Anyone who has stayed in a hotel during this pandemic knows the overall experience has changed, Ron Swidler, chief innovation officer at The Gettys Group, a hotel design and development firm, said March 10.

Swidler was speaking at The Industry’s Vision of Tomorrow’s Hospitality, a panel hosted by Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research at the School of Hotel Administration. He talked about the “hotel tomorrow project,” which called upon industry leaders to come together to address changes and try and solve problems as a team. 

Beyond cleaning protocols and web-based apps, the travel and hospitality industry saw a massive shift in the way services are delivered. Companies in the space needed to assess if they had the knowledge and technology in place to handle the changes, Swidler said.

More than 325 people came together (virtually) to discuss the new problems they were facing, such as evaluating the value of real estate without visiting a property; a shift in operating models and service delivery; staffing issues; what people were willing to pay for; and more. 

“What we really focused on was ‘where was the deepest opportunity for exploration and ideation, where was the greatest need?’” Swidler said. “All of this needed to be tested. We didn’t want it to just be conceptual or an idea bank. This was about how we could develop ideas and solutions to test with consumers, which we did.”

Participants broke into 16 global teams across the world and held ongoing workshops. 

One of the biggest topics is integration of technology. Not just having an app available, but achieving full integration and looking at the human side of working with technology as well, Swidler said. 

“A lot of focus on the tech side has been for contactless [solutions],” added Swidler. “We were looking to industries like healthcare for practices to integrate. Air filtration systems, how to enhance those, that became important. Those ideas will live on, and the exploration of UV lighting to treat antivirals.”

The team has also been looking at what services can be on-demand; motion sensing; what a personal device can power within a room environment; contact tracing with sensors for cleaning purposes; the limitations of robots and how they can coexist comfortably with humans; and more. 

Moderator Marie Ozanne, an assistant professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, asked participants what the new definition of experience will be post-pandemic. 

Swidler said more than ever, consumers are going to choose who they want to support with their loyalty. 

“How do you tell the consumer what you stand for?” he posed to the audience. “I was recently teaching a class, and all 94 students believe transformational travel was a key emerging trend to pay attention to. Can an experience at a hotel change your belief system by introducing you to new ideas about how you can live your life differently? What might come out of this pandemic is that we have all become more aware of the value of lots of things in our lives, and we’ve devalued other things that became less important as a result of going through this. What does it all mean as an opportunity for companies to say what they stand for?”

Randy Garutti, CEO and director of Shake Shack and additional panel participant, said every company will be forced to reckon with actions previously assumed necessary but now proven obsolete. 

Garutti said it can be annoying to wait for a server to bring the check at a restaurant, but the pandemic has made it clear it doesn’t need to happen, so why does it have to be a part of the experience in the future? 

“The real answer is feeling,” added Garutti. “How did the experience make you feel? That depends on the person. When I go to a hotel, I want to just go to my room, not the front desk. But some people want to talk to people, they want to order from a human being. That’s what experience is; it’s creating the optionality of feeling what you want.”

This is why restaurants will always exist, he said. 

“Travel will be on steroids coming out of this,” Garutti said. “We’re all dying to do it, but our expectations will be way higher now.”