"The human touch is and will always be necessary, and technology will support it but will not replace it"

"The human touch is and will always be necessary, and technology will support it but will not replace it"

Pablo Soto (La Coruña, 1984) holds a degree in Business Administration and Management from the UDC, an Executive MBA from IESIDE, and a Master's in International Trade from Georgetown University. He has also taken formal Master's courses but is increasingly taking non-formal microlearning. With more than ten years of experience working in telecommunications companies, he currently works as an Innovation Manager at Vodafone Business. He combines his work with his great passions: sports, teaching, mentoring start-ups, and collaborating with the Gen Innovación community, with which he recently co-published El Libro de la Innovación. Soto will participate in the CETT Smart Tourism Congress on 9 and 10 November.

Tourism and technology

In the context of digitalization, what do tourism companies have to do to avoid falling behind from a technological point of view?

The first thing they have to do is to know themselves and have a plan. Technology is the means and not the end, and it is not enough to digitize for the sake of digitizing. It has to have a business sense. The second, but no less critical, is to know your internal customer (employee) and your external customer (visitor) so that all the changes towards digitalization that you undertake are focused on providing them with value. Finally, they have to observe their environment and not only that of their sector, to see what is being done and what is more or less popular. Of course, there will always be companies at the forefront of innovation regarding resources. However, it is the job of the rest to be attentive, learn, and, within their scale and possibilities, try to implement these innovations. We must be clear that we have to innovate to evolve and survive in an increasingly complex market.

To what extent can technology transform this tourism model in a country of sun and beaches like ours?

While it is true that "sun and beach" continue to be our main selling point, we have evolved a great deal in other areas of tourism. Gastronomy, culture, and MICE tourism are also very important for us, and national and foreign visitors recognize this, as we can see in the Vodafone-CETT observatory reports, among others. To answer the question, technology can help in many ways to evolve or improve (I do not say transform because I do not believe that the current model is not good). The most important thing is, without a doubt, to be sustainable as a destination. The Internet of Things (IoT) technology, in which Vodafone is a world leader connecting more than 160 million devices and platforms, help monitor and reduce the impact we generate as humans and tourists. Without a healthy destination, there is no tourism. Technologies linked to Big Data are also fundamental. If we know our target visitors better and can impact them directly to influence their travel decision, we will be able to attract visitors who generate more value, for example. As a destination or company, we will be able to make informed decisions based not only on experience or intuition. The use of stereoscopic reality (virtual or augmented) in promotion and communication will become more and more common. It seems clear that making a purchase decision by immersive experience rather than looking at a flat photograph brings value to our potential customers. With the emergence of the metaverse, we will see things we could not have imagined until now.

Is the spread of technology a threat to employment?

Not at all. As I said, all innovations must focus on the customer. In my opinion, employees are the internal customers of organizations. Technology must help them reduce the routine and less rewarding tasks and focus on tasks that bring them more value and recognition as professionals. To give a current example, the possibility of online check-in at a hotel does not mean that less staff is needed at reception. On the contrary, it means that the role of the receptionist -one of the most important within the organic structure of a hotel since they are the face and the most direct contact with all the guests- will not have to spend time scanning the ID card and will be able to offer the customer added value, for example, by presenting in more detail the services contracted at the time of booking, offering them an upgrade or selling other services of the hotel beyond the accommodation and the room. Furthermore, like this, many more examples, such as automating computer processes to gain efficiency in administration departments, digitizing maintenance activities to keep the asset always in the best condition, digitizing floor work to reduce staff training costs... In a sector where experience comes from experience, the human touch is and will always be necessary, and technology will provide support but will not replace it.

Technological tourism and smart tourism. Are they the same?

They are not the same, but there can be no smart tourism if technology is not included in tourism. Smart tourism has three cornerstones: sustainability, digitization, and accessibility. In each, technology is a key player. We can give an example of each. For example, to know how sustainable my company is and how we can reduce its environmental footprint and energy consumption, we need sensors and connectivity to measure it. Furthermore, I would be unable to make decisions to capture possible consumption problems in real time without the analysis capacity that Artificial Intelligence offers me. In the same way, to reduce paper consumption, we need a technology that helps to digitize this information so that it is in a paperless format. We can build an accessible resource for its architecture. However, if we then fill out a map of this paper that is identical for everyone, we are not offering an accessible experience. Even so, we could have a digital indoor guidance system that would take us through spaces of at least 1.5 m wide and without steps if a guest identified as a person with mobility difficulties.

Tourism and sustainability

Sustainability is one of the sector's major objectives and society in general. So how can technology help to achieve it?

From our point of view, it is the most crucial challenge facing society, and at Vodafone Business, we are also highly committed to the planet. Technology is vital for this purpose and affects different actors in the chain of tourism. When we start our journey, we begin to make an impact. When we travel, we generate carbon emissions, making much progress in this area. Aircraft kerosene consumption is being reduced, high-speed trains use electricity, and work is already underway on hydrogen engines in road and sea transport. All this is technological evolution. At destinations, there is also a need for significant investment in technology to continue to be desirable: to control environmental pollution, to generate actions for efficient consumption of water and energy resources in general, and to maintain reasonable levels and flows of people (including tourists and locals) that do not harm the ecosystem, by actively communicating awareness. In establishments, work to eliminate single-use plastics, reduce paper consumption, work on the water cycle, use renewable energy sources and apply measures to optimize energy consumption. These are just a few examples of how technology helps sustainability, and I know that we are working very well in this area as a country. It should be added that it is crucial for society and business. Tourists recognize that sustainability is one of their most important decision drivers when choosing a holiday.

How much will the metaverse transform the tourism industry?

The truth is that it will, and very much so. First, I want to clarify that, just as digitalization will not cut jobs, the metaverse will not affect tourism figures. On the contrary, the metaverse will supplement the tourism experience and generate new business models. Initially, and we will see what happens in the first quarter of 2022, it will begin to be exploited as a promotional and sales channel. Experiencing a destination, a resort, or the room the guest wants to hire in first person from the sofa of her own home and in an immersive way is something different. It provides excellent value compared to a current traditional website in two (flat) dimensions. In the mid-term, when the immersive devices by major manufacturers (Apple, Huawei, and Samsung are planning them for 2023-2024) and the platforms (which began to do so on 12 October with the alliance between Meta and Microsoft) are consolidated in the market, we will start to see companies begin to bid for the metaverse with serious proposals and not with "press clippings" actions such as buying a plot of land in Decentraland (a platform that, though valued at 1. 200 million dollars, has 300 active users only and whose currency - Manna - last year devaluated by almost 80%). At this point, new business models will appear in the sector. Yes, for example, it will be possible to sell virtual trips. However, I insist that the person who wishes to and can afford to travel will travel, and these experiences will be reserved for people who do not plan to travel and use them as a leisure activity.

With the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, there was much talk about remote work, but it seems that it has not been consolidated. Will it become a reality yet again?

At Vodafone Business, remote work has come to stay. We work remotely for three days and two in the office, and the organization's performance KPIs are still the same or better than before the pandemic. In a sector where personal contact is vital, there are indeed jobs that cannot be covered remotely, but many others can. For example, I cannot imagine a reception where the guest talks to the receptionist by video chat or where the check-in has to be done on a totem with an avatar because this could negatively affect business by excluding many segments of potential customers (without prejudice to the fact that the coexistence between an unattended totem and a receptionist could be a perfect alternative for some establishments). Not only do I find it complicated, but I also find it impossible that maintenance, catering, and entertainment tasks can be carried out remotely. Even so, I think that telecommuting can do many other back-office jobs perfectly well. Office tools have evolved a lot, and with the development of collaborative and cloud-based tools, with a laptop and an internet connection, we can turn any place into our workplace. Not only do I believe it will gain prominence, but I also believe that companies that do not embrace and promote it will have problems attracting and retaining talent. If, as a company, you lose the essential capital, the people who make up the organization, your survival is at risk. Let us illustrate this with a clear example: most of the digital profiles that we are hiring, such as data scientists, programmers, SEO and SEM experts, social media analysts, innovation profiles, IT departments, and product managers... (and I know that the same thing happens in other large multinationals) do not consider any offer, regardless of the financial package, if the company does not offer them the possibility of remote work and flexible working hours.

Training and talent in tourism

Attracting and retaining talent is one of the most recurrent debates in the tourism sector. How can it be captured and retained?

The secret is that, in an organization's culture, the employee has to be precisely where the customer is, at the center. We have to know them, listen to them, empower them and empathize with their day-to-day problems, giving them the tools (sometimes digital, sometimes not) to feel more valued and recognized as professionals. All of this has repercussions on their needs for self-esteem and self-fulfillment, which, curiously enough, are at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid. A healthy, modern culture is crucial to retaining and attracting our needed professionals.

What role do training and establishments like CETT play in tourism?

Their role is vital because they are training the professionals of the future. The profiles in demand are becoming more and more specialized, and the fact that a center like CETT exists is a luxury. All the programs focus on technology and innovation and work on the digital skills needed to enter the job market with guarantees, adding value to the organization where the students start working. The basis for tourism to continue to lead and evolve depends significantly on the talent and new profiles that emerge from universities like this.

What do you imagine the tourism sector will be like in 10 years?

It is not easy to imagine how technology and innovation cycles may advance in just five years. However, if I had to make a prediction, I would imagine a sector that is respectful of the planet and carbon neutral throughout the customer journey. Furthermore, the industry will be able to "hyper-personalize" each trip to the smallest detail so that each customer feels like the protagonist. All this would happen in an environment in which what is human and what is technological come together to generate unique user experiences.