The direction has been clear for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic may have helped define future touchless technology. The timeline for development may also have been compressed significantly as the world recovers. International hotel chains are rolling out improvements from check-in to room cleaning. Food and beverage service is likely to be affected as well. Improved health screening, for both guests and employees, promises to revolutionize the hospitality industry. The future is likely to include more automation and less human contact, and it promises to extend not only throughout the business sector but to every aspect of life. As the world starts traveling once more, the new technology will become not only more evident, but more sophisticated.
European and Asian hotel chains have already embraced digital technology to improve customer experience. In-room control of everything from ambient lighting to water temperature and television can be accomplished with a simple touch of a tablet touchscreen. Reservations and check-in are now handled almost instantaneously by cell phone and authorization codes; even room security is apt to be digital rather than with a passkey or card. Automat-style food service and in-room mini-bars are increasingly the refreshment centers of choice at small highway motels, major airport hotels, and even convention center complexes.
Now, there's an added incentive—health and safety—that is driving development of familiar services via new technology. What does that mean for Minneapolis, and for the many new hotels currently planned for the Twin Cities, Bloomington and the rest of the state? For one thing, it is likely to mean less human contact. Whether that's welcome of not, it is probably the new reality.
Cleaning and Sanitizing Requirements
As the hospitality industry ramps up once again following the 2020 global travel hiatus, more hand cleaning is expected to give way to additional industrial-strength cleaning measures. The Marriott has begun using electrostatic sprayers to apply sanitizing liquids that disinfect surfaces, and UV-light room sanitizers, according to industry reports, as part of the chain's new cleanliness routine. Other hotel chains are looking into the use of service robots for cleaning tasks as well as to deliver items to guest rooms.
This should not surprise anyone, with drone deliveries now a reality, and some pizza chains introducing robotic delivery services. Global initiatives focus on establishing guidelines for making properties safer through better cleaning technology, however, not simply by counteracting real or perceived health threats with more chemicals. Some of the more promising techniques involve cleaning that will not pose an additional risk to humans.
What Can Travelers Expect?
European and Asian travelers have already experienced much of the new technology. In general, other countries around the world embraced technology options earlier than hoteliers in the United States. Cruise lines also pioneered new touchless/contact-free options prior to the pandemic, and will no doubt expand the availability of those options when ships return to the seas. Perhaps the burgeoning tourism trade demanded it, but contactless and touch-free check-in procedures are commonplace and no longer a novelty.
Such futuristic amenities as AI assistance, remote controls for everything from in-room music to shower aromatherapy and light shows are certain to be a part of new hotel experiences as hand-sanitizers, automatic doors and room-darkening shades.
The widespread availability of mobile devices has, of course, made locating a hotel and reserving a room easier than ever before. Registration as well as payment can easily be completed online, and access without the need for a signature or a face-to-face greeting is quick and simple, if a bit impersonal.
In terms of health screening, travelers may get used to travel history reviews, digital fever scans upon arrival, minimal restaurant service and lobbies that encourage social distancing. Shoppers and restaurant-goers appear to have taken such measures in stride. Whether additional measures such as sanitation booths, digital tracking and detailed travel histories are practical or can even be implemented on a large scale depends in part on cost as well as oversight. Whether American business and the traveling public will accept such constraints remains to be seen.
The Future for Hotel Employees
Travel and hospitality business has always been people-dependent, and that is destined to change in the near future. Technology will almost certainly reduce the need for front-desk personnel in hotels, and food service and delivery jobs may disappear in favor of machines, robots and self-selection, Payroll expenditures may be redirected to technology and automation expense.
Behind-the-scenes personnel—maintenance and cleaning crews—will undoubtedly face larger challenges. They will have to adapt not only to advanced screening procedures for their own health, but also will be burdened by more stringent requirements for care of physical facilities and client or guest concerns.
Global business will never be the same. Almost everyone agrees with that post-pandemic assessment. Exactly what the future may hold is, at this point, still open to discussion and development. That is a given, across all business sectors.
Outlook for the Twin Cities
No one believes that hotels of the future will emerge as anything but the service-oriented businesses that they currently are, but the nature of that business will certainly be altered.
Activity has been strong over the past year, with multiple new projects in the pipeline. Minneapolis welcomed three new hotels, and St. Paul gained two in 2019. Most analysts believe the hotel section will remain strong, because of the city's history of booming CRE development over the past several seasons. Approximately 700 new hotel rooms were under construction in February 2020 in Minneapolis alone, with another 300 currently being developed by Marriott at two St. Paul locations.
Another 700 rooms have been proposed for Minneapolis, primarily by boutique developers and small-unit chains rather than major urban developments. However, several larger downtown hotels have recently been acquired by new owners in the past 12 months, signaling reason for continuing "cautious optimism," even though a decline in occupancy is forecast for the next 18-24 months.
Investment in the hotel industry in both St. Paul and Bloomington, home of the Mall of America, calls for caution based on economic factors, occupancy rates and other area development numbers. But, overall, the sector seems poised for continued growth. And global trends point to the adoption of exciting new technology.