Mid-Year Perspective: Hospitality Conferences Show an Industry Grappling with an Uncertain Future

hotel conference talking technology

It’s mid-year report time for the hospitality conference circuit which will culminate with ILHA’s Inspire 2023 conference in Miami Beach in December. Beginning with HEDNA North America back in January and running through HITEC and HSMAI this summer, a clear picture emerges of the priorities and lingering questions of an industry in flux.

At several of the conferences, the complexity of travel hit home before attendees even arrived. Frequent were the conversations of participants who arrived late (or didn’t arrive at all) due to flight disruptions caused by severe weather and technology disruptions.

These impacts were just the start as the industry deals with strong current demand coupled with an uncertain economic future, enduring labor shortages, technology and data deficits, and dramatic change to the business/leisure balance that has altered decades of stability.

In the midst of this uncertainty, the industry has gathered in various locales throughout the year with one eye on the present and one on the future. Here are the big themes we have seen thus far:

  1. AI can help (once the hospitality industry embraces it): Both conferences covered the topic from a range of perspectives. In a presentation by Microsoft, a study was shared which ranked travel as one of the top 3 industries that will benefit from AI, but with one of the lowest rates of adoption yet across the industries that were evaluated. Applications range from customer service to sales meeting follow-up to tracking operations to find efficiencies.
  2. Get the basics right before you get fancy: Hotel execs pointed out that personalized hotel room fragrances, custom door handles, and screencast devices to watch your own Netflix account on the hotel room TV won’t matter to customers if the WiFi isn’t glitch-proof and digital key check-in isn’t seamless. 
  3. Tools that help solve staffing challenges are enticing: The latest digital solutions have included digital tipping options that encourage staff rewards, robots that vacuum hotel hallways and deliver bottles of wine on-demand, and holograms that welcome guests and answer questions (with a pseudo human touch). Early adopters with the resources said they welcome these solutions if they keep customers happy and solve staffing crunches. But for others with smaller budgets or basic technology problems to solve, these nice-to-have tools will likely be adopted slowly, if at all.
  4. Customer messaging is starting with “re”: At this stage of recovery and travel demand post-2020, the key words start with the same two letters: Reward, reset, reconnect, reinvent, recharge, etc. Hotel marketers were encouraged to make sure their messaging is updated to reflect current traveler sentiment, then to offer experiences that align with that feeling.
  5. “Creative” is the new targeting: Brands are using video in their targeting. They are replacing still images with video. They are increasingly refreshing messaging and social channels to ‘show rather than tell’. And today, with the right data at the hotel’s disposal, targeted ads can be inserted within a show on a streaming network and removed as soon as the campaign is over.
  6. Softer demand in the second half: Many hoteliers agreed that the trends talked about on-stage at various conferences reflect what they’re seeing on-property. They’re seeing more well-to-do Gen-Zers on-property than older guests. Staffing challenges are here to stay and they’re still struggling to get a handle on them. And the strong demand seen in the first half of 2023 looks a little slower in the second half.

Takeaways

The 2023 lineup of conferences have been characterized – thus far –  with their efforts to embrace a more diverse industry. Special efforts have been focused on women, young professionals (under the age of 35) and DEI as a core topic. 

The biggest uber-theme of the year, however, has been the state and future of the industry’s technology stance. Main-stage jokes such as “the last great hotel inventions were specialized shower heads and rounded shower curtains” fell flat. The reality of the industry’s technology challenges, while perhaps not a laughing matter, were succinctly summed up by one speaker: “Airlines are doing a better job than hospitality in terms of digital customer journey.” 

Where to start?

A CTO session at one conference prompted attendees to answer the question, “what ‘cutting edge’ technology are you interested in?” Answers included: integration, intelligence, personalization, AI, streamlined guest journey, robots as a promo tool, and labor optimization. 

When those on-stage were asked the same question, they cited the need to shore up the basics first and to make sure they’re operating consistently across all of their properties before lobbying owners for funds to invest in new projects. These ‘basics’ include high-speed WiFi, everything on the cloud, and ensuring all computers and systems are updated with the latest security software. After that, solutions that better serve customers, better support staff, and take advantage of AI are what’s next.

While the number of urgent priorities is long, it became clear through the myriad conference discussions that the hospitality industry needs to find a way to place more emphasis on the road ahead. Buckle up for an exhilarating, but rewarding, ride in the months ahead.

About the AuthorAngela Shannon is Director of Marketing for Journera, the travel technology company on a mission to improve the customer journey through its patented, secure data exchange and easy integration solutions.