On most metrics, the region tends to be third behind North America and Europe on adoption of mobile tech matters, but comfortably ahead of CIS (Greater Russia), the Middle East and Africa.
However, I've noticed that China, Korea and Southeast Asia are increasingly challenging US mobile tech dominance.
On the user side, a Google study in 2019 showed that Southeast Asians spent more time on mobile devices than anywhere else in the world: Thais over five hours a day; Malaysians, Filipinos, and Indonesians over four hours - compared to a global average of around three hours.
Five sectors account for most of that growth: online travel, online media (streaming entertainment and adverts), ride hailing, online shopping, and financial services, including banking.
Some 90% of Southeast Asians get online through mobile devices. Many of them passed over the desktop and laptop phases that characterized the West's digital evolution. Indeed, while Asia was late to the game, its consumers have made up for lost time by adopting the latest mobile devices.
From what I can see, mobile and Asia are now synonymous as a hotel development concept. Covid simply accelerated a trend that was already going fast.
From a hotel operator point of view, the trend to mobile as a back-of-house management and guest relations tool is more than welcome. It gives managers and owners access to real-time updates, analytics and communication threads with key persons on property. It drives efficiencies and performance, doing more with less, especially in a post-pandemic era defined by a tight labor market – even in Asia. (For example, Thailand is considering opening up special work visa access for Filipinos.)
What I like about the cloud-based app format is that it empowers Asian staff to be co-producers of a new practical hospitality that ultimately, I believe, will increase guest satisfaction and hotel bottom line.
Accessibility, flexibility and real-time updates are key because it empowers Asian line staff to be more effective and efficient in operating hotel assets. This is the most costly aspect of hotel operational overhead which managers and owners are rightly concerned with.
The reality is, the vast majority of Asian staff who are millennials or younger have smartphones. In smaller properties, mobile property management apps allow staff to wear multiple operational hats – waiter, receptionist, rooms supervisor, bellhop. There are clear advantages of mobile technology platforms in driving efficiencies and keeping costs down.
Like North America and Europe, post-pandemic Asia as a whole is grappling with mobile tech developments and trends such as the sharing economy, sustainability, virtual reality, the quest for a more personalized guest experience, voice search and new generations of travelers seeking unique and 'authentic' experiences.
For consumers, the key areas where contactless is taking off are: hotel information for guests, mobile check in and out, room service requests, contactless payments and room key technology.
On the hotel management side in Asia, the trend is also to cloud-based solutions in order to enhance guest service quality, boost security and privacy, reduce costs and integrate functions. Harvesting big data about guests is also a large carrot for hoteliers seeking to personalize service and enhance marketing.
As in North America and Europe, surveys suggest that the objective is to improve guest experiences, grow profits, 'future proof' the company and gain competitive advantage.
However, Asia is not America, not by a long shot.
Asia Pacific has around 60% of the world's population: nearly five billion people. Intra-regional travel within Asia accounts for around 80% of the region's tourist arrivals. Pre-covid, most of this was generated by China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. And much of this is - or was, pre-Covid – Chinese people visiting Korea and Japanese travelers visiting China and so on. Northeast Asia is very much its own supply and demand ecosystem.
Greater Asia is of course a region of diverse languages, cultures, mindsets, social norms and behavior. Guests from Japan, India, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore each bring their own values and expectations to the hotel sector, both as guests and as hotel operators.
As a whole, Asia has been slower to emerge from Covid restrictions. Parts of many cities in China still remain under lockdown as China pursues a 'zero Covid' strategy. Hong Kong, once an independently-minded city state with a high freedom index, is increasingly under the sway of mainland China with all the limitations on personal freedom and, ultimately, travel, as that now sadly implies.
Mask wearing is still widespread in Asian cities.
However, one aspect that unites the region is the ascendency of mobile, which has surpassed desktops for hotel bookings. Pre-Covid, Phocuswright research showed that mobile's share of hotel bookings jumped from around 44% in 2017 to an estimated 55% in 2019.
Another consideration is that around 66% Asian millennials live at home with their parents and/or extended family. This opens two niche marketing opportunities for hoteliers: short city break holidays for millennial couples escaping family confines, and -- conversely – multi-generation family holidays.
Across the region Asian millennials communicate on smartphones on messaging apps such as Line, WhatsApp and, in China, WeChat. Compared to the West, emailing is more of a formal, work-related medium. Email marketing for hoteliers is therefore more of a challenge in Asia.
Asians, as a rule, seem to be quite relaxed about data sharing, especially on one big super app such as China's WeChat, the world's largest standalone mobile app. The flipside is that Asians therefore expect personalization from the hotel experience.
Within Asia, China stands relatively alone and has its own unique characteristics. For Chinese travelers, group travel is still popular, which in some ways is still an 'old' approach to travel. However, researchers record that mobile accounts for over 80% of Chinese travel bookings. Even before Covid, around 70% of Chinese travelers used their mobile phones to make purchases while abroad. Hotels that support WePay and AliPay will appeal to Chinese travelers when they return to outbound tourism in large numbers.
More than in other regions of the world, on arrival at a hotel, Asian guests want their mobile phones to enable speedier check-ins. "Millennials are happy to interact with the hotel through their apps. Baby boomers still prefer personal contact," says Christopher Stafford, CEO & Founder of The Orient & Occident Company, a Bangkok-based hotel operations consultancy.
While mobile tech seems to be preferred in the during-stay period of the guest experience, Stafford suspects that laptops and desktops are still used in the dreaming, planning and booking phases of the trip.
In the hotel setting, Asia-based guests also increasingly expect push-alerts, tailored in-room entertainment, and tips on what to do in the local destination, most notably, where to eat.
Increasingly this is taking place through hotels' dedicated apps, websites and QR codes. As in North America and Europe, big brands such as IHG, Marriott, Hyatt, Accor have developed consumer facing apps that are well utilized. Independent hotels, understandably, are lagging behind.
With the diversity of languages and cultures across Asia, it can be a challenge for a hotel company, especially an independent standalone, to please hotel guests on their mobile devices.
Consolidating by using one interface is a good strategy. Or partnering with a local DMO. For example, if you are a hotel in Bangkok, find out from the Tourism Authority of Thailand or a major outbound Chinese tour operator if your hotel can work with them to target Chinese visitors on WeChat.
On the hotel management side, 360-degree mobile apps, the sector that I am in, is bringing speed and accuracy in reporting, better distribution of messaging and enhanced management of resources. Better guest history tracking and control of inventory is now being enabled through mobile tech. Marketing distribution and financial control are the main winners.
Asia is known for its high hotel service standards. The hand-clasped welcome with slightly bowed head, the smiles and graciousness go a long way across Asia to enhance the guest experience, despite the penetration of global hotel brands and norms, even in small upcountry towns across the region.
Is mobile tech diminishing those personal touch service standards? As a general rule, I don't think so. It all depends on the service culture of a particular hotel. In fact I believe the role of management in empowering line and service staff to harness mobile technology for enhanced customer service is more important than ever. However, staff do still need to be trained in proper mobile communication protocols and how to utilize mobile service touchpoints with guests.
With increasing difficulty in attracting hotel staff in a post-Covid era – even in Asia – there is evidence that hotel managers are turning more to tech to bridge the gap. As to whether service standards will fall or be enhanced, time will tell.
The Covid pandemic accidentally accelerated the digital trend. The new expectation of fast, easy-to-use – and often socially distanced – digital service channels between consumer and hotel is now off the leash and running free.
It is becoming increasingly clear that there will be no return to pre-2020 'normalcy'. The hospitality landscape has, I believe, changed forever. Digital substitution in the guest experience and mobile cloud-based hotel management systems are here to stay. This applies to hotels and to mixed use properties such as condominiums, long term rentals, the MICE sector and more.
Across most of Asia, the rate of growth in the mobile hotel tech sector seems likely to outpace the rest of the world for the foreseeable future. In the mobile tech sector, Asia is the place to be.
By Mark Remijan Co-founder & CEO, HMP Master