The day before Ofcom announced that 78% of all adults own a smartphone, and on average check them every twelve minutes, the results were released from a recent Hospitality and Catering roundtable discussion about technology in the travel sector.

And at the same time, words have continued to enter the dictionary simply because they have become ‘a thing’ in hospitality. This week we reported on the ASAP Newshub that Expedia researched travel between 2016 and 2018 across the UK, the US, China, India and Germany, and found that, on average, 60% of business trips were extended with a leisure element – the so-called ‘bleisure’ trip. And that the good weather in the UK has led to a huge increase in ‘staycations’ this year so far, with some areas seeing an increase in demand over 30% year-on-year. Our industry is growing the dictionary by the day!

On top of that, interest rates are changing, Brexit is still a huge challenge for tourism, and the good weather is possibly a sign of new and dramatic weather patterns to come, due to climate change.

The hospitality industry has a lot to keep up with, then! Not least of all, the rise in technology, no longer just self-checkin and keyless entry, but instant booking and automated chatbots.

The H&C roundtable showed that the Chinese instant messenger app WeChat – now also available to 100 million users outside China – was the direct driver for $35.2m of food and beverage spending alone, and remains a favourite tool for researching and buying travel and experiences.

And that the surge in the use of chatbots for imparting information has led global research firm Gartner to predict that more than 85% of all customer interactions will be managed without a human being by 2020.

People are time-poor and becoming more used to instant customer service. Facebook is reportedly putting huge amounts of research into improving its Messenger service, once thought to be the least favoured of its add-ons. Chatbots can manage so many aspects of any communication, especially in the early stage of an enquiry, and are seen by consumer as speedy and efficient compared to email – and forget about the phone! Ofcom also reported that for the first time ever, actual calls made on smartphones are down – who needs to hang on a phone for an answer, when a bot can provide that information instantly?

What this does show for the whole hospitality industry is that consumers are becoming ever more tech-savvy, used to instant gratification in their social lives, and will seek the same efficiency and speed in their travel, too.

However, a recent Department of Tourism report from New Zealand and Australia, ‘What do Airbnb users care about? An analysis of online review comments’, studied big data from thousands of Airbnb reviews online, looking for trends in what guests were saying, what they shared with others, and how they said this.

It found that the three key attributes of an Airbnb experience, by the number of times they were mentioned, were ‘location’ – mentioned 100% of the time – ‘amenities’, 81%, and ‘host’, 71%. Many used their experience of previous hotel stays as a point of reference – usually to reinforce the difference. They tended to mention their host by name, bringing an informality and friendliness to the review.  Reviews themselves were short and terminology relatively simple and impactful. They used words such as ‘professional’, as in behaving like a professional hospitality host. And they described valuing a feeling of privacy and safety.

In contrast, the same kind of analysis reveals that hotels are chosen for a number of common and fairly impersonal reasons, mainly services, location, room, price or value for money, food and beverage, hotel design, security and brand image.

Perhaps the key take-aways for our part of the hospitality industry might be that, while guests use a similar set of requirements for their stay whatever the type of accommodation, at least in part – the physical surroundings, location and amenities – one of the main differences between Airbnb and hotels based on reviews is in the ‘host in Airbnb’ vs ‘staff in hotels’.

So we all have to race to keep up with all this change.

Consumer behaviour still leads the way, much as we’d like to think we’re one step ahead. And while we’re told on the one hand that bots are doing away with human interaction, people are still looking for just that.

The good news for us, representing a forward-looking, technologically-aware, nimble, quality-focused sector, is that while the customer is still looking for instant answers, technology and efficiency, he or she is still looking for real people, for real connection with someone whose name they know, who they can have a conversation with; and we know that our serviced apartment sector can do that – with a smile.

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