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Article by Robert Meza

Invest in emerging technologies, but don't forget about guest experience

The ENTERTAINER FZ LLC 10 January 2018
As a result, they lost my confidence as a guest in their implementation of new digital "bells and whistles".I think of myself as very tech savvy, so I was looking forward to trying out the hotel's in-room smart TV system, smart controls and app. But it was such a nightmare to operate - the remote was your browser and was impossible to control, while the app had very little in terms of usability or information. I ended up more anxious and frustrated than delighted.Changing timesAn exciting revolution seems to be starting to take shape in hospitality thanks to the rise of mobile and emerging technologies - from chat-bots to AI, to voice assistants and robot concierges, smart hotel amenities and even entirely smart hotels.However, hoteliers must take great care that the digitised features they are adding on are not just to appeal to a modern millennial mindset. Such changes must have a purpose. Otherwise, they only serve to feed an on-demand technology monster. Each implementation has to have one purpose and one purpose only - improving the guest experience, on-property and in-destination.Engagement and growth in the hospitality industry isn't just about one time visits, pumping money into paid channels and optimizing conversion rates for rooms sold. What engagement entirely boils down is how successful a property is at making its guests feel taken care of and welcome, so they are likely to recommend the brand or to stay at a sister property in a new city.Human touchWhen building emerging technologies into a hotel's offerings, human-centric design is of the utmost importance. When tech isn't user-friendly, you risk confusing guests and failing to keep their business (while wasting your hotel's budget in the meantime). With competition mounting from the sharing economy, and Airbnb on track to rack up more than 100 million stays this year, hotels can't afford such mistakes.If implemented successfully, emerging technologies can provide quite the competitive edge. A great example is conversational interfaces and messaging, which are probably the trend in emerging technologies in hospitality right now about which I am most bullish.Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Baidu Deep Speech 2, IBM Watson, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana are among the dozens of players competing in this space. Available as voice-based or message-based systems, hotels can use conversational interfaces to provide better responses to guest inquiries about the hotel's features and services, while also using them to recommend and book tours and attractions and things to do in the cities they are in.As I have written before, the opportunity for tours and activities keeps growing and growing, and both mobile and emerging tech will be immense drivers to the industry.Early effortsThe majority of hotels that have started exploring and experimenting are using message-based interfaces, such as chatbots operating via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other communication services, and that'll soon increase as voice and messaging based tech, and the AI behind it, improves.Gartner Research predicts that 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020, likely fueled by the future popularity of voice-powered searches. Mobile is a driving force of this evolution, even further cementing a "mobile first strategy" as the future of the hospitality industry.Magnus Jern, chief information officer of Digital Management, Inc, a leading provider of mobile enterprise, business intelligence and cybersecurity services, said:"Customers expect to communicate directly with brands from their mobile through Facebook, Whatsapp, WeChat, Twitter and other channels about any topic...If they don't get a response they will go to a competitor or other company to find it."Chances are you've already interacted with a chatbot and didn't even know it. An important part of guest experience is indeed a personal, human touch, but these days many people are becoming open to receiving automated service if it is faster, more efficient and offers a satisfactory result. If a chatbot can provide a reliable solution or answer in half the time it takes to connect with a real person (without any of that mind-numbing "hold the line" music), wouldn't you happily use one?Getting the messageIHG Hotels demonstrates just how a chatbot can develop brand loyalty by improving guest experience. Milda Ratkelyte, social channels manager for IHG said:"We want travellers to interact with Hotel Indigo the same way they do with their friends, so introducing our digital Neighbourhood Host on Facebook Messenger was a perfect way for us to better connect with them through one of the world's most used platform."The chatbot engages the guests not only pre-stay where they can plan but also during the stay, where they can get information about the city, things to do and attractions and much more.Chatbots can engage with existing traffic, increase conversion rates, upsell and solve inquiries and complaints with more ease. It can even act as a reservation channel to facilitate direct bookings. It doesn't just have novelty appeal, and it can be an important means of getting an edge on competition and making the lives of guests easier.However, for users to indeed build trust in a brand and its chatbot, their experience has to be seamless. As trends researcher Sabre Labs put it in it's 2017 "Emerging Technology in Travel" report:"Chatbots must function as expected by the user. The goal is for the technology to disappear and for the user to forget about the interface. For this to happen, understanding intent is essential."If done poorly, conversational interfaces work against its hotel adopters.Future gazingWhat the chatbots of tomorrow will be capable of is incredible. Today many chatbots are rules based rather than AI based. Artificial intelligence is set to one day advance conversational interfaces to an astonishing degree. Christina Heggie, investment principal at JetBlue Technology Ventures, runs down an interesting scenario in a Medium post."Imagine a world where you communicate with a conversational AI through any channel of choice to discuss a trip - from an Alexa-like hardware device to software on a computer or a digital watch. 'Book flights and hotels for my meeting next week in LA.' or an ongoing and evolving conversation: 'I want to take vacation next spring. Maybe somewhere warm. Not too expensive. Using some of my loyalty points. Where can I go?"The software would gather a user's prior booking history, as well as other relevant information, ranging from TripAdvisor Yelp reviews to photos liked on Instagram, capturing the relative words and data points needed to establish accurate context for that traveller.Through the analysis of this information, as well as her stated preferences, AI could produce a short, highly customized list of search results ... in stark contrast to what users often experience today on online booking engines."That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personalized service. People will give chatbots details they wouldn't put into search engines, and rich data from a full digital footprint will flourish with specific answers that will hit the nail right on the head.Once additional personal information is offered up, it can be collected and mined for data sets. Big data is a term that might sound impersonal and daunting, but it's actually where that human touch and technology meet. Hotels can find out more about who their guests are, their needs and desires, and in doing so be able to deliver them even better service.I've worked on mobile, bots and emerging tech firsthand. I believe in being a practitioner. My current company has developed a mobile concierge for both the in-room and in-destination experience, and I can say that investing in emerging technologies, when implemented right, has the potential to save hotels serious operating costs and delight guests at the same.Thriving hotels such as The Public in New York and chains such as Yotel can inspire with their fuss-free, tech-reliant models. The Public has scaled rapidly thanks to unique automated touches, such as self-check-in using iPads in the lobby and online room service orders with self-pick-up. Meanwhile, Yotel enlists the help of butler robots that take elevators by themselves to deliver amenities such as towels and toothbrushes.But despite how exciting these advancements are, emerging technologies can only act as a complement to warm and genuine human service. The basic tenets of good hospitality should not be sacrificed for innovation, but rather propped up and made better because of it. Don't forget: excellent guest experience always has to come from the heart.
Article by Robert Meza

In-destination is worth billions but without mobile, forget it

The ENTERTAINER FZ LLC 14 November 2017
The in-destination market has long been ignored in favour of the flights and hotel booking business. From a money-making perspective, this doesn't make much sense - the reason most people travel is for unique experiences on the ground. Until recently most travel companies ignored this vast opportunity, or simply used tours and activities as a means to upsell.But now the reality is that mobile technology has advanced enough to become the driving force of the in-destination market. The pipes are now in place to deliver seamless instant digital experiences from suppliers to smartphone devices.Changing timesLet's take for example Expedia, which moved its T&A Local Expert division onto its app in 2015, betting big with a $6.4 million investment for US promotion. Booking.com launched its app-based Booking Experiences initiative in 2016 allowing travellers to instantly book and pay for attractions. According to comments made at this year's Phocuswright Europe conference, they have been testing in a few key markets, and the results are so far quite positive.Even Airbnb has caught on and launched its Trips platform last November, hawking "live like a local" experiences hosted by experts oozing cool factor. You might have even seen its new marketing collaboration with Millennial-minded VICE, sending lucky winners to trendy destinations such as Cape Town, Paris and Tokyo, for once-in-a-lifetime hyper-local adventures.Figure it outAccording to Phocuswright, which has extensively researched the in-destination market, travel activities, tours, attractions and events alone were worth about $135 billion worldwide in 2016 - dining and shopping not included.Elsewhere, new research from eMarketer shows that desktop travel bookings are sharply declining in the US with mobile sales set to total $75.85 billion this year, up 16.7 percent from 2016. Global travel, tourism and hospitality are clearly manoeuvring in this direction, so best to hop on board or get left behind.There are several innovative startups already attempting to stake a claim in this evolving space, such as Musement in Europe, and Klook in Asia, and of course established non-traditional OTAs such as Tripadvisor, which acquired Viator, tours and activities engine considered the first in this field.To be sure, Airbnb's Trips platform and others present healthy competition, but the market is wide open and large enough that it could still be anybody's game.Plenty of roomAfter all, most travel players did not start pursuing mobile as their primary play until recently. A "mobile-second strategy" ensures that mobile always comes, well, second. Expedia admitted to a "mobile-second strategy" until its 2015 shift.The in-destination sector will grow to suit what customers are craving - on-demand, on-the-go access - whether larger OTAs or innovative startups shine enough of a spotlight in there or not.Large and fragmented supply, together with basic technology and this lack of direct attention from the big fish, are a budding opportunity for companies who aren't afraid of risk-taking and real ingenuity. Mobile companies that take the time to carefully connect the dots within the sector, forming widespread networks and lasting relationships, will be in a prime position to reap some pretty powerful benefits.Mobile applicationsMobile is pushing innovation in the in-destination market like never before. Bigger brands are beginning to seek out new ways to entice and delight customers during their travels. For example, a telco that sells tourist SIM cards could use a mobile in-destination platform for added value, whereas airlines could benefit from such a platform as a means to connect with customers via loyalty programs.Consumers want to use their devices to explore, experience and share their travel. In the age of instant gratification, there is no reason why companies should not meet these requirements. At the end of the day, it's the things that people do on holiday that inspire travel in the first place. Those are the travel moments they value - arguably, much more often than a stress-free flight or even a nice hotel room.Building an in-destination mobile experience requires a lot of working parts to synch and align - dining offers, day planners, guides, and instant booking of tours and activities, or what have you.And customizing for specific partners, whether telcos, airlines or even financial institutions who want to connect with customer loyalty, adds another layer of sophistication and opportunity.But in the long game of trendsetters and trend followers, it's important to know which side you are on. In that way, the work can be very well worth it.
Article by Robert Meza

Transforming the future of the travel experience, one mobile at a time

The ENTERTAINER FZ LLC 30 October 2017
There, waiting for you is a welcome message, along the lines of:"Welcome to Barcelona, Robert. Anything planned for those 12 hours of layover here?The Picasso Museum opens in one hour. Tap here to take a virtual tour and book your ticket to avoid the queue.By the time you're done, some of the best vegetarian Catalonian restaurants are within a ten-minute walk. Check out some of their special offers, and click on whichever one takes your fancy to make a reservation."Oh by the way, traffic is not looking very good right now, we suggest you take the metro. Tap here for directions."Next train leaves in ten minutes - swipe right to get your ticket."The tips can continue giving the user a whole host of relevant options and information tailored to his or her likes and interest - tours, special offers, theatre shows, maps, location-specific guides, restaurants.What's more, it'll take into consideration the time of day and the user's actual location - pushing to him or her only those notifications that are truly relevant.It's a personalised tour guide, a daily planner, a guidebook, a map, a concierge and a booking engine all on one ecosystem joining all the dots of the traveller's journey seamlessly.It's a complete in-destination mobile solution in the palm of your hand, which means that the traveller does not need to download four or five different apps to do this, but it could all exist within one solution, delivered on mobile.Sound feasible? The truth is that all the tools to make this reality exist today, however not many companies have invested in putting all of these together for the traveller.Fact or fictionNot many industries have embraced and adopted the advancement of digitalisation as much as the travel sector - and this is showing no signs of slowing.According to the World Economic Forum's paper entitled Digital Transformation Initiative Aviation, Travel and Tourism in collaboration with Accenture, over the next decade (2016 to 2025), digitalisation in the travel industry is expected to create up to $305 billion of value.It's no secret that what is truly driving not only innovation but also monetisation and profitability in travel is mobile technology.According to Criteo, fuelled by smartphone use, close to one-third of online travel bookings worldwide took place on mobile devices in Q2 2016, up from 24% just one year before.This trend is reiterated by Hotels.com's travel tracker, which reports that in 2016 42% of people booked a hotel on mobile, rising to 53% for under 30s.And according to the 2016 Expedia/Egencia Mobile Index, 84% of travellers want to access information from anywhere in the world. Some 60% admit that they would be unwilling to go on holiday without their mobile devise. In fact, 35% claim to use their mobile more on holiday than they would otherwise.Generation gamesI know there is lots of talk about Millennials and how they are driving mobile adoption. The want-it-now generation makes snap decisions and demands on-spot, personalised information at their fingertips.I would say that it is not just Millenials. Most of us (I am a Xennial if we have to label), are constantly on our phones, checking email, chatting on Whatsapp, posting on Instagram. It is just a natural progression that we are all moving towards the mobile device, because it lets us save time.It is herein that lies immense opportunities for companies to engage with their customers by giving them a mobile-driven travel experience.It's already happening.Room to improveLet's take hotel apps for example. For the most part, they have been focusing on the booking of the rooms, and perhaps on the check-in features, yet most hotels abandon their guests after the check-in. They don't invest or know how to engage people on the device they are on most of the day. Where is a traveller to look for advice on what to do? Why are the hotels not the ones providing this, not enabling guests to explore their properties, to know the city or the neighbourhood or even book tours, activities and attractions or reserve a table at a great restaurant?I am not going to say that no hotels are investing, in fact some are. Take for example Aloft, which recently launched its in-room app that controls the guest's room using Apple's Homekit and Siri.This allows guests to change the temperature, control the lights and television all using voice commands. Siri also acts like a real concierge, answering questions about the local area. Although yet to revolutionise the travel industry, voice-based commands are gaining momentum, especially as natural language processing evolves.What I see gaining ground is the chatbot, such as that used in Whatsapp and Messenger. Now brands are creating their own bots to automate and speed up the loop around how customers engage with content and ask questions.Take Holiday Inn as an example, becoming the first major chain in Japan to adopt the latest artificial intelligence chatbot concierge - Bebot.Bebot offers real-time assistance to guests by answering questions that only hotel staff or locals would know and then goes on to make restaurant or tour bookings.I know of other great examples of brands who are building bots (I have personally helped one brand with its first bot which is launching soon) to engage their guests while in destination, but the adoption is slow and scarce in the industry.If you have ever worked on a proper chatbot, you would know that a lot of the time has to be spent on the Chat UI, because you are building for intent, so the results are not known, as if you were building a website or app. If you think about it, for every answer a bot could give you, there are 1000 ways of asking.Once you have your ChatUI - you have to start getting enough data to make the bot smart - most people think that they can build a bot in a few weeks, and then they call the bot AI powered. Sorry to deflate the hype, but most of those bots have barely any machine learning applied to them. That takes time, training and it's not just done by the algorithms - companies that get it right have humans annotating and fixing queries.Of course you can't do everything on a bot, so as a company you will probably still need to use an app of some sort.Few companies can afford to rest on their laurels and continue to avoid engaging their customers on mobile. The travel giants are taking note, only in May this year we saw online travel giant TripAdvisor relaunch its native iOS app, making it more streamlined for its 150 million monthly hotel shoppers to search for hotels, book flights, tours and attractions.However it is not just the OTAs, hotels and airlines that should be engaging customers and investing or building for great mobile travel experiences. Banks and telecoms companies have travelling customers who are loyal and expect to receive these experiences, perhaps even tied to loyalty and rewards programs.Opportunity in the makingAccording to the World Economic Forum report, it is predicted that within travel$ 100 billion of value will migrate from traditional players to new competitors.Companies that have traditionally served a certain sector of the industry - such as airlines - are now crossing boundaries as roles are blurring. While providing flights remains their raison d'etre, airlines know that to build deeper and stronger relationships with their customers they need to provide more.The opportunity cost of not investing in mobile is that customers will start looking for alternative apps or bots, and the opportunity to gather data, behaviour, drive revenue and engagement will be taken by someone else.It is not a fad. A mobile solution for your guests if you are a hotel, for a passenger if you are an airline and for a customer if you are a financial institution is not a nice-to-have - it is what you should already be doing.It's worth remembering that the in-destination experience is central to any trip. The airline and the hotel are a means to experience a destination.Companies need to empower their customers - before and after the flight or beyond the hotel room - by giving them the tools not only to inspire but also to turn that inspiration into reality. Joining the dots of the entire travel experience means offering a highly personalized, 360-degree in-destination mobile experience.Through mobile technology, based heavily on accurate data collection, some of that $305 billion revenue predicted by the WEF could be yours.Now if you'll excuse me, I've an art gallery to go to.
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The ENTERTAINER launches new in-destination travel app

The ENTERTAINER FZ LLC 7 August 2017
The ENTERTAINER, a leading provider of 'buy one get one free' offers, today announced the launch of its new B2B travel platform, 'ENTERTAINER go'.The launch of 'ENTERTAINER go' comes as part of the company's plans to broadly expand their travel offerings and ever-growing global footprint.Available in over 160 destinations worldwide, the App is the ultimate travel companion, accommodating a traveller's every need. It serves as a personalised travel guide, with offline features such as a trip planner, guidebook and maps.The platform's intuitive ticket booking engine offers quick and straightforward access to 27,000 top attractions and 7,500 points of interest, and includes 2-for-1 offers at well-known dining, leisure, spa and entertainment brands.Donna Benton, the founder and chairman of the ENTERTAINER says, "We are fast becoming a trailblazer in the travel space and have found success in our constant efforts to innovate our technology. We work hard to ensure that we can provide extremely compelling B2B solutions for all our corporate clients and this time is no different."While 'ENTERTAINER go' serves as a travel App for the end user, companies can use the technology to better engage their customers while on the road by offering them rewards and special offers in real-time through push notifications or on the platform's sophisticated advertising space.Head of Travel at the ENTERTAINER, Robert Meza says, "We aim to provide a cutting edge travel platform to help brands engage and delight their customers while they visit their favorite destinations."Meza explains that the App opens a direct line of communication between businesses and their consumers."Businesses can use the app as a tool to accumulate data on how their customers choose to travel, from location specific data to redemption behaviour. This information can be used by companies to create and improve on their marketing strategies, increase customer retention, and enhance their customers' future destination experiences."Vacations and business trips become even more extraordinary, effortless and cost-effective as users of the app can add desired stops to their day planners, and have access to local knowledge and money saving offers entirely at their own convenience.The app is fully customisable and may be white labelled, cobranded or even embedded into any businesses' existing app.

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