you would see a couple of years ago. For a hotel in particular, that’s what I seem to notice.

Ryan Embree: And user-friendliness obviously is huge with that, with people more and more, you know, guests and travelers pulling up websites and social media using mobile phones. Um, I’m sure that that simplicity, uh, plays a big part in that.

Joey Schuster: Yeah. And the statistics too and I think like once you, um, you know, more importantly, I think just being able to understand how people are using your site, like you said, whether it’s, whether it’s mobile or they’re on their desktop or they’re on a tablet or do they come in through social media or they come in through a google search or from a particular blog post or whatever. Just making sure you understand that and then how they travel through the site where they maybe were or they may be like pausing. Were they pushing through, um, you know, the, those types of things. And really, really understanding those. And I think he also saw, I think, you know, particularly at HITEC there’s an entrepreneur 2020 x entrepreneur group. So it was like 20 entrepreneurs startups who are pitching. And I would say, you know, probably 20 percent of them, 25 percent of them, so four or five of them that were specifically just about, um, some sort of data consumption. So whether it was, I’m trying to understand people’s actions on property or on their website or combination of both, um, you know, their utilization of rental cars and that kind of thing, that kind of data, um, people just, um, you know, try to make sure they understand, you know, in a, in a, in a data format of how customers kind of got to their property.

Ryan Embree: And you know, with hoteliers, the more you know about your traveler, the more you know about your guests, the more you can obviously enhance that experience for them and keep them coming back. As you said, it’s using that data smarter and smarter. I think that is a, that is a big key takeaway from this conference is how hoteliers now can use the data that was all always there, but now the way that they’re consuming it, how can they use it more efficiently to target and market to travelers?

Joey Schuster: Yeah. Um, so the other, I mean I think one of the really great things about HITEC as well as they do have, um, kind of like educational sessions and I always try to do my best to go to as many of those as well. Um, they do have multiple ones running at the same time, so you kind of have to pick and choose what’s maybe most relevant to you. Um, for me, I think one of the, um, one of the really relevant one was about actually investing in technology and it had a panel of investors, Angel Investors and a representative from, from a venture capitalist firm up there. Um, but to listen to them and hear them talk about what they’re investing in I think is an important part, is an important piece to kind of keep an eye on because it kind of tells us, you know, what technology they’re keeping an eye on, what they’re interested in investing in.

Joey Schuster: And from there you can kind of see that’s going to be, that’s more than likely going to be the next pieces of technology that you, that you hear about. The other thing too, that I think was really a poignant from there was that they were really talking about costs productivity versus cost reduction. So investing and not necessarily figuring out ways for properties to spend less or for anybody for that matter to spend less, but to basically make that dollar kind of go further. So I thought that was really interesting. They don’t necessarily just look at the key word of something and say like, let’s invest in, let’s invest in blockchain. Everybody’s talking about blockchain. Let’s just invest in blockchain. Um, but really look at the ecosystem surrounding that. How are people gonna handle security or storage or evaluations or analytics, those aspects? When you start getting into the whole ecosystem surrounding it, then, um, you know, for them, they seem like there was a lot more interested in investing in products like that as opposed to like actual blockchain.

Ryan Embree: I do want to kinda talk about blockchain because we heard that a lot at the conference and I just wanted to, for those hoteliers that maybe are just starting to hear that term, um, and they most certainly are going to keep hearing it, um, that is very much on the horizon, but could you just do maybe a simple explanation of, of blockchain and what it has to do with the hospitality industry?

Joey Schuster: Sure. So, um, my simple understanding of it at least, so, is just that it’s essentially, it’s a, it’s a new database technology. So, um, traditionally kind of, um, you would have some version of a database out there and that’s basically how it stores all of the files that can be, um, uh, you know, whether it’s your user profiles or customer information, how, whatever you want to kind of store it in your database for whatever your digital product is. Um, and it’s basically, it’s a form of securely saving your database in, in a non-centralized way. So instead of having, for instance, like a, a single file somewhere that’s stored on a server, you actually have multiple, you have it multiple times in a chain, and that’s where that comes from. So you have blocks of data in a chain, in multiple places. So the security of it is, it becomes much more, I mean, in theory, somewhat impossible to hack because you’d have to literally hack all of the, all of the blocks simultaneously.

Joey Schuster: Um, the downside to it is, is the cost, because I mean, instead of storing a singular, you’re, you know, so in time to develop, um, so there’s, there’s, there’s a lot more to it obviously, but, you know, for somebody who’s dealing with, people’s personal information,

Ryan Embree: Like hotel guests…

Joey Schuster: Like hotel guests, absolutely. It can become a valuable way, especially with nowadays, I think everything you’re hearing with the, um, the European Union and, and, uh, um, Facebook here domestically, everybody is talking about privacy and how important it is.

Ryan Embree: Absolutely.

Joey Schuster: I think, you know, people investing in more secure ways of storing people’s information, you know, does be, it does become a hot topic. I think that’s probably why it was talked about so much. But on the other side, I mean like as far as specifically as more of like the fun side, not just like, oh, great security.

Joey Schuster: Um, I think, you know, there was a lot of talks of utilizing blockchain specifically for like loyalty programs could be really interesting because you are, I mean that essentially is a form of currency so people um, can earn in, you know, earn a certain amount of points and that becomes a certain value because that’s, that’s where it’s so many nights stay or they can turn that into um, you know, whatever, whatever, you know, whatever you can trade that in for. Um, so that kind of becomes a really interesting concept. And I did, I did hear, um, one guy talk about an idea where you, you know, you have, if you had like a chain, a brand of properties and the ones in say a destination area, like The Keys or something like that is probably has a lot high level of people utilizing points versus a business specific area is probably handing out a lot of points and there’s a discrepancy there essentially.

Joey Schuster: And so, you know, you could essentially use, um, like a blockchain, like privately, not that the customer would really see a difference, but the idea of kind of passing points back and forth. So the business, uh, the business location would essentially have to buy points from the destination location. Um, and to kind of even some of that out because it is, it is probably a discrepancy. You’ll hear more from those destination. They only getting close, I think like seventy five cents on the dollar, um, when those points and stuff are used. So it’s really, really neat things I think on that aspect of it. As far as like the actual consumer, I think there was, they were talking about the idea of um, some sort of biometrics profile, and now you know, when you get into like I’m Clear Pass and in Pre Check and your credit information, um, there could just be a lot more secure way of you adding credit cards. Have you getting Clear and I think you could reduce fraud. Um, if people comfortably felt like their profile was, um, was stored safely. And I think that’s the idea behind blockchain is that there is a higher level of security.

Ryan Embree: Yeah. Security and efficiency. Um, and, and that’s what a lot about, uh, this technology was about, that we learned at HITEC. So, um, you know, a lot of our listeners obviously either are, you know, managing hotels, owning hotels. What would you say, you know, if they weren’t, if this particular listener wasn’t able to make it to HITEC, what would you say would be kind of a tip to market their hotel or that they can take on a daily basis from that conference?

Joey Schuster: Um, I mean to me, I think, you know, just pay attention, you know, read a lot, you know, there’s, there’s just a lot out there. I think going to one of these conferences is really great because it’s like you’re forced to essentially spend the whole week learning and seeing what other companies are doing. Um, but if you can’t make it then I, you know, I guess my recommendation would be to, you know, read and read everything and try to consume as much as you can. Um, that’s what’s great about those conferences is you just, you kind of forced to do a lot of consumption in a really short amount of time. But um, but otherwise, you know, if you just follow a lot of blogs and, and make sure you’re looking, looking for that content to just kind of get pushed into. You can set up a Google Alert. Just make sure you’re staying on top of what’s happening out there because it’s happening fast and it’s happening faster and faster is what I feel like. It’s just the next thing, you know, has such a shorter cycle. Um and so, you know, it’s important for any business to stay on top of whatever your industry is taking advantage of and investing in.

Ryan Embree: Yeah. And, and what’s trending and, you know, and it’s like you said, with this technology it’s moving faster and faster. So Joey, thank you so much for your time today and uh, you’re welcome back anytime.

Joey Schuster: Alright, thanks.

Ryan Embree: And we’ll be right back with our next guest.

Ryan Embree: So let’s bring in our senior director of online product and IT, Jason Lee. And Jason, this is not your first time that you’ve attended this conference, is that correct?

Jason Lee: Yeah, that’s correct. I’ve been a few times.

Ryan Embree: Awesome. Awesome. Um, well let me start off by asking you this: What a kind of set this year apart obviously from other years that you’ve been to this conference?

Jason Lee: Well, I mean for me personally, I think we had a technology offering that I was excited about putting out there and seeing how other technology minded people felt about it or you know, what their feedback might be. So I was excited about that. Um, I think there’s also a lot of other really interesting technology that is emerging and it has been emerging for probably a couple of years. AI, blockchain is probably some newer pieces. Um, but definitely on the guest communication front. I was really interested to see what kind of new advances have been made and you know, there’s always like noise on the line about stuff like SMS and chatbots and things like that. So I was very interested in seeing where that was at, and what kind of new emerging technologies or what people had done with some of those technologies.

Ryan Embree: Right. And you know, hoteliers have been hearing a lot about that stuff for years. So a conference like this can really tell hoteliers where they’re at in, uh, you know, at this present time and where things are headed in the future. I just wanted to get kind of some key takeaways from, from the conference this year from you. What would you say is a key takeaway?

Jason Lee: Um, I think probably my first takeaway or the first thing that I noticed right away was something I kind of alluded to a second ago and that is that guest communication platforms are really big and there’s a lot of new ones. There’s new ones and there are technologies that are trying to be integrated into existing technologies. So, you know, I started seeing for the first time I saw SMS and Chat Bot features in PMS systems, but then also standalone, um, Chat Bot and AI kinds of responses, forecasts, communication. So, uh, I think sometimes you hear a lot of theory about that, but then seeing some of that stuff in practice and seeing some, some live actual things happening, um, was a real takeaway for me that this is here, that, that, that definitely, um, AI communication or, or being able to train an AI to communicate with your guests is definitely the technology is definitely here.

Ryan Embree: Yeah. And, you know, with hoteliers, uh, obviously, you know, this is a great innovation that they can use to communicate with their guests, but at the same time, you know, at least some of the education pieces that I was a part of a, you know, some of the industry leaders were also kinda cautioning these hoteliers with using, uh, you know, depending and relying too much these bots, chat bots and artificial intelligence to communicate with your guests because at the end of the day, you still need that personal touch.

Jason Lee: I totally agree with that. You know, the, the, another takeaway that I had, and it was kind of along these same lines was I’m in ro