For Gabriel Escarrer, CEO of Meliá Hotels, technologies like artificial intelligence will help propel tourism in the post-Covid era: personalizing client experience, monitoring the occupation of spaces, and predicting the security of destinations will be some of its applications

The CEO and Vice President of Meliá Hotels International, Gabriel Escarrer

Photo: The CEO and Vice President of Meliá Hotels International, Gabriel Escarrer. Credit: Courtesy of Gabriel Escarrer

By Editors of MIT Technology Review in Spanish

The tourism sector has been one of the most affected by the global coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. The restrictions placed on mobility and the new measures to ensure safety and hygiene to reduce cases of the virus have made it so that this industry, which constitutes 12.3% of Spain’s GDP, has had to transform itself to resume its activity this summer.

One of the companies that has used technology as an ally to adapt to the new environment in a short amount of time is Meliá Hotels International. Their Vice President and CEO, Gabriel Escarrer, is convinced that those responsible for companies “should be an active part of the possible solutions,” to mitigate the impact of the economic crisis. When sailing with no tailwind, CEOs must turn the tiller to set out on a new course.

 

Every year MIT Technology Review publishes a list of 10 technologies that can change the world. On this year’s list is tiny artificial intelligence (AI), a trend based on the capability of devices to execute powerful AI algorithms without needing to communicate with the cloud. In what areas are you employing AI?

We are using this technology with three objectives: to personalize the experience of the client to present the services and offers that most likely appeal to them, to adjust the templates for the reopening of hotels and call centers according to demand, and to optimize the rates of our rooms.

 

How are these technologies facilitating the restart of your activity when faced with the challenges that the coronavirus crisis presents for your sector?

In these times of extreme uncertainty, the predictive capabilities of these technologies help us estimate levels of occupation, as well as the profile and nationality of customers that we will serve. In addition, they will allow us to be more time and cost efficient in the process of preparing hotels up to the new standards and security measures.

Moreover, we are implementing facial recognition through machine learning to facilitate registration and to maintain an adequate level of security, while also minimizing overlap time between our clients and the hotel staff.

 

What role will AI play in boosting the tourism of tomorrow?

In both in the short and medium term, security will become a new key factor when it comes to choosing a destination and a tourist product in the short and medium term. Just like how today when we plan a trip, we take into account aspects like weather conditions, little by little we will see how new technologies will help us predict the security conditions or alerts that we will encounter and will take into account to plan our next trip.

In the future, I think that artificial intelligence will be very present in entire management process of tourism companies, especially in the area of the customer journey. Increasingly, our collaborators will receive real-time information on the preferences of the clients they are serving. This will allow them to focus on maintaining that care and at the same time allow the client to enjoy a highly personalized experience.

 

Internet of Things (IoT) devices will give us access to an unprecedented level of knowledge about the lives of people. In the face of the current crisis, this technology can serve, among other things, to control capacities. How is your company utilizing the IoT and data analysis to improve its processes?

We are working on two fundamental and very related aspects: sustainability and improving the customer experience. Thanks to the sensorization of our spaces and the analysis of movements within our hotels, we can adjust the consumption of energy sources. We can also visualize the flows of people in the hotel to anticipate, for example, a rush hour at breakfast, and adapt the presence of staff to manage it.

 

What innovations are you implementing to address the new needs that have arisen from this crisis, like the reinforcement of hygiene measures?

In a sector such as that of hotels, where contact with the client is essential, we have had to revisit our most basic processes. As a result of this analysis, the program Stay safe with Meliá has been developed to guarantee that the highest standards of safety in our hotels.

Among the most representative innovations, it is worth highlighting the digitalization processes that were carried out in person, such as the check-in and check-out, the registration of consumption within the hotel, which can be managed from the Meliá app and/or through electronic bracelets, and some of the services that had a form of physical support such as the room services letters.

 

The current business trends and the global challenges like the coronavirus have given a boost to collaboration between companies from different sectors. Are you collaborating with other companies to generate a mutual benefit from each other’s varying capacities?

We have always maintained close communication with all of our stakeholders. Thanks to collaborations like, for example, the six medicalized hospitals that we have conditioned internationally (to house Covid-19 patients), we have been able to acquire the know-how that has helped us prepare the protocols for cleaning and disinfection which we are going to be implementing in our hotels.

 

The UN World Tourism Organization has elaborated a guide of recommendations that serve as a framework to mitigate the effects of the crisis on travel and tourism. One of them is the development of skills, especially digital, among professionals of the sector. Is your organization following this trend?

Meliá Hotels International has been immersed in a process of digital transformation for many years. Between 2016 and 2018 we digitalized our entire commercial force, comprised of more than 1,000 people. Today we are developing the program Be Digital 360 that strives to automate transactions so that we can focus on that which adds value for our clients, and that has a fundamental branch of training for people.

We have approached the period of forced closure of business as an opportunity to restart and better our processes, our organizational and operational model, as well as our manner of working. This has implicated giving a big boost to online education and training, in addition to collaborative work systems and platforms.

 

The aforementioned guide also recommends giving a push for sustainability in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that should be reached by 2030. Do you think that this crisis could lead to a more sustainable form of tourism?

This pandemic has made visible the response of numerous companies, of many sizes, to this health crisis, thanks to their initiatives of great social impact, which demonstrate a commitment to solidarity and responsibility.

I feel proud of the conversion of our hotels into hospitals, an example of transformation of the business model and value creation towards society. The work of our volunteer teams in these medicalized hospitals is a representation of the values that distinguish us and our employees’ commitment in the face of an emergency. I think that we have all come out of this crisis a little more conscious, human, and responsible for our social and environmental surroundings.

 

How do you predict that hotels and tourism will be in the new normal?

In my opinion, post-Covid will revolve around three main keys. The first is the safety of clients and employees. Even though I think that the requirements and measures will get progressively more relaxed, I’m sure that one part of these measures is here to stay. The second is digitalization: we have revised all of our processes and boosted digitalization to ensure the security and health of clients and employees. It is essential to regain the confidence of the tourist to travel.

Finally, there is social responsibility and empathy with our stakeholders: responsible brands will come out on top because the client will be more aware, cautious, and demanding. Companies should lead the return to the new normal and we should be important agents in this long period of recuperation and reconstruction. The tourism sector will, undoubtedly, play a key role in social cohesion in the recovery.

 

*This interview was conducted with the support of the CEO of Parangon Partners, Antonio Núñez.