Scratch what you believe about innovation. These days everyone purports to be innovating, revolutionizing, and pioneering, while the rest of us seem to be perpetually searching for innovation. The hoteliers, the media, the investors; we are all looking for the next big thing that will solve the hotel and travel industry’s real and persistent problems.
Sure, innovation really just means introducing something new, so most companies are not blowing smoke when they use it. The challenge is that so many companies want to believe they are changing the world – especially when it comes to those that pedal in technology – and very few categorically are. Electronic banking changed the world. Google changed the world. Airbnb and Uber are changing the world. What these companies all have in common is that they are addressing a human need. A need was identified—and the ‘then’ is key here—then a technology was developed to satisfy that need.
Where many tech businesses have veered off course is in their belief that technology in and of itself has value. To this, I say: Solve the problem then solve/deliver the solution.
Tech companies are, more often than not, putting the solution in front of the problem. Hiring developers, rolling out code and seeking funding to grow their platforms without having consideration for whether or not they are solving any problems. In order to solve a problem, you must ascertain a need, and if people do not need it, there’s really no point to designing a product or technology around it.
Otherwise put, the front-end is where the real value lies; the technology is secondary.
As counterintuitive as it may sometimes feel, true technological innovation is personal. Airbnb has not succeeded on technology. They saw a need to connect people with other people for accommodations then built a technology to support it. The same goes for Uber.
If a hotel brand rolls out a high priced, company-wide technology—say a new PMS or CRM—but guest service is sub par, or the hotel itself is not meeting guests’ needs, then the solution is a multi-million dollar loss because they were not resolving the right issues. B2B hotel technology companies must first consider what the hotel’s problems are before they invest energy in trying to find a solution.
Google operates on this problem first approach. Susan Wojcicki, Google SVP of Advertising, says, “When we start work in a new area, it is often because we see an important issue that hasn’t been solved, and we are confident that technology can make a difference… Our mission is one that has the potential to touch many lives” (Think with Google). Personhood—human needs—are at the core of Google’s problem solving, and they have done well innovating with this approach.
Let’s consider then the top challenges facing the hotel industry this year. According to Deloitte, they are:
- the guest desire for an outstanding, highly personalized experience;
- data silos that make it difficult to understand the abundance of guest information hotels have on hand;
- recruitment and retention;
- maintaining a competitive advantage in the midst of emerging business models and massive consolidation (Deloitte 2016).
Moreover, while this is a current list, what strikes me is that not very much has changed in in the last several years. These are the same issues we have seen over and over. Remember when hotels used to push papers for every little thing, before the days of the PMS? Where is the enterprise-level innovation that improves staff retention—a constant issue in the hospitality industry—or the technology that integrates the CRM with the PMS and then shuffles it to a tablet for personalization.
Further to providing for real, identified needs, we cannot have a complete conversation about what a hotel’s technology needs are without understanding guest needs. The Thistle Hotel Group completed a survey of 2000 guests, and top complaints were:
1) Rude or unfriendly hotel staff
2) Rooms not ready at check-in
3) WiFi fees
(Digital Journal 2014)
First things first for hotels are to remedy the obvious guest problems. No amount of technology can repair-unfriendly staff or poor/costly WiFi. These issues must be sorted out beforehand. That said, we see the top guest issues over and over. Technology that helps solve for any of the top guest problems can potentially innovate. For instance, streamlining communication between the front desk and housekeeping to confirm a rooms readiness to be cleaned or availability for check-in should be top-of-mind in terms of solving a human problem with technology.
Technologies that support staff to provide superior guest service may be innovative. Not all of them will be, of course, but we are talking about identifying where to innovate before trying to innovate. For instance, a technology that enables staff to move about the hotel with freedom and access guest CRM information at the touch of a button to provide on-the-spot personalization (remember, this is issue #1 that hotels struggle with right now) is innovative in the way that it has the potential to change the guest experience. In-room concierge technology, social and text messaging and voice automation are on the forefront of emerging tools in this category.
The point is that, especially in the B2B sector, a human need must be identified in order to change the hotel world.
For a $550 billion industry, the hotel industry lags behind other industries religiously—and we see the same issues cropping up over and over. While tech innovation is not the answer to all of our industry’s problems, I cannot help but wonder if we stopped trying to innovate with code and began investing our time and energy in solving the actual difficulties of the industry how quickly we might catch up.