For the past few years, one of the biggest buzzwords in travel has been “seamless,” envisioned as a utopian experience in which every moment of a journey - before, during and after a trip - happens effortlessly and yet is customized to the needs and interests of the traveler.
Then came COVID-19 - upending the travel industry, the way business is conducted and the expectations of consumers.
Seamless is of course still nice, but seemingly overnight, “contactless” has become even more valuable. Now that the coronavirus has made the world aware of the potential invisible risks associated with physical touch points, the goal of a hands-free experience has become paramount for both travelers and brands.
The shift toward contactless technology solutions has been developing for years, with short-term rentals around the world offering things like keyless check-in for some time.
But COVID-19 has accelerated this trend, creating new demand as property managers and hosts look for ways to eliminate any element of the experience that could create a risk for guests or for staff such as cleaners.
According to a report from property operations platform Breezeway, 95% of professional vacation operators plan to implement changes to help guests feel more confident in the safety of their rentals.
Michael Driedger, co-founder and CEO of property automation software company Operto, says many property managers are actually citing contactless solutions as their highest priority – above enhanced cleaning protocols – as they endeavor to restore traveler confidence.
In fact, according to Breezeway's report, 49% of property managers feel that property care and operations software will be the most helpful technology over the next year to invest in (beating out reservation management software, dynamic pricing and channel partner management).
For guests, Carrington Carter, co-founder and managing partner of luxury vacation rental provider Getaway Society, says the appeal of vacation rentals over hotels is the privacy and convenience that homes offer. “Hotels are very public places: public parking, public lobbies, public elevators/stairwells, public restaurants, public pools, etc.,” he says.
“Travelers want the ability to drive directly to the home, park in the private driveway, enter the home using a personalized keypad code, enjoy the private pool, access information about the home and area through a mobile app and often text or email back and forth with the owner/manager if they have questions or issues.”
Not only do touchless solutions assist in making travelers feel safer, but they also reduce the number of steps property managers have to take to prepare a rental for guest arrival, Driedger says.
"For example, we had one property manager that used to have eight steps between booking through to when a guest first checks into the unit," he says.
The trick is how you make technology feel like there's still some personal touch to it.
Dana Young - Virtual Concierge Service
"Because of COVID, they've had to put in all of these additional safety measures around how far they can stand from the person, how much they need to clean. Now it's 16 steps - completely untenable to physically greet people and to go through all of the protocols.”
The use of smart locks, which allow guests to enter a property with an access code, removes the step of a property manager handing off keys.
In European countries where travelers are required to register with authorities, digital registration - via services like Spain-based CheKin - helps eliminate more in-person contact between host and guest than is necessary.
With ChekIn – which recently announced a collaboration with Airbnb in Spain and partners with brands including Booking.com, OYO and Guesty – property managers can register guests online or on-site, saving them time up to 80% compared to registering guests manually.
Online check-in reduces the amount of time it takes to save guest information and upload data to local authorities from 30 minutes per guest to two minutes, the company claims, and the information it collects is stored in the cloud for access at any time.
From the guest perspective, Driedger says expediting this process "creates a smooth post-booking [experience], getting into your space so you can lie down on the bed with as little friction and as little contact possible."
Once inside the property, guests can navigate the home as well as surrounding areas via hands-free technology.
With Virtual Concierge Service, hosts can equip homes with Amazon Alexa or Google Home devices – as opposed to, say, a three-ring binder – with curated information about how to turn on the TV or lights as well as about nearby restaurants and activities.
“With vacation rentals, in general, there are still a lot of low-tech approaches to managing guest relationships," says Virtual Concierge Service founder Dana Young. "While there have been welcome tablets and apps around for quite a number of years, many [hosts] still have three-ring binders.”
Digital solutions such as voice technology, he says, make the experience "about as contactless as you can get."
Guests can also use voice devices to check in or check out of a property, which Young says is particularly valuable when scheduling cleaning service. "The organization of cleaning crews in and out of these properties, even before coronavirus, was always a logistical challenge," he says. "You're trying to coordinate a fairly small window when you can get the cleaners in, and what we're seeing now [with coronavirus] is much more intensive of a process.”
By guests simply telling Alexa they're checking out early, cleaning staff will be notified and can get to a property sooner.
Alexander Limpert, co-founder and CEO of PhocusWire Hot 25 StartupGuestReady, however, cautions that in order for property owners to invest in voice solutions, there needs to be a clear ROI to justify the expense. "If you can get almost equal results with just sending a PDF guide to guests in advance, then I think that's probably better than asking a homeowner to invest a lot in voice technology," he says.
"Maybe in the future, the price point would be so low that it could really be beneficial ... but there's also the question about security and privacy of guests."
Driedger points to occupancy sensors as another way to alert property managers or cleaning staff that a guest has vacated the property. He says there has been increased interest in the solution due to COVID-19 because it "can tell if there's no one in the suite because the CO2 has dropped nearly to zero - that's a double check on if they've left. Now you can definitely send the cleaner safely."
He says that for now, while the interest in air quality - or as "some people call it, 'indoor environmental comfort'" - is focused on the safety component, in the future "the true comfort part of air quality and thermal comfort" will come into play.
Looking ahead, Young believes contactless solutions such as voice technology will play a bigger role in host and guest communication, as well as in the integration of smart-home technology.
“Adding video displays and having the ability to control them with your voice is one way that all of that comes together,” he says. “For example, video calls with one-way video, where the guest's privacy is protected but the host is visible to the guest. That enables a personal touch and could raise the bar on guest experience.”
Voice devices could also be equipped with customized messages – such as a personalized welcome or a rundown of sanitation measures – from hosts to guests upon arrival.
"The trick is how you make technology feel like there's still some personal touch to it," Young says. “For many properties, it's been common to get a lot of that through the host when they meet you. It's very high-touch, personalized, you feel great about that level of service.
"Now, with that almost being flipped on its head ... how do you make sure they're well-equipped to have their stay be trouble-free?"
* More from our Touchless Tech series
Touchless tech: How hotels are preparing for a post-COVID guest experience
Touchless tech: Airports and airlines take steady steps to restore confidence in flying
PhocusWire's Touchless Tech series is brought to you by Medallia
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