Technology and digital drive: need and opportunity in the Spanish hotel sector

By Jacobo Sanchez-Andrade, Alexander Benalal, Maria Fuentes

09-2020

The hotel sector is one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis in Spain. The temporary shutdown of hotels and the consequent collapse of hotel occupancy during the lockdown have given way to a scenario with asymmetric phases and limitations of geographical mobility and certain restrictions on foreign tourism. This will be followed by a situation of generalized fear of infection for many tourists, which is expected to persist even after the de-escalation plan has been finalized.

Given this situation, and in addition to the challenge that faces this sector in terms of ensuring the sustainability of the business through the renegotiation (voluntary or imposed) of the conditions under which hotel properties are currently occupied by operators, where our real estate department has been working intensively, it is advisable not to overlook another of the challenges faced by the major hotel chains and where our clients are also seeking our advice in order to ensure that this has the appropriate legal fit: as part of the "anti COVID-19" measures plan, the automation of processes and the implementation of rigorous health, safety and hygiene standards and protocols in hotels. Thus, in addition to the use of hospital disinfectants, the installation of screens at reception desks, the offer of masks and gloves, the reduction of decorative elements and the redistribution of furniture or the use of disposable materials in room service, in many cases new figures have been added such as "the hygienist" (Barceló) or the creation of Cleaning Boards (Marriott) and Supervisory Committees to ensure the application of these cleaning protocols and disinfection procedures in accordance with the indications of the health authorities. In some cases, these procedures will be additionally verified by periodic audits carried out by external companies recognized at international level.

However perhaps the most remarkable element, and certainly the one that represents the largest investment, but maybe also an opportunity, is the commitment to technology as a transforming element and one that, it is worth thinking about, is here to stay.

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO have been warning that the main way of propagation of COVID-19 is direct contact between people, the technology, while preventing it, entails the digitization of many processes currently performed personally. Among the initiatives that are being carried out, it is worth firstly mentioning the registration of arrivals, the first point of contact with guests, which until now, despite the generalization of online reservations and the evolution of intelligent technologies, has hardly changed. One of the consequences of COVID-19 is that it will transform the "reception" of a hotel so that the client can complete the check in and check out without going through it.

In most cases, this process will be carried out through mobile applications, as is the case with Barceló; other hotel chains, however, are opting for the offer of loyalty programs, such as "MeliáRewards" which, among other advantages, allows for online check-in. Bluebay has announced the installation of self-check-in stands in the reception areas.

Another aspect that will change will be life in the hotel. From actions as simple as opening the door of a room, closing the curtains or turning on the lights, which can be executed through digital solutions with connectivity and automation systems that allow minimizing the physical contact with those surfaces, to the use of restaurant services. Regarding the second issue, and in order to avoid concentration and contact between people, some hotels like Barceló are offering, through apps, the 'Grab & go' mode (so that the food products are offered to the customer packed, ready to eat, available in any type of cold room, shelf or similar, which can revolutionize the traditional concept of the buffet). Others are developing contactless solutions to offer digital menus accessible with QR codes, which will reduce physical interaction in restaurant areas.

Moreover, technology can also play a key role in sanitation and disinfection. Chains such as Hilton and Marriot are exploring the incorporation of hospital-specific technologies, such as the use of electrostatic sprays with approved sanitary disinfectants or ultraviolet light technology to disinfect surfaces and objects such as keys.

More broadly, facial recognition and real-time document analysis can speed up registration processes, and a virtual reality viewer could allow a customer to experience first-hand the advantages of choosing one room or another. And artificial intelligence or 3D printing, the implementation of robots, virtual assistants, intelligent mirrors and even the use of apps capable of adapting the atmosphere of the room to the mood, are some of the many examples that are expected to lead the digital transformation of the hotel industry. The implementation of these tools will also require the negotiation of the terms in which possible developments will be outsourced to specialized technology providers, the scope of responsibility of the parties, the place where the data will be hosted or the minimum SLAs (service levels) required from each provider and penalties for non-compliance.

All of the foregoing will be added to the analysis of the data, already the undisputed protagonist of the sector's investments in its understandable and commendable desire to know the clients and adapt its offer and space of services as much as possible to them. Likewise, from a legal standpoint, it will be relevant to consider the aspects related to the management of rights over such technological solutions, data and databases and the implications vis-à-vis guests in accordance with the regulations on the defense of consumers and users due to the use of the same, as well as the possible impact on privacy of the use of certain technologies, such as facial recognition.

In conclusion, although it is difficult to accurately predict in the current context, it can be concluded that the COVID-19 will bring many changes to the hotel experience. Some solutions were already being used in this industry, but certainly their definitive implementation has been accelerated by the COVID-19. As abovementioned, most of these changes will be technological and will be to stay, helping to improve the customer experience and well-being.