Comment: Welcome to the future

Enter the era of autonomy - what's the next disruptor for the hotel industry?

Louise Oakley is an independent editorial consultant specialising in the hospitality industry and the director of PR at In2 Consulting.
Louise Oakley is an independent editorial consultant specialising in the hospitality industry and the director of PR at In2 Consulting.

A common wish among hoteliers is the desire to see into the future; to understand upcoming consumer, lifestyle and travel trends and most importantly, realise how these can be applied to their own business — before their competitors do.

According to James Whittaker, who boasts the exceptionally cool job title ‘Distinguished Technical Evangelist’ for Microsoft, granting this wish is within our reach.

Whittaker says that if we learn from the disruptions of the present and the past, and analyse these alongside evolving consumer ‘intents’, “the future is predictable”. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

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In a keynote presentation on ‘The Next Disruption to the Hotel Industry’, delivered to more than 700 delegates at the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference 2017 (AHIC) in Dubai in April, Whittaker revealed some of his key predictions for the impact of technology on hospitality.

With insights that were in equal measure exciting and alarming, several weeks after his presentation, there are certain phrases I still can’t get out of my head, hence sharing these with you here.

Whittaker talked about the history of computing in four eras: ‘powerful’ in the 1980s, dominated by mainframes; ‘accessible’ in the 1990s, with the advent of the PC; ‘connected’ in the 2000s thanks to web development; and ‘mobile’ in the 2010s.

According to Whittaker, we’re already at the end of the mobile era and if you think you will be carrying around your smartphones in 10 years’ time, “you’re wrong”.  (You can picture a room of horrified hoteliers clutching their phones tightly, heads shaking in disbelief).

These developments happen, argued Whittaker, because human intents change, as we continually demand more information.

The next era, he predicts, will be that of ‘autonomy’, with “the machines figuring out what we want for us”.

“The world is being reduced to data” and machines, says Whittaker, are simply going to be better at figuring out this data than humans.

He cites the success of driverless cars as an example. Whittaker believes that in a few years it will be against the law for humans to drive cars and it will be illegal to even manufacture cars that can be driven, because the self-driving cars we are currently sceptical about will be that much safer.

So, what does this mean for hotels? Well, hotel guests are “data” too, according to Whittaker and therefore, machines can be coded to understand this data and make the “magic” happen, i.e. bring guests to you.

He observed: “Right now, you’re waiting for them [your guests] to come to your website, you’re waiting for them to come to your app, why are you waiting? The intent is already in the ecosystem and machines can find it”.

It might be time to share this column with your CIO, as for Whittaker the answer is obvious — “write a bot”.

“As a hotelier you’ll write a bot, and you’ll tell that bot, ‘go out on social media, go out on a cloud, go out on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else, and find me customers and then make them an offer. That’s the kind of magical experience that this era of autonomy is going to provide and if you don’t start getting ahead of it, your competitors will. You can write the bot today to find you customers; why are you not doing that?

“Why are you sticking with the mobile era and expecting customers to go out and get your app? Airbnb’s not doing it and that’s part of disrupting this industry — they are paying attention to the data. You need to as well,” asserted Whittaker.

The room at AHIC fell silent as Whittaker delivered his “marching orders”, the earlier horrified expressions giving way to signs of awakening.

He said: “I need you to take the first step now and stop waiting for users to come to you. Determine the intents that you care about; understand where, why and how these intents occur in the real world; imagine the machines that would capture those intents; and then locate the data that will satisfy those intents. You probably already own it or you have access to it. Finally, deliver an amazing personalised experience. Do all those things and I will be happy to welcome you to the future.”

These words certainly had an impact on me. Perhaps we are closer to that next hotel revolution than I thought.

About the Author: Louise Oakley is an independent editorial consultant specialising in the hospitality industry and the director of PR at In2 Consulting. Email: louise@in2consulting.com

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