And The Winner Is…


Upon entering the vast ExCel London complex in the latter part of September 2021, where I had arrived to judge the “Technology Innovation Award”, I experienced one of the first signs that this was not going to be like any other event I had come to before. Indeed, this was one of the first signs that life had changed for people, at least for the foreseeable future. I was greeted at the door by a hefty security guard, clad in a security outfit, with walkie talkies coming out of every angle and a muffler around the face. When I showed my entrance ticket on my phone, the guard shook their head and said in a very heavy foreign accent.

I don’ wan’ to seee yur tick-et darlin’.” I stopped in my tracks. “Wher’ is ur car’? Your N H S car’ darlin’?

I was neither incredulous, confused or annoyed like some of the other attendees. I understood what had been asked for, as in the guard’s hand was an example. I had to prove that I was “double jabbed”. Phew. Not a problem, I was lucky to have carried my NHS card in my wallet. Unlike those who were scrambling to download the NHS app and remember their password. I wondered, could there be an app to remember passwords. Incidentally, there is.

Once inside, I was surrounded by a mammoth number of people as I entered the atrium and my first thought was “Wow, hospitality is back.” So many people. Not having been to the ExCel London before, I had not known how vast it was. Sadly, these people were all health nuts attending the “Virgin Money London Marathon” registration for the weekend. It was full to the brim. Another lockdown of London coming up, I said to no one in particular.

I weaved along the large hallway, jiggling past people in red t-shirts, emblazoned with “Virgin”, looking for the Hotel360 room, taking note of the large screens showing directions for each event and there were quite a number of them. All the while being enticed by pictures, on these large screens, of succulent food and the aroma of effervescent coffee percolating in the air. Which was accentuated by the fact that, for the first time in a long time, I had taken my mask off in a building knowing that I was surrounded by “double jabbed” people, thanks to the FBI at the door. Inaudibly, I imagined my open arms and yelled “Freeeedom.”

Funnily enough, that is also what my wife bellowed with exuberance when I left the house that morning. And it was audible. Crestfallen, but more so because I had also passed my car knowing that the “Toilet Roll Crowd”, with their clean bottoms, had attacked every petrol station so now I had to use the London Underground. A veiled curse escaped my breath. Thank God, that air is everywhere otherwise I’m sure we’d also have these people going into forests and cutting down trees and planting them in middle of their living rooms. Fear does drive a crowd crazy. And common sense does not prevail for them either.

Back at the ExCel London, I arrived at the Hotel360 room located in section N5 and a further check was afoot. This time I was ready. I’d have to use a self-service check-in system to print my badge. Not an issue, however I thought it odd that there were more people there to greet me at this self-service check-in (one even volunteered to print my badge for me) than when there isn’t a self-service facility at all. Perhaps they hadn’t seen how they do it at Tesco.

That is where the comparison with Tesco ended. The lack of foot traffic was alarming or non-existent compared to the “Virgin Money Marathon” crowd. The conclusion to this fact was that it felt like hospitality “was” and “is” in dire straits. But perhaps, as I had come on the second day of the event, I had perhaps passed all these attendees. No matter. I’d have a nice walk around without having to navigate traffic.

That assumption in itself was an error. Though some of the booths were empty, there were many eager exhibitionists, I mean exhibitors, on the edge of their booths. I felt like I was walking around one those shops where the sales assistant is constantly following you with their eyes and then comes over when you lay eyes on the first thing, when all you want is to be left alone to browse.

Having said that, I did engage a few and “thanked” them saying that I’d loop around. With others, I regretted it as I had inadvertently made eye contact, which for some reason meant “Yes, please, come and talk to me.” The plus side was, I had a bag full of merch that they were literally stuffing in my goody bag. “We have to get rid of these,” most had told me, “we can’t take these back to the office.

Carrying my many branded pens of differing sizes, informational leaflets, notepads and branded tech goodies that you’d get from a Christmas cracker, I marched on. I made a conscious decision not to give anyone eye contact anymore and look aloof.

Going from booth to booth, stopping by and reading what product or service they provided, threw my aloofness out of the window. I was looking for what new innovative technology was out there for the hospitality industry and when something was of interest, I decided to take the plunge and talk. But all I got was the lustre of an Eskimo selling sand to the Arabs.

Some exhibitors had a few people at their booth, no less a man talking in many different languages in a woman’s voice (I’ll come to this later). But I couldn’t make out if these people were part of the exhibiting group or indeed attendees. Mind you, there was a stand that had caught my eye when, at that very moment, I had a magician stop me (yes, a magician). He asked me if I wanted to see a trick. No one says “No” to that. It’s also funny as I had seen this before at other hospitality expos. The car industry uses scantily clad ladies and the hospitality industry uses magicians. I wondered if that was becoming a thing. After the magician found my card, quite magically of course, I headed to the “EV Charging” booth that had caught my eye.

Though what they were providing was not innovative (a socket to charge an electric car) but certainly something new for hospitality. Their selling points were government subsidies that would attract the regular hotel profit hunter or cost saver. I guess, it makes sense to jump on the Tesla bandwagon. Better late than never, that’s the hospitality motto.

When time came to actually judge the innovative technology at this event, unfortunately, the “Toilet Roll Crowd” had done it again. My fellow judges hadn’t turned up and sent their apologies due to lack of petrol. I shook my head outwardly in disappointment. Inwardly, I was elated that the responsibility now lay, only with me.

So that I didn’t look out of place like a man seemingly unimportant, the lovely organizer of the event Jess, accompanied by her equally lovely colleague Grace escorted me around, with their clipboards in hand. This gave the impression that I was a man of importance. Like those surrounded by an entourage where you wonder who is this person and what is he famous for. But can’t help wanting to take a selfie and wanting to say hello, just in case.

While my fellow judges had played hooky, Jess and Grace listened to me drivel on like a nerd about technology before we started listening to the pitches, nodding their head, smiling and I imagined wishing for this day to end, not that they said that to me in any way.

If there was an award for a great pitch, then I would’ve given it to the sales lady at the Salto booth, a door lock solution we saw first. She went beyond her allocated 3 minutes, but she had a lot of sensible things to talk about in her area of technology and relayed many innovations that her company had engaged in. Usually, some would just try and make a deal there and then. Push forward a commitment, even in the middle of an award pitch. However, she did justice to the product her company was showcasing. She answered all my questions very thoroughly and indeed, door locking technology had come very far. But sadly, I’d just seen it all before. And seen their competitors’ products as well. For me, the price just didn’t have that innovation spin and so, I had her on my mind when or if I didn’t like any of the other products or thought that they weren’t innovative enough, I’d then give the award to her. Very rational and methodical, I know. But then we live in interesting times. I think I had convinced Grace and Jess, the stand in judges, on that one too.

The next nominee on the other hand was defensive. I won’t name the company as they aren’t anywhere in the UK anyway. She pitched. We listened. And she hastened. A sign for me that all had not gone so well during the conference for their product. Sadly, for me this was just a “no no”. This was a guest experience website, not app (important as per pitch), that was on show. Something to elevate guest experience. The usual buzz one liners. Like Silicon Valley pitches where “They just want to make the world a better place”. There have been far better products in this area that I have seen. Next.

I had walked past the third nominee’s stand earlier and saw many people around it. The main person that was engaged in showcasing his product, was indeed like a magician. Their product was called “Pocketalk”. This was the one who talked in many languages but in a woman’s voice, or at least his device did. A language translator and transliterator. But this magician now looked tired. He’d probably been giving the demonstration a thousand times before knowing that people just saw this like an app one downloads just to hear it make flatulent gas escape. Oh look, he translated words into French, do it again, do it again, in German now. Again. The poor man did at least try. And he indulged us too. Innovation? Well, Google do it and it’s free. I think that says it all. Maybe he could be a replacement for the magician I met earlier at these types of events, he had more of a crowd.

The last of our nominees had a product that looked very much like the Alexa device. Developed by a Chinese company, “Zcomax Technologies”. Labelled as a virtual concierge and named as “Aiello”. Yes, you can talk to it, when it is NOT noisy, which was difficult with all the foot traffic around. When it does hear you, it takes a few tries for the accent to register into audible requests. And if you ask it to tell a joke, they are just terrible, but funny, in not being funny, if you know what I mean. However, that was where the comparison with Alexa ended. It was certainly an innovative hospitality device, not just a customized Amazon Alexa device, like other brands had started to install pre-covid. A sleek looking product created specifically for the hospitality market, with a lovely front end big screen interface that doubled up as a clock. OK, Alexa has that too. But it comes with many features, mainly focused on AI and Big Data. Grace had concerns from a security perspective, as there are with most Chinese devices these days, but it certainly fits the bill of being innovative and caters for a need. Albeit with limitations.

It only comes in 3 different languages for the moment, but what beautiful languages they are: English, Cantonese and Japanese. They’re not in any hotels in the UK at the moment and they are introducing the product at a hefty 250 pounds per device with a 20-30 pound subscription per room per month for AI learning and reporting. Can it catch on? At this time, I don’t think so. However, with the introduction of a lot of eastern hotel brands in London such as Pan Pacific and the famous Hong Kong hotel brand Peninsula, it could certainly corner a market very fast, to cater for the eastern traveler, who would revel in something familiar from their own country. And if the target is eastern travelers, then this would certainly fit the bill for an innovative product. Think about the paper literature the hotels would be saving on, no less than the funky translation from Google Translate that makes these information outlets sometimes non-sensical. Perhaps the magician from “Pocketalk” has an avenue for sale here. Could be a market.

After a brief discussion with my fellow judges, not taking any marks into account, I chose the Virtual Concierge device from “Zcomax Technologies– Aiello – AI Voice Assistant for Hotel ( as being the most innovative, from my own rational reasoning and experience. Though the sales lady from Salto, was a close second, if only to hear an eloquent speech.

I did the obligatory handshake, with the double jabbed winner, smile, picture and then we parted ways.

And at the end of the day, I headed home and of course, all the while recognizing that the best part of the day was when I met people. The focus of technology on show generally lay in taking the human out of the equation to create efficiency. Being a technologist, that sounds great. Being a hotelier as well, I don’t believe we would want to lose that charm.

And who is the winner? “Zcomax Technologies– Aiello – AI Voice Assistant for Hotel ( There’s irony in that. And like a bad dream, it seems we have woken up to what was available and focused on before. If anything, I certainly hope I’m wrong in that assumption. I hope I’m very wrong.

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