Writer: Sara Warden
2 min read December 2021 — During the height of the pandemic, the need and reliance on technology within the hospitality industry ramped up substantially. Everything from ultra-fast Wi-Fi and touch-free elevators to contact-free check-in processes became priorities for hotels of all sizes. Now the questions are how has this technological evolution aided in the industry’s recovery, and what’s next for innovation in hospitality?
For Jacksonville, the pandemic was a shock. As a destination that typically attracts north of 20 million visitors per year, the eerily quiet hotels and shuttered restaurants caught the region off guard. But as visitors began to trickle back, the local businesses knew the most important thing in getting people to return was consumer confidence, which was accomplished by means of technological innovations.
Ted Ent, CEO and president of Innisfree Hotels, discussed how a lot of the components were already in place to offer the customer exactly what they wanted. “All the major brands now have digital check-in,” he told Invest:. “If you download an app, you can check into your room remotely and you will get a digital key to your room. The idea is to not touch the guests when they arrive at the hotel.”
Hospitality has not just stopped with contact-free check-in. On the more advanced end of the scale, some destinations are replacing humans with robots for basic functions, including cleaning floors and killing germs. This could potentially help with the chronic staffing shortages that are currently being experienced nationwide.
Another solution now operating in Jacksonville is GigPro, an app that allows hotels to tap into the gig economy. Hospitality venues can post single shifts to meet last-minute demand and will be connected to a network of “Pros” who value flexible working opportunities.
Chatbots, mobile check in and contactless payments now come as the standard in high-end hotels. There are also those locations standing out from the crowd that have installed smart speakers in-room and implemented automated order taking in restaurants and bars, which has reduced wait time for customers.
Corporate travel has lagged and is widely expected to be the last tourism sub-sector to recover from the pandemic. In an attempt to expedite this recovery, hotels are now luring executives back with added technology, including offering digital conference facilities with high-tech AV and digital equipment.
All of these efforts are working and have allowed the region to claw back some of its tourism losses this year. As of October 2021, Duval County’s occupancy rate was 70.8%, a 26.5%opens PDF file increase on the year. Additional supply was added to the county, bringing capacity to 18,000 rooms. There was also a 15% increase in the average daily rate and a staggering 52% increase in room revenue. These rates also exceeded levels seen in 2018 and 2019.
But even though some believe there is a future for hotels without a front desk, Ent says there is a fine balance for hotel groups who still want to maintain the friendly appeal. “There is still a large number of guests who are looking for a level of customer service,” Ent told Invest:. “We’re leisure and we believe there will always be a presence in the lobby welcoming people and setting the tone for their stay. This is an industry that is creating fun and memorable experiences and we know the way to get there is through interpersonal interaction.”
As for the future of tourism in Jacksonville, Ent predicts it will remain strong, particularly in markets like Amelia Island and Jacksonville Beach due to their drive to locations and access to a major airport. “These markets and many other mid-tier beach markets were discovered by new tourists during covid and will benefit long term from repeat business,” Ent said.