Superior service: How hotels used AV to overcome Covid

When the world of work and travel changed, the hospitality industry had to act fast. Reece Webb finds out how hotels reacted to overcome the challenges of the new normal.

The hotel industry has endured a trial by fire over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, navigating the gruelling challenges imposed by lockdowns and travel restrictions that cut the revenue streams of hotels practically overnight.

Couple this with a more ecoconscious world concerned about its environmental impact and air miles, and it becomes clear that hotels need to offer more than just a high-end place to stay with a nice view as we move forward.

Faced with an unprecedented loss of revenue and clientele through no fault of their own, hotels were required to seek opportunities in areas considered to be either a smaller part of the existing business or a totally new segment altogether.

It can be argued that business applications in the hotel industry have, to a degree, always been present. But with the shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, hotels have been forced to re-evaluate their offerings and possibly accelerate a transition that was already becoming common in hotels around the globe.

Catering for more corporate and professional customers means a higher reliance on, and a larger investment in AV technologies than ever before.

Ray Sappal, project director, Visual Systems, explains: “We have seen a huge investment by hotel brands in both refurbishments and investment in new technology especially catering for hybrid and virtual conferences and workers staying with the hotel.

“AV technology and systems have both been updated or completely revamped to ensure the venues have the latest and best available [technology] and reduced external costs. Most large brands refurbish guest communal areas including meeting and event spaces every five to ten years so they need to future-proof the technology installed as much as possible. The Covid pandemic took everybody by surprise which made hoteliers think about technology that would enable meeting and events to still take place in the future.”

Co-opting coworking

Hotels have found a variety of ways to accommodate the business world, from offering new facilities to work in the comfort of a hotel environment, to sprawling spaces for conferences, launches and other high-profile events that require a venue with a little razzmatazz to get the message across.

Carl-Fredrik Malmgren, owner, Fremlab, explains: “A lot of travel that is business related has stopped and coworking spaces are becoming more popular here in Sweden and across the world. Hotels where workers can rent a small space and access a common reception area, common meeting rooms and more are becoming increasingly important. Some hotels are making lobbies larger and adding more facilities in lobbies to accommodate this.”

Sappal adds: “The Covid pandemic has without a doubt had a major effect on the hotel sector; the hotels that adapted quickly were able to still have a revenue stream while others decided to wait and see before investing in new technology. Technology is one of the most important parts of any hotel business nowadays, and the hospitality industry always needs to be at the cutting edge of the technology their customers demand. It’s also one of the areas where hotel brands sometimes seem to reduce budgets on when building or refurbishing.

“Some hotel brands have set up a hybrid hospitality model meaning a mixture of hotel rooms by night and an inspiring workplace during the day with hotel amenities. There are plenty of advantages of working within a hotel such as numerous adaptable spaces, connectivity such as fast internet and Wi-Fi, on-site amenities such as gyms/ spas, bars and restaurants. Even with these, hospitality has still suffered tremendously during the pandemic with low or zero occupancy.”

One example of this is the offerings provided by hotel chain Scandic, which unveiled its new coworking concept at 270 locations in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany and Poland. These spaces, opened at the height of the pandemic in September 2020, seized upon the growing coworking and working from home trends as demand for office space decreased.

"Technology is one of the most important parts of any hotel business nowadays, and the hospitality industry always needs to be at the cutting edge." - Ray Sappall, Visual Systems 

Though working from a hotel is nothing new, the level of sophistication and comfort now offered dwarfs that of the early days of simply grabbing a chair in the lobby with coffee and laptop in hand.

Jens Mathiesen, president and CEO, Scandic Hotels, explains: “People are looking for more modern working solutions and we’re seeing a growing demand for workspaces closer to home or on the go from guests and corporate clients. With our 270 hotels in six markets, we can offer flexible, inspiring and cost-saving workspaces, regardless of where you’re based.

“Guests have been working from our hotel lobbies for many years and have appreciated the dynamic and creative environment that Scandic has to offer. Now we’re taking the next step by enabling access to a workspace in our hotels including more quiet areas and meeting rooms by the hour, as well as coffee and refreshments.”

Business customers and conferences make up an approximate 70% of Scandic’s revenue, and one example of Scandic’s commitment to this market can be seen at its Helsinki hotel, which installed Barco Clickshare Conference for its business customers in September 2021.

As hybrid and virtual work becomes more important to the world of business alongside a focus on reducing carbon footprints, offerings like these could become more important than ever.

Kirsi Ilmasti, sales director: meetings and events, Scandic, says: “Whether our users want to meet face-to-face, online or something in between, we want to offer them the best meeting experience. With the increased need for online and hybrid meetings, we want to be sure that meeting participants who join digitally can have the best viewing and audio experience. Barco’s ClickShare Conference enables us to do that.

“In the past, we needed to provide many different cables and connectors for different devices. Today, our meeting room users can bring their own laptop to the meeting and wirelessly connect to the meeting room display, camera and speakers. This is much easier.”

Studio life

The pandemic saw a monumental shift towards business customers and a requirement for hotels to offer attractive spaces to impress clientele and corporate customers. One way of doing this is exemplified in the Gothia Towers hotel in Gothenburg, Sweden, which uses Absen miniLED to create a high-tech, immersive studio for conferences held in the stylish hotel.

Jessica Golding, European brand and marketing director, Absen, explains: “Gothia Towers has a very good reputation of not just being a hotel. It has other elements [for corporate customers]. They already had a floor of conference rooms and wanted to improve their offering. You need bigger spaces to work now as nobody wants to be in small spaces, and the conventional meeting spaces don’t really allow for that to happen.

“In the corporate space, companies are trying to get people back into the office and today, you need a reason. We’ve seen a lot of conversations moving towards experience centres within corporate spaces and that’s being mirrored in the hospitality industry as well. Business customers aren’t travelling much, but when they do travel, it needs to be a memorable experience otherwise they won’t book again.”

Hoteliers are now having to think out of the box to draw customers in, and with an ongoing digital transformation, spaces like these can offer a sophisticated and secure environment that can be customised to an individual's needs, with the addition of elements such as company branding and event specific content.

"I think large scale [hotel] chains will catch on and future-proof themselves with offerings like [virtual production and XR studios]." - Jessica Golding, Absen 

The studio located in the Gothia Towers is used for presentations, small events augmented by LED, creating a more imaginative and creative presentation setup than can be offered by a traditional meeting space. This digital conference space is designed to be flexible and easy to control, offering interaction opportunities for both in-room participants and remote participants.

Golding adds: “Hotels lost so much money over the pandemic, so they have to do something. They have to have the wow factor that sets them apart from other hotels and their offerings. As well as dedicated spaces like these, there is now a dedicated person responsible for these spaces that understands these technologies, how they are used, and they can share the cost of an event in a more visible way. Customers are thinking this through and seeing the full cost of an event, rather than the hidden costs associated with traditional conference events.

“The adoption of hotel studios is still happening. You’ve got some customers who are really interested in that space, coupled with the rise of virtual production and XR studios, but we are still in the early days of this. As people are still trying to understand virtual production and studios made from LED, you’ll get the trendsetters doing it first and see that evolve over time. I think large scale chains will catch on and future-proof themselves with offerings like these.”

Future thinking 

There are many conflicting views when it comes to the evolution of the hotel space over time, and the long-lasting impact of Covid-19 is still up for debate. But it can be argued that as the world of work shows no obvious signs of completely returning to the way it was pre-pandemic, hotels may need to continue to adapt to meet the needs of corporate and business customers into the future.

The fact of the matter is that many hotels have made a significant investment into technologies to improve and diversify the hotel experience, and new habits picked up over the Covid-19 pandemic may prove impossible to break.

Sappal ponders: “With confidence growing within the travel industry I believe that [incentivised travel] will have a massive positive impact within the UK hospitality industry in particular with meetings and events revenue hopefully returning back to pre-pandemic levels within the next two years, however I do also feel we will still have a mixture of virtual and live events for the foreseeable future.”

Malmgren closes: “I think that the hotel offerings will remain more or less the same. Some hotels will try to find a niche, external company. “For example, if you go to a hotel with stand-out offerings and a hotel with average offerings, you’re going to pick the stand-out offering every time. If a hotel does not go above and beyond, then it is not in the game. It’s not enough to just have a nice restaurant or a nice view anymore, you must have something more.”

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