Industry Update
Opinion Article 7 December 2020

There’s probably an app for that!

By Terence Ronson, Hospitality Professional, Technology Consultant, Public Speaker and Inventor

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Abstract: Mobility has never played a more important part in our lives as it now does in these COVID times which has forced the world and most especially the hospitality industry to adopt a contactless/lo-touch environment. This article explains the journey as how we got to where we are now, and how the industry could emerge and transform hand-in-hand with mobility and the various benefits it brings with it.

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Mobility in concept and in practice, as the word implies, will never stand still. At no time was this more apparent than on June 29, 2007 when the iPhone untethered us irrevocably. We are seeing this now too since the invisible enemy, COVID-19, struck early this year and we continue to grapple with its consequence as best we can.

At warp speed, the hospitality industry was left with little choice but to be drawn into a mobile driven contactless/lo-touch culture. This idea had been floated many years ago but the urgency of applying it didn't exist pre-COVID. Back then, and let's not forget, this was really only NINE MONTHS ago, we all would happily check-in to hotels and not think twice about sanitizing every space or amenity inside a room. Nor would we give a second thought of handling light switches, doorknobs, a TV remote control, thermostat, room service menu or phone devices, to name a few. No more! The pandemic has forced minds to change. And it has been seismic. Everyone has been required to assess their operations and to ensure they not only thrive but survive amidst this environment. Assuring its guests they are in a safe bubble while within their property's perimeter is now paramount to avoid infection and/or curtail the spread of the virus.

Tech adoption, only surpassed by the panic buying of toilet paper at the virus' outset, went into overdrive. What probably would have taken a couple of years to become a reality, was put in place in 6+ months, driven also by the necessity to #WFH [Work From Home] and #WFA [Work From Anywhere]. Consequently, we are seeing software companies mushrooming and scrambling to develop a multitude of complementary solutions to meet the new normal for the classification of a world we are now involuntarily forced to live in.

On a personal level and primarily to the readers of this article, we tragically know that one of the most affected industries is hospitality a subset of travel, and while we wait for the silver bullet to appear and be successfully implemented in the form of a vaccine, one must co-exist and work with this most challenging hand we have been dealt with.

But before we delve into the diverse benefits mobility has, and will continue to bring us, let's take a moment to reflect on the chronology as to how we got to this juncture - this tech milestone in mobility adoption.

in July 1980 Yukio Yokozawa invented the first "true" laptop computer called the Epson HX-20 (also known as the HC-20). Why was it classified as the first "true" laptop computer? Because it was a fully integrated device - complete with keyboard, screen, storage unit and printer, and was only the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and it had a very long battery life. At the time of launch, there were no software applications - only the BASIC operating system supplied on its ROM [Read-Only Memory].

Then in 1994 - the QR code was launched by Denso Wave - now called the Denso Corporation, but some say that by 2017 adoption had slowed - but in reality, we all know how popular this iconic tech has again become.

On March 10, 1997, the Palm Pilot was launched, the once ubiquitous Blackberry on January 19, 1999, and the Compaq iPAQ complete with stylus, in April 2000.

In early 2001 the first ever Hotel app "Hotelinmyhand" was launched by Pertlink to provide information and services to hotel guests at a touch of a hand. The software ran on a Palm Pilot and Compaq iPAQ - the two most popular mobile platforms at that time - our first foray into contactless technology for the hospitality industry, when the concept and urgent need didn't exist at that time. It was seen as ground breaking then, with CNN featuring it as part of their piece on the launch of Rosedale on the Park, Hong Kong.

On June 29, 2007 - Apple's iPhone was launched by the late Steve Jobs with more computing power under its 4.5 inches x 2.4 inches hood than what was used for the Apollo 11 Moon landing which took place thirty-eight years earlier on July 20, 1969. And from that day forward, the term "app" became part of the everyday lexicon.

In 2014, I worked with Samsung and HotSOS to place an experimental lite app on the Samsung Gear 3 watch "a first" - and it was for the South Beach Hotel project in Singapore. Sadly, a dream that was just too early for its time.

Knowing all this, it has taken the Hospitality industry almost two decades to finally adopt mobility or since Hotelinmyhand was launched, a major part of that adoption having been the birth and incorporation of the QR code - understandably selected in these times because they are non-contact. Who said hospitality was an innovative and fast-moving industry?

But having said all that, what we have witnessed in this last 6+ months is that various old fashioned and bureaucratic practices across numerous industries are becoming obsolete in the blink of an eye, especially mobile transactional processes encapsulating payment processing using all manner of eWallets including PayPal's recent announcement to accommodate BTC wallets, along with QR codes and online solutions. In fact, I wonder how many wallet solutions with the 3-letter word "pay" in it you can now name?

Up until now that is pre-and during this COVID era, Hotels have predominantly used mobility as part of their operations for Housekeeping and Engineering task request fulfillment, service delivery, in-room environmental controls, compendium replacements, and to some extent, POS terminal alternates. Those Hotels that are fortunate enough to be open and able to accept guests, have further adopted mobility for socially-distanced contactless/lo-touch concepts to include check-in, check-out, food ordering by QR code retrieved menus, chat function, wayfinding with beacons and mobile key. The latter element potentially having a weighty cost burden depending on the type of installed infrastructure.

As a subset of hospitality, mobile app driven Meal delivery or Take-out services have flourished as people elect to "order-in" since restaurant in-dining has been put into temporary hibernation. And online ordering of all manner of items has reached unparalleled levels with what now seems regular Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales [US online sale for Thanksgiving 2020 reached $5.1 billion and shortly followed by $10.8 billion on Cyber Monday] that has had a dramatically negative impact on brick n mortar operations - with the consequential outcome being furloughed staff and loss of various income sources such as rent. UPS claim to have been swamped and had to temporarily suspend pickups from multiple big-brand vendors.

Generationally, there has been a rush by some early adopters for Wi-Fi 6, and more specifically, 5G compatibility that purports downloads and uploads at wireline speeds. But this may soon be overshadowed, since China has already launched their first 6G satellite, albeit, without a confirmed standard to follow. Go figure! But work does continue elsewhere on 6G - with for example the Terahertz chip, whereby a group of researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the Osaka University in Japan have developed an error-free Terahertz chip capable of a data rate up to 16 Gbps. Things are definitely moving fast in this space!

And please, let's not forget techpreneur Elon Musk and his SpaceX Starlink system which had a birth date of 2015, and as of October 24, 2020 launched a public BETA service. Starlink utilizes strings of low earth orbiting satellites to deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable. To-date, Starlink has nearly 1,000 satellites in orbit, and is targeting service in the Northern U.S. and Canada in 2020, rapidly expanding to near-global coverage of the populated world by 2021, according to the Starlink website. One may ask; "How will this impact mobility?" Well, one of the sub-sets of hospitality where this will become extremely beneficial is the heavily-battered cruise industry which offers spotty at best connections, and at very high rates. Definitely one to watch - no pun intended.

Taking a 360-degree view, let's look at what else has happened in the mobile world. Apple recently launched their in-house developed silicon-powered computers using the M1 chip, clearly demonstrating to the world that it is moving to near-complete mobility - and how the once clunky desktop, which firstly morphed into a notebook, then a phone, a tablet, and is now becoming an all-in-one ecosystem, since the same apps can run on all hardware - with the only differentiations being size, power requirements, in some cases a fan, and greater storage capacity. And just in case you are curious, in most situations, the smaller device costs more than their larger counterparts.

But hardware, just like a blank canvas, is only part of the solution, it's only as good and useful as the apps that run on it. So, to address the situation, great minds around the world are brainstorming and mind-melding as to what problem these solutions can fix, and we all know only too well that hospitality has more than its fair share of those. And as we hopefully soon come out of COVID hibernation, there will be the new post pandemic gold rush - with all the players vying for market share, and desperately trying to claw back lost revenues. So how can mobility help with this?

Well, one of things you may have heard about is that when addressing the virtual G20 summit on Saturday night (November 21, 2020), Chinese President Xi Jinping said a global mechanism involving mutual recognition of health certificates, including nucleic acid test results in the form of QR codes, could be used to enable cross-border travel - perhaps me thinks with a dash of blockchain thrown in to add to the authenticity of the data.

In China, the QR code system for COVID tracking, was launched through Ant Financials' Alipay in Hangzhou on February 11, 2020, and assigns users one of three coloured QR codes - green, yellow and red. Chinese state media outlet Xinhua News reported that the system covered three provinces initially - Zhejiang, Sichuan and Hainan - and the municipality of Chongqing with a total population of nearly 180 million, and would soon go on to cover the entire country. It was later found to have been adopted in over 100 cities across the country within a week, according to Xinhua. In Beijing, the mini-program can be accessed both through Alipay and Tencent's ubiquitous app WeChat. Users can obtain their codes by entering their name, national identity number and registering with facial recognition.

As an extension to mobility helping facilitate the re-ignition of travel, IATA [International Air Transport Association] are joining a push to introduce so-called COVID passports. The Travel Pass will display test results together with proof of inoculation, as well as listing national entry rules and details of the nearest labs. The app will also link to an electronic copy of the holder's passport to prove their identity and authenticity.

One of the other ways I envision the future of mobility to evolve, and to help lay claim to a bigger stake in the post COVID gold rush, is to get closer to that even more important customer - know what they want and as best you can within the constraints of the business, deliver it to them. This is something hospitality has struggled with for eons, with CRS/PMS local and enterprise-wide profiles, CRM [Customers Really Matter] and all manner of things. But has it been successful? You can be the judge of that when you return to a hotel previously visited and must again fill in a registration card, or not get a welcome back thank you, or…

More than ever before, it's now time for the business to #KNOWME.

A few years ago, I conceptualized the idea to create an app which allows a guest to pre-store their personal data and preferences - locally on-device or in the cloud depending on data privacy regulations, and either pre-arrival, or upon arrival, securely exchange that data with the property to customize certain elements of their stay, thereby enhancing the guest experience, creating loyalty to the brand/property, and translating into an ROI for the property. This personal data exchange would be shared via QR code and some form of secure 2FA. Now in COVID times, this could be extended in part, for the purposes of contact tracing since it seems everywhere you go, there is either a QR code to shoot, or a form to complete. And why, when you can have the relevant data pre-stored in your device?

WHAT CAN BE CUSTOMIZED?

  1. TV Channel line-up
  2. Room Temperature
  3. Lighting Levels
  4. Language
  5. Pillow Preference
  6. Wake-up call
  7. Access to Wi-Fi
  8. Dietary requirements
  9. Newspaper
  10. Welcome amenity - Fruit type
  11. Free parking
  12. Low/High floor preferred
  13. Bed Type
  14. City/Beach view
  15. Yoga mat
  16. Bath amenities
  17. Smart speaker rental
  18. Near/Far elevator
  19. Iron/Ironing board/Steamer
  20. Allergies
  21. Check-in/Check-out times
  22. Want daily housekeeping or not

Brands are extremely protective, and rightly so, but let's be honest, the guest is no longer loyal to just one brand - there can be several, especially if the chosen location is not suitably covered by Brand Favorite #1, so then Brand Favorite #2 may have to come into play - or even a new independent selected - and what happens then to me and my preferences - held in Brand X's CRM? Does the industry focus too much on loyalty for their own brands? Of course, they do, and mobility could change that - maybe not overnight - but it will, especially post COVID.

This app creates a centralized "source of truth" for the guest data - and the entire hospitality industry, versus the fragmented and siloed approach it now has. This kind of development will usher in new levels of guest engagement and loyalty, and allow hoteliers to compete on an even footing.

As the inimitable Steve Jobs used to say; "there's one more thing", and in the case of the mobile, and the WFH world we live in - it's a biggie - data security.

Recently I heard a scenario during a webinar whereby Dad was forced to WFH and he worked for one of the leading burger chains, and used the family notebook computer to access the company systems. Mum also worked for a fast-food chain, but a competitor, and she shared the same computer to do her biz and personal stuff, and sometimes help the kids with their schoolwork. The kids used the same machine for study, game playing with pirated software, and watching YouTube as well as accessing torrents. There were no secure partitions on the machine, no MDM [M
obile Device Management], there were shared passwords, and anti-virus was a freeware version. You can let your imagination run wild as to the implications from this all-too-often scenario and the brand new risks it brings.

This contemporary scenario doesn't end there, one has to be more conscious and alert than ever before that threat actors are in play, just waiting to steal your trophy data, and will go to almost any extreme to access it. There are all-manner of pandemic-themed lures and scams.

One must absolutely secure endpoints both outside and inside your perimeters, particularly when you are allowing BYOD [Bring Your Own Device]. Screen sharing or screen capture software is another huge loophole as is IoT [Internet Of Things]. Phishing has gone through the roof, with cybercrime at an all-time high, and according to the experts, Nation states involvement in cybercrime is on the increase with cloud computing. Employing a Never trust - Always verify policy is paramount!

Without doubt, mobility provides ease and facility to make the so-called "New Normal" liveable by putting information or services front and centre in an easy-to-carry, easy-to-digest mobile but secure platform/APP, and so why wait? From everyone's point of view, the tedium of filling up endless forms and repetitively doing the same old data collection processes can be effortlessly avoided - it is a most welcome development, another manifestation of mobility's continuing evolution in this constantly changing world.

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