Normal 2.0: How A Tech-First Response is Shaping the Travel & Hospitality Sector

By Zain Jaffer 

Progress is relative. This history of change in the travel and hospitality industry has been bookmarked by major technological advancements and the ripples those advancements made through consumers’ lives. Take a quick look back to the launch of the iPhone in 2007. While that’s not a hospitality-specific development, it changed everything about the way people want to travel. Suddenly, billions of people could make restaurant reservations from their pocket. They could leave their room and have an interactive map through a new city, with the ability to keep in touch with their family and coordinate with friends. From here, one can trace the advent of contactless credit cards, mobile travel agents, taxi dispatches, check-in kiosks; the list goes on.

Similarly, the gravity of the COVID-19 crisis and the new necessities it introduced will be a fulcrum of change in the post-COVID sector. Looking forward to the task of recovery, it’s incredibly advantageous for hoteliers and travel professionals to keep abreast of the technological advancements that will set higher standards for the new hospitality normal. Hospitality and travel professionals don’t need to incorporate every new-to-market bell and whistle, but they would be well-advised to make early investments into the tech-based solutions that will have important downstream effects. Below are some of the pandemic-era trends that are quickly becoming historic events.

VR and leisure travel
For many avid travelers, virtual experiences replaced the planning and anticipation for leisure trips. Travel professionals, hoteliers and vacation destination economies invested in virtual reality offerings to extend their experiences beyond the travel restrictions, offering travelers a temporary at-home substitute. But the VR stop-gap measure is showing signs of some stay-power as post-COVID travel preferences take shape.

VR technologies aren’t meant to replace the real experience, but many travel and hospitality professionals are investing in VR-based marketing to spike interest in their offerings. VR tours are being offered all around the world to spike interest in sights and tourist destinations, making people want to see the sights for themselves. Travel fair vendors are preparing to offer immersive experiences of their offerings, hoping a more vivid demonstration of the vacation destination will translate to tickets, bookings and conversions. And while it’s still too early to understand exactly the return value on VR investments, VR offerings have gone a long way in boosting traveler confidence and re-engaging with loyal clientele. Even when the question of safety fully recedes into the background, VR marketing will soon emerge as the smartest strategy for connecting with consumers; high-budget commercial spend and other digital marketing tactics will be rendered obsolete when any prospective traveler could put on a headset and instantly be transported to the shore of a beach.

Biometric Safety Technology—Never See Another Line?
One of the main barriers to travel and hospitality activity was the guest-staff interaction, and the market acted quickly to provide a number of solutions. Now, virtual ID verifications can be built into booking platforms, integrated apps can grant access to digital room keys and enhanced biometric technologies have the power to supplement (or eventually replace) the traditionally awful pre-flight screening process.

Biometric screening—face, thumb print, voice, etc.—will be a pillar of post-COVID convenience. It will diminish both consumer wait times and consumer-staff interactions, allowing professionals to reserve their time and focus for more complex guest and traveler needs. A reliable facial scan has the power to cut a line in half, and self-directed access control could significantly simplify guest registrations. Importantly, more biometric data comes more responsibility; investments into biotech need to be paired with cyber security and infrastructure that protects a guest’s identity.

A Return to Self-Service
Throughout the pandemic, the technological response has put more power in the hands of the guest in terms of experience management. Reserving a table, calling a ride share and even ordering a meal no longer requires any human-to-human interaction. Those human interactions were once the crux of hospitality offerings, but the post-COVID guest has a new understanding of luxury: the ability to secure services by themselves. Today, guests and travelers understand quality in terms of fast response times, consistency across channels, and intuitive, self-directed use. People show a preference to manage smaller tasks on their own; a study by Zebra Global Hospitality showed 70% of guests preferred a smartphone check-in for efficiency and speed.

Hospitality service used to look like long front desk lines and knowledgeable concierge services. In the post-pandemic era, it’s moving toward less staff interactions and more smartphone offerings. Airline safety once meant extensive processes at TSA, but consumers and professionals are quickly coming to trust the powers of biotechnology, changing the way we think about screening. Travelers and guests are still in some sense looking for the same things: quality of experience, efficiency of service, a memorable stay. But they’re looking for that service in different ways—on their phones, at their fingertips, and behind the scenes. For travel and hospitality professionals fighting for relevance in the post-COVID era, tech-first solutions are the first place to begin.

Zain Jaffer is a tech entrepreneur and the founder/CEO of Zain Ventures, an investment firm with more than $100 million in assets under management.

This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.

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