TECH OF THE FUTURE: How to take advantage of autonomous vehicles?

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There has been a lot of buzz around autonomous car technology. From the advancements shown by Tesla, Ford, and other auto manufacturers to the ongoing tests by Waymo, we see autonomous cars speeding towards reality faster than ever before. In today’s episode, we talk about what this emerging technology could mean for our industry.


We’re fortunate to have the right guest at the table at the right time, Alex Bainbridge from Autora. We discuss the right time to consider how autonomous vehicles will affect the hospitality and accommodation industry. Regardless if you are running a 5-star hotel, a resort in Bali or a short-term rental business, Autonomous vehicles will create a huge opportunity.


Topics we cover in this week’s episode:

– Potential AV applications within the travel Industry.
– How AVs will affect hospitality including when, where, and how tourists move.
– How AVs will improve customer experience.
– More innovating technologies within travel.


There appear to be at least 5 years of lead time to prepare for scenarios that will be presented by autonomous cars and it is an opportunity for your business to consider its impacts. Accommodation businesses and platforms that are proactive in staying ahead of the curve will be well-positioned to capitalise on these new technological trends rather than be disrupted by them.

You may have heard in the news last year about Accor partnering with Citroen to bring autonomous vehicles into their business; https://skift.com/2021/10/01/accors-bold-partnership-for-self-driving-vehicles-hinges-on-this/

In this week’s episode, we discuss the many opportunities that lie in autonomous travel and how you can take advantage of this space. Alex gives us an inside view and a real take on the industry like no other.

Alex has lived and breathed, hospitality and tech for over a decade. He graduated with a degree in Applied Computing / Computer Science. He joined the hotel industry in 2000 as head of web for a business travel hotel distribution startup founded by Hilton, Accor, and Le Meridien. He has since started Autoura, where he is working on how to use autonomous vehicles to enable tourism, hospitality & leisure experiences. Now working on experiences that can be operated in a hotel’s own brand e.g. a “night out” – going from hotel > restaurant > theatre/gig > late night bar > hotel, with autonomous vehicles connecting it all up so the guest does return safely.

This was a great interview with Alex Bainbridge of Autoura, and I love it when I connect with like-minded people who give so much insight. Some great value out of this for anyone in the hospitality space.

📣   Listen to the episode here
👓   Watch the episode here

Transcription:

Hello and welcome back to The Accommodation Show. We help accommodation owners like you get the knowledge and skills that you need to grow your business, improve your guest’s experience and increase your profitability. 

Hi everybody, welcome back to The Accommodation Show. I’m really excited this week as the topic is revolutionary. You’re going to really enjoy it before we get started. If you are watching, I would appreciate it if you could subscribe, give us a like and give us a follow. Give us some commentary on this episode as we’re going through it. So this week, I am joined by Alex Bainbridge. I think I pronounced that correctly. Is that right? Yep. Fantastic and good. Welcome to the show. I’m excited to have you on.

Alex: Well, hello to you all. And I’m looking forward to talking to you about autonomous vehicles because to me, this will be one of the biggest changes that will happen to cities and therefore to hotels over the next five to 10 years. So there’s a lot to talk about, in how consumers will get to your hotel, how they will get from your hotel out to where they’re going if it’s a business trip, or whether or not it’s a leisure trip, such as a day out or a night out. So lots to talk about and I’m very much looking forward to having this conversation.

Bart: Yeah, look, and I guess, just start off with I want to let everybody know that we had spoken I think it was almost a month ago about doing this episode and about the different topics that we would cover. Alex what I’d love you to do is to introduce yourself. Let everybody know who you are, where you’re from, and kind of how you fit into the hotel travel tech space.

Alex: Yeah, so my first thing says, I’ve got a confession, which is I’m a techie. So I did start with a degree in computing which is a good place to start. And then my first sort of hotel job was I led Web for a hotel distribution startup in 2000. That was founded by Hilton and Meridian and that was looking at solving Business Travel Bookings for independent businesses. And I’m afraid that kind of failed after 911 which is you know, where a lot of hotel budgets were cut. And since then, I’ve really been working in local tour operating mainly sort of buses and minibusses and working in things that people do when they’re in a destination. 

And that got me to work after selling a previous business a few years ago, to think about what was going to come next what as a travel entrepreneur, can I build next? And the obvious thing was the biggest change that’s going to come to the tourism sector, and that is autonomous vehicles. So that’s how I sort of a long circular route, including going through, you know, 18 months to four months of working directly hands-on in the hotel industry, but much more recently in sort of local tools and activities.

Bart: The reason why I’ve got you on the show is that it’s so obvious that you’re so passionate about technology, you’re so passionate about travel, and solving different problems. And even before we started recording, the recording our preacher, you’re just full of all these hundreds of different ideas and concepts, which I think is going to be invaluable for our audience today. So you know, I’m excited to get into our topic. 

Now. The episode today or the topic that I really thought would be valuable for everyone was talking about the technology of the future and how it’s going to impact hotels. Now I know that it’s incredibly broad. Today we’re really going to hone down on what things hotel is short term rental owners, anyone that’s an accommodation or you could be in travel, and how this technology is going to impact you. Alex, you were talking before about sort of the progression of technology and the different changes and we’re kind of almost at the precipice of a big change happening right now. Can you kind of elaborate on that? And tell us that journey and that story?

Alex: Yeah. So if you think back to the last 20 years, and that’s pretty much as far back as you want to go into in terms of digital trading, which we are all doing now. So it’s 1995-2000 we all started with the web, and that enabled e-commerce and enabled online bookings. And that was a massive change of its time. And then so the two other big changes that have happened in the last 20 years have been mobile, which really started with the launch of the iPhone in about 2007 And that changed how you take last-minute bookings because people might want to book on their phone. 

It’s enabled you to service a customer we’re using their own people using their own smartphone rather than you having to get people to communicate and coming via television. Or whatever that might be in a room. And this is the third big change that’s happened over the last 20 years has been social, which for hotels has meant reviews. So these three fundamental shifts have been on now sort of the bedrock of what makes travel e-commerce, but all of those three have now happened, you know, over 10 years ago, so no one really remembers that. I mean, many people with grey hair like me, you know, we remember that now, but we don’t really remember the impact of those at the time because, for the last 10 years, we’ve all just been collectively optimizing that rather than the inventing rather than bringing out new things. So autonomous vehicles will be here. 

They’re here in the US, EU, China, and other places in Asia like Japan, or South Korea. And you should probably expect that by 2027, the majority of major US and EU cities will have autonomous vehicles, and they will be operating services for tourists. business travelers start and end at hotels. So we’ve probably got another two-three years before they really kick in. But if you’re in Las Vegas, San Francisco or Miami, or Dubai, this is a current problem, not some kind of future sort of theoretical problem in those in those locations.

Bart: Yeah. Interestingly enough, I’m actually heading over to Miami for a conference and I’m heading out to Las Vegas for the VRMA. So there are two big conferences. I look forward to seeing this before we kind of get into sort of how we’re going to start to use that technology, autonomous vehicles now. When is it going to happen? I know that Musk has been working on this problem for a long time in terms of self-driving cars and that sort of thing. And then you’ve got the cars that will be like the robot taxis and you’ve got autonomous vehicles which will be private and this sort of thing but like, in reality, you said in the next couple of years, but I feel that Musk promised this many many many years ago and it still hasn’t happened. What’s the what’s the reality?

Alex: You’re totally right. I mean, this entire industry is reset with people making statements that they don’t quite, haven’t quite come to fruition yet, that is totally fair. But the important point actually to remember here is that what Musk is talking about is something completely different to what Google with way mo or Cruz which is General Motors or anyone else is talking about. So Musk is talking about personally owned autonomous vehicles, which most people in the other half of the autonomous industry, don’t expect to happen until 2030, or 2035. What I’m talking about today is what I refer to as a commercially owned and operated autonomous vehicle.

I essentially owned a little bit like might have 2000 3000 of them in a city owned by one entity. And those because they’re commercially owned. They can be operated today over the next few years. We don’t have to wait until the price of the vehicle comes down which is what Musk is trying to do by 2030, or 2035. So that’s an important question you just asked because when you look at all the press, you have to understand what exactly am I reading press about? Am I getting facts about the commercially owned autonomous vehicles or that person owned autonomous vehicles, which is what Tesla is working on.

And the reason why Tesla’s finding it so hard to deliver was a number of issues. But the key one is they’ve got to get the hardware price down to such a low level in order to put that hardware into personally owned vehicles. Whereas the commercial hardware if it costs $100,000 $50,000 Extra on an on a robot taxi that’s not quite so bad and long as you’ve got to lose you got a commercial business model you can make it run so to kind of completely different technology streams. And you know, very interesting. I mean, personally owned autonomous vehicles will be massive for hotels, but commercially owned autonomous vehicles are what we’ve got for the next 10 years.

Bart: Beautiful. And so as you said that they’ve already been rolled out by the big tech companies in different cities, and I assume that a lot of them are sort of between trial and full rollout and it’s just gonna get bigger and faster, as you see that real impact is gonna be felt in the next two to three years.

Alex: Yeah, there are about 16 cities globally today, and I’m talking the middle of 2022 where you as a consumer can use an autonomous vehicle you can even hail it available autonomous vehicle is called a robot taxi. So there are about five cities in the US. There are nine in China, one in South Korea, and in the remainder of 2022. I expect to see the first city in the EU and the first city in the Middle East. So kind of a combination of locations, all by different companies. So there’s no individual company that’s kind of got domination on this yet. The Chinese companies are doing things that are quite different from what the US companies are doing. So yeah, it’s 1616 cities. And, you know, in the next four or five years, you should expect that to go to 100- 200 cities maybe.

I’m a techie so I need more feedback because, people like me, we’re very introverted. So we need more people to tell us to do things correctly than others because we don’t engage properly. So, you know, when the key thing here with this, this is a new, completely new product, and it’s not just a new product, this new industry, it’s a whole new way of coming up with problems. And at the moment, the companies that are leading this technology are the automotive industry, and also people like Google and Amazon, and some of the mobile phone makers in China. You know, none of these companies are coming from a hospitality perspective. So they’re all coming from this kind of technical position of how do I use this technology to dominate the automotive industry and the changes to the automotive industry have got to go through. But it turns out I mean, the hospitality industry we all think of as being a massive industry, but when you compare it to the automotive industry, we’re not really that big. 

So we’re in danger of being squashed here and that’s where it gets, you know, that’s, that’s the reason why I need help because I need to understand exactly what hoteliers want to do with this technology? You know, what’s more important? Is it more important that you know, you can give a branded experience and guests can go out for an evening they can go from the hotel to a restaurant to the theatre, back to the hotel? I mean, is that what hoteliers want out of autonomous vehicles? Or do you want to actually want to have vehicles yourself in your own brand? I mean, companies like Apple Sofitel. They’re going down the route of having branded vehicles just like many hotels have got branded bicycles today. You know, so you can take this in any different direction. But all of these projects take 3, 4, or 5 years of tech to build. So unless we let’s get ourselves in a position to do that now. But when all these autonomous vehicles are coming in, in 2025, 2027, it would be too late for the hotel industry to turn around and say, well, actually, this is how we want to use the technology. And we’d be like, well, sorry, Amazon’s building like this now and you’d be like, Okay, so we do need involvement from everyone on a global basis. 

This technology, it won’t just be used for autonomous vehicles. It will also then be made much broader. So it will be taken out to, for example, cities and locations. That will never have autonomous vehicles for 20 years. So if you’re a resort hotel in the Caribbean, chances are you probably won’t have autonomous vehicles for a while. But you could but the guest’s expectation will pay don’t American guests. There’ll be like I’m so used to using autonomous vehicles in my daily life in America. And now I’m in a luxury resort hotel in the Caribbean and you like but I’m not getting any of the levels of service that I can get from us hotels, so we then got the issue of guest expectations shifting. 

So we have to have a compatible we have to have service that we can take globally, regardless of whether or not that particular location can support autonomous vehicles or not. So this is an important conversation because if we don’t get this right, what will happen is Google which is one of the big players and autonomous vehicles will be right at the top of the funnel for marketing. And the consumer will start with Google, pay will work the hotel on Google. They will pick Google will pick the customer from the airport and take them to your hotel. You will have the guest in your hotel looks great. But then Google will pick up the guest again from your hotel to take them for a night out. And so the entire experience in the guest size will be a Google experience rather than you as a hotel experience that you might want to present. 

In the end, you still get the hotel bookings. Maybe, maybe this isn’t such a major threat. It certainly affects the tour operators because at operators. This is a Google product that replaces what the tour operator does. But from a hotel perspective, you still get hotel booking. But now you’ve lost quite a lot of influence over that guests. So you’ve lost kind of the ability to present your brand to them in a complete way. You’ve lost any of that kind of interaction between your brand and the city because now Google has taken over all of that. If that’s how you want to bear that’s great. If you think that’s a bad idea, then you need to get on the field of play and start shooting people might need some information and feedback and say hey, this is what we want to do this stuff because this is a great technology. But you know, this is the big guest issue that we need to address. And then let us technologists work on that for 24 months and we’ll all be in a much better position come 2025, which is when we are all going to need this technology in our cities.

Bart: Yes, it’s fascinating so look, you’ve done such a great job of summarising it and half that stuff was just liquid gold that they were saying and it’s about extending that guest experience beyond the hotel, right, and beyond the short-term rental so that they’ve got a more cohesive experience. So things that you could use this technology for now. I’m going to ask you a question. I’ll come back to around you know, why can’t you just do this an Uber right now.

.We’ll come back to that. But what I’m really interested in is when we think about extending that guest experience. 

So one thing that we talked about was branding. Now for branding that makes complete sense. So if you’re going to a particular brand, it’s going to feel way better if you get into a kind of an autonomous vehicle which is got that branding, which is got the same guest experience the same smells the same, the same glass, why don’t you get in there or you know that that you’d have a much more congruent guest experience especially if you’re looking at the higher end of the market that really have high expectations, and then the could push that all the way through so you’ve got that part. But there are other opportunities as well where you can curate experiences for your guests to make it a better stay and to have on brand as well. So you really understand your consumer, you understand that a family of four has a different set of needs than a couple that’s going there for their honeymoon. And then you kind of create that experience you offer and they don’t have to do that labor it’s kind of like the concierge right like so you’re kind of becoming that concierge. What kind of experiences should hotels be thinking about? Just at a baseline? Let’s not go too deep. I just said that based on what could they be offering that would make the experience better for a guest.

Alex: Yes. So So I think there are three main ones that you can think about today. So the first is particularly important for urban hotels that are near airports, and that is the kind of classical airport transfer. However, I still have the airport that I’m interested in are called the reverse airport transfer which is when you leave the airport from the hotel and you go back to the airport, perhaps doing a little bit of shopping and having a restaurant meal on the way so we’ve got airport transfers is a cool thing that you can think about that could be delivered by Robo taxis but the two that you’ll probably spend most of your time thinking about our days out if you’re at a resort hotel and nights out if you’re an urban Hotel. So a day out might be that you leave your hotel at 10 o’clock in the morning. You want to spend a couple of hours on the beach you might have a restaurant meal at lunch, you might go to the museum in the afternoon and you want to get back to your hotel at five o’clock or six o’clock to get yourself prepared for the evening. So the date days out are you know, these aren’t people taking tours, because that’s not the right word for this is just people who with the support of an autonomous vehicle can have an exploration of the location and be sure that they’re going to get back to the hotel at at the right time because they because of all the timings are being checked. All the time but by the technology platforms. 

Night out are also suitable for locals and also business travelers. An example of a night timeout might be hotels to restaurants to an event like theatre or a music gig you might face a late night bar we might not and then you go back to the hotel. And the big thing there with nights out is again on trust. Is the consumer going to have the confidence to take this service and return back to their hotel at half past 11 at night or later? And that is something that the technology platforms have to deliver that trust and that’s, you know, something that you might not get from, for example, Uber today, because it’d be like oh well I’ve gone you know 15 miles away from the hotel and you know, you ping to Uber midnight and you’re there like oh, there’s no cars you like that’s not good? 

Because now you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and you’re thinking how am I get back to my hotel. One of the things with autonomous vehicles is that they’re robotic. They’re much more predictable. So we should be able to pre-book them and ensure that they’re going to because we know where you are. And we know where you got to get to you know we shouldn’t be able to get you back to your hotel. And that is the entire brand promise that you trust that you are if you’re taking a night out there’s been coordinated by a robot taxi platform that you are going to be able to get back to your hotel at the right time when you want to.

Bart: So yeah, the thing with robot taxis, they don’t necessarily they can wait. You don’t have to pay them right to hang around or they can do other jobs at the same time. But also I guess from the that you do have that ability to do your own branding and have a fleet of drivers so to speak, but without having to have that manual labor involved.

Alex: Yes. So the scale of these platforms is quite large. So, for example, Cruise which is General Motors have said in Dubai, that they will have 4000 Robo taxis in Dubai by 2030. So that means that you know and their brand promises that when you call for a robot taxi, it should be there within five minutes. That’s it. That is their entire promise. So you will have in urban locations you will have these fleets of Robo taxis that are not owned and operated by hotels. They’re just publicly available. You can think of them as infrastructure really rather than in the same way as a train is infrastructure or buses infrastructure. You can think of a robot taxi as infrastructure. And then you have the second kind of vehicle which is what Accor Sofitel is going down the path of which is to have vehicles that are actually designed and branded as the hotels themselves. And especially for the higher-end hotels. 

The ability to have those vehicles on demand for the guests, I think will be quite an interesting differentiation, especially at the luxury end of the market. But even today, in mid-range hotels, you will find hotels that have got 20 or 30 bikes that are available for guest use. Well, that’s not that different conceptually, to have, five or 10 autonomous vehicles that will be available for guests’ use they don’t necessarily have to be parked just outside you just the concierge will just zap one and it will come around just the right way.

Bart: Where would you like to go to so kind of almost like the ride-sharing wheel without the ride-sharing part right where you’ve got something which is a lot more reliable. You don’t have that human element. You can have your own branded cars and then you can build on that as you see fit. So you know if you want to build in experiences if it’s you know, the detours the night tours and anything in between, right like depending on who your customer avatar is and your audience is I can imagine as well like the brands and have really great loyalty programs using those loyalty points to get yourself around and, and just that that experience and that feeling. And I think that as you said, I think those first few years are going to be about the novelty but once the novelty wears out that real practicality of going off of building out the sort of next steps so that’s really exciting stuff really is and what I like about the way that you’ve brought this topic is that you haven’t brought it as hey, I have all the answers. You bought it. Here are all the opportunities. It’s time for you guys to kind of wake up and take it if you’d like to. Because it’s here, it’s here to stay. It’s not going to go it’s going to be everywhere. Before you know it right.

Alex: Absolutely. And it’s an opportunity now, but I can see that I can see ways that it might become a threat because if you let companies like Google or Amazon, take complete control of your guest all the way from booking through to delivery of experiences in the destination. You know you as the hotel are really going to be just commoditizing yourself so there is an opportunity there is an option, there’s an opportunity. There’s also this kind of nagging thought that if we don’t do something, then we’ll down the road become a bit of a threat. So that’s just a little bit of both. For tour operators and for airport transfer companies. The balance is slightly the other way around. It’s much more of a threat than it is an opportunity. And that’s just you know, that’s just the dynamics of, of those sectors.

Bart: Yeah, yeah, awesome. Look. I think this is pretty short. And pretty sweet. Actually, this episode that is great. And I really like to do these high-impact episodes where we can just get people really thinking about the future and how technology is going to impact them. Now we’ve just covered off on autonomous vehicles. There’ll be all sorts of other changes in the future in terms of technology which I think we’ll definitely be talking about as we go. But I love this topic. I want to see lots of pictures from you in autonomous vehicles in the future. Alex, I’ll be taking them to Miami and when I go to Vegas, were there any final thoughts that you had? to sort of wrap us up today?

Alex: The kind of really important point that I think needs to be just reinforced is why is this different from Uber? I mean, you know, that’s such a key question that people ask. And, and the reason is your Uber driver probably only speaks one language, and that language doesn’t necessarily need to be the same language as the guests. So you’ve got a Japanese guest in America, and the driver only speaks English or only speaks Spanish that’s not going to be great for the Japanese guest. Whereas in Robo taxis I mean in our technology which fits inside robot taxis I mean we are already operating in 17 languages in 29 dialects. So the ability to deliver a customer experience in Japanese or in any language is one of the ones I just mentioned. That is so important because that level of personalization is what is going to make the guests remember and go oh, okay, I know I’m a Japanese guest. I’m coming to London. I can have an experience in Japanese and that’s something that I could not do. If I was using an Uber for my nighttime.

Bart: And I’m just I’ve just realized that on your introduction, you didn’t name your company and you also didn’t say what you guys do. How about you do your elevator pitch?

Bart: Right so Autora and we’re a digital experience platform. So what we do is we are providing a technology layer that sits between hotels and tour operators and all of these mobility platforms that are operating Robo taxis, so we are kind of interfacing with hospitality companies and interfacing with the Robo taxi companies. So we kind of we enable the guest experience to be committed to being transferred from the hotel on to the robot taxis and that’s what our platform does. We’ve been building that for now three or four years. And we’re now running Robo. Taxi experiences in three cities in the US, Miami Vegas, and San Francisco. And we’ll be adding a couple more cities shortly. So we are already we’re already practically doing this. It’s a little bit early, but we are at least practically live today.

Bart: Yeah, yeah. Fantastic. So when I go over, I’ll be able to jump on to get what you’re doing and give you some feedback in terms of product development improvement.

Alex: Absolutely. I mean, it’s all about feedback at this point, because it’s you know, we are talking about this as being here and here now, but we’re still in this product molding phase. You know, there is no outlet winner in the robot taxi companies. And there were very few companies like my own who are working on how you interface hospitality with these vehicles. So it’s all about feedback at this point.

Since we’re still in this product molding phase, there is no outline winner in the robot taxi companies. And there were very few companies like my own who are working on how you interface hospitality with these vehicles. So it’s all about feedback at this point.

Bart: Yeah, I think that’s brilliant. And I think that the commercials would definitely make sense themselves with time. It’s just really figuring out how people will use the technology, what sort of buy-in there will be from tour operators and from hotels as well as how they want to use this technology and there will be some investment to be made but as you’ve said if you can be the first market to really figure it out, you have a huge opportunity. In a blue ocean technology is a blue ocean it is right. 

Beautiful Alex, thank you. So much for joining me, I really appreciate it. For all of our listeners, please give us a like and a follow. It really helps us keep doing these shows and to keep them going and get great guests like Alex in to talk about fascinating topics like autonomous vehicles and technology of the future. Thank you so much. Once again, I really appreciate your time at what is it almost two o’clock in the morning?

Alex: Yeah, something like that. 

Alex: Don’t talk about too much. This is the travel industry. We work you know, it’s all about sort of our service.

Bart: Thank you once again I always have a fantastic sleep.

Alex: Thank you.

Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can find us at theaccommodationshow.com where you can find all the show notes, and links to resources we have talked about transcripts from the show. I really do appreciate you listening. And if you’d like to support the show, and please subscribe. Leave a comment and share it with others.

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