Fabiana Moreno, segment marketing manager, digital energy division at Schneider Electric looks at how technology can help the hotel industry bounce back.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed how we live our lives and run our businesses, with hospitality having been one of the most significantly affected sectors. According to PWC's UK hotels forecast, hotel occupancy rates in 2021 are expected to be around 55% across the UK. PWC predicts it could be four years before we see a return to pre-COVID-19 levels.
More positively, the forecast does maintain that 2021 will be a better year for hotel occupancy rates compared to 2020, based on the expected results of a successful vaccine roll-out and the consequent easing of the government’s social and travel restrictions. The combination of these factors will likely boost consumer confidence in travel, especially for local ‘stay-cations’.
One thing is for certain – it will be some time before the industry returns to business as usual. At the time of writing, restrictions around hotels vary across different parts of the UK and Ireland. With continued uncertainty, many of those that are open are highly likely to be operating at low occupancy capacity.
Throughout 2020, we saw hotels sporadically opening and closing their doors as restrictions eased or tightened. We will, perhaps, see a continuation of similar behaviours in 2021 in the UK. If so, hoteliers will need to adapt their operations to fit the various restrictions likely to continue, as well as changing demands of both customers and staff. Modern operational technologies will be key, particularly in three key areas: energy efficiency, safety, and flexibility.
So, how can hoteliers adapt in 2021 to maintain efficiency? With energy consumption typically representing up to 6% of a hotel’s operational costs, but around 60% of emissions, there is plenty of room for improvement.
Monitoring a hotel’s environmental, power and safety conditions to see how the building responds when operating at such deep levels of efficiencies or low-occupancy settings is key to avoid unknowingly running into moisture problems, hotspots, and other issues. There are also other elements that should be considered to increase energy performance, such as maintenance that could cause downtime at times of full operation. Hotels are highly complex, energy-intensive environments, where maintenance is difficult and often reactive, so now (while many hotels are shut or occupancy is unusually low) could be the perfect time to carry out these improvements, ensuring the building is ready to go when guests start coming through the doors again.
As employers become increasingly accountable for their sustainability, ensuring business trips and conferences are energy-efficient will be a growing priority. This is especially true for those scaling down their commercial real-estate portfolio, and as a result, relying more heavily on hotels and co-working spaces.
Smart energy management systems are key to supporting corporate guests in meeting these new demands. These systems create the potential to offer total-carbon cost billing for a guest’s room, meeting spaces and travel. This virtual bill could allow corporates to still truthfully account for their Scope 3 emissions - avoiding accusations of ‘fudging carbon targets’, as well as providing eco-conscious guests with the information needed to track their own footprint.
Prior to re-opening, hoteliers should also consider the addition of hands-free technology to ensure a healthier and safer experience for hotel guests and employees. New digital solutions can offer improved hygiene without detrimental impacts on the hotel experience. For example, voice technology and mobile apps are now being integrated into hotel systems to reduce touching high-use devices such as door locks, thermostats, and switches.
Another interesting technology adapted for hotels is people counting/tracking systems. These can indicate when public areas like lobbies, restaurants, and gyms are reaching capacity to help maintain social distancing. Using smart sensors, these systems can also provide alarms or traffic light signage to guests and staff showing real-time occupancy levels in high use areas. This technology not only makes the environment safer for all occupants but also automates an expensive and mundane task that would otherwise need full-time staffing.
On top of these short-term solutions to post-pandemic concerns, hoteliers should also begin to consider longer-term strategies to create the new flexible hotel of the future.
Currently available technologies can help hoteliers investigate these long-term solutions for more agile operations. For example, ‘zoneable’ building management systems are increasingly popular, able to be re-mapped on-the-fly by property management teams to fit with current occupancy rates and space uses. Also, guest-facing technologies such as mobile apps and in-room digital interfaces offer a variety of personalisation options, for a more flexible guest experience. With the touch of a button guests can create the perfect atmosphere by adjusting the temperature or lighting in a room, as well as access the bill for business expenses such as printing and hire of presentation hardware or room service refreshments.
Looking ahead, business priorities will be constantly fluctuating and adapting to regularly evolving circumstances, due to government restrictions, customer trends and staffing demands. Hoteliers will need a careful, gradual reopening strategy for their facilities to safely manage a potential rise in occupancy as restrictions lift, as well as maintain efficiency if hotels need to go back into a deep level of low occupancy. Adopting operational technologies that enable the effective use of energy and space, whilst maintaining a comfortable guest experience, will be key to the revival of the UK hotel industry in 2021.