Industry Update
Opinion Article 3 July 2019

Tech Trends Observed from the HITEC 2019 Minneapolis

By Linchi Kwok , Associate Professor at The Collins College of Hospitality Management

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I was in Minneapolis earlier for HITEC 2019 (Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition & Conference), marking the third time when I attended the conference's exposition after HITEC 2018 in Houston and HITEC 2017 in Toronto. This time, I put my special attention to the new technologies and products on the exhibition floor, such as those using facial recognition or AI in providing robotic services.

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Last year in HITEC 2018, for example, I was hoping to see more automatic services with newer generations of robots and more companies using facial recognition to enhance service operations. This year, I was still unable to recognize any revolutionary innovations in the exposition, but I believe two of my observations may warrant some discussion.

Amazon's Alexa is officially in HITEC

Last year, I found a few devices that worked like a customized Alexa by Amazon or Google Home, allowing travelers to receive information and make service request by talking to a machine instead of service staff. This year, I finally met the sales team working at Amazon for Hospitality, a division that focuses on "Alexa for hotels," along with its partner --- Volara, a company that provides voice-based solutions to hospitality companies.

Alexa performs all the tasks that a typical virtual assistant could do at a consumer's home but in a hotel room, plus answering guest-service related questions and responding to travelers' requests. The support service provided by Volara was to ensure travelers' demands got recognized by the machines and then dispatched to the right service staff/machine for problem-solving.

During my visit, I also happened to meet a hotel owner who had been using Alexa in all of his hotel rooms. After I introduced myself to him as a university professor (not as a buyer who would purchase the device), he shared with me the following experience:

"Alexa works great in all of my hotels. The machine can now answer and address many simple requests from the guests. In the past, for example, a guest who needs an extra towel would have to call the Front Desk. Then, when a guest service agent is helping other guests to check in at the same time, they pick up the phone but will immediately place the guest on hold. Now, Alexa can answer the guest instead and send the request to Housekeeping. Fewer guests have to wait. The Front Desk staff has more time to interact with the guests. The staff love it too as Alexa frees their time, allowing them to have more time to interact with the guest."

I then asked the owner some follow-up questions, such as "Do machines help him cut labor costs by eliminating some service staff?" and "Did you do some analysis to see if Alexa helps you improve work efficiency and the GSS (guest satisfaction survey) score?" His answers were:

"Alexa is not replacing my staff, but it just gives them more time to interact with the guests to provide better service. I did not estimate how Alexa affects the GSS score, but my hotel is ranked very high on TripAdvisor even as a limited service brand. It beats some of the luxury brands in the market. The guests have a good experience with us."

At this point, Alexa only "understands" English, but Volara is considering to test other languages on the device. Meanwhile, Amazon also collects and store customer data during their stays in a hotel through Alexa on the Cloud.

Because Amazon has shown great interest in getting into the OTA (online travel agent) as well as the fresh-food delivery business, I expect Amazon can also become a key player in the lodging industry in the future. Amazon can rely on the immense consumer data collected by Alexa for decision making and product development, which can be a substantial competitive advantage for the company.

Along the same vein, Google just rolled out a new app last month called Google Trips that syncs everything about a trip. I wonder why Google Home is not seen in this year's exposition.

NEC showcased its devices with facial recognition

I was glad to see NEC had launched a device that utilizes facial recognition technology in market analysis. When I got closer to the machine, a camera captured my face. Then, the machine began analyzing my background, showing I was a male customer at the age of 25 (even though that's not an accurate number). The machine could also report how much time I spent in a specific area.

I was told that this device was mainly used in the retail setting at this point. Then, when I asked how the machine "works" with a store's category management system, I did not get a clear answer from the sales representative.

This device is obviously not perfect, but I see some potentials. It can certainly be used in a food & beverage outlet of a hotel for the analysis of foot traffic and consumer behaviors.

Did you attend this year's HITEC Conference? What products/services caught your attention? Would you mind sharing your experience with us?

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HITEC Minneapolis

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Minneapolis Convention Center — Minneapolis, MN United States
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Linchi Kwok

Linchi Kwok is an associate professor in The Collins College of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona). He came to Cal Poly Pomona by way of Syracuse University and Rochester Institute of Technology. He is a blogger and publishes refereed journal articles on service operations, information technology and social media.

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