This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on July 19, 2021 - July 25, 2021
Melaka-native Benny Wee, who has 17 years’ experience in the tech industry, took a leap of faith and dabbled in the smart convenience store business in 2019. It did not go as planned and he pivoted to supplying vending machines to popular tourist spots, factories and universities in Melaka.
It was good passive income, he says, which encouraged him to set up vending machines in more places. But early last year, the business went into a downward spiral when the government announced the first Movement Control Order (MCO).
“Businesses weren’t running at all at that time and I needed to find alternative income,” he says.
One day, Wee reminisced about his travels to places such as Taiwan and the UK, where, to save money, he would take the red-eye flight and arrive in the wee hours of the morning, only to find a long line at the hotel check-in counter.
“Most of the time, I’d be thinking about the bed in my room because I wanted to sleep. Sometimes when it was late, I’d want some food too, but some hotels have a cut-off time for room service, and so I would go to sleep hungry.”
Wee decided to combine what he saw as a clear need in the market with his experience with vending machines and started to develop a hybrid automated check-in and check-out kiosk for the hospitality industry.
He set up Vendfun Sdn Bhd in July last year to come up with the solution as well as offer snacks and drinks to travellers, whatever the time.
The solution is currently patent pending and has been deployed at a handful of locations nationwide. Demand for it surged over the last year, as more people prefer contactless processes. Owing to the recurring MCOs, however, hotels that subscribed to the kiosk have been unable to fully utilise its abilities.
Wee says this solution is also addressing a manpower pain point faced by the industry, especially among budget and boutique hotels. The kiosk will also ensure that the quality of service offered will be consistent. Finding good staff, especially for the front desk, is tough.
“As much as hoteliers train their staff, there will always be shortcomings, such as the inability to navigate the booking management system or a language barrier. The kiosk can fill these gaps,” he says.
Self-service automated check-in kiosks are not new. Some budget hotels and service apartments across Europe have been using some form of it for about a decade. But Wee claims to have developed a kiosk that is way ahead of a regular automated check-in, check-out system.
Vendfun’s hybrid kiosk features a 50in screen display and has the capability to scan and store a guest’s ID or passport for check-in purposes. The kiosk allows the use of cashless payment methods to minimise financial fraud and negligence, which can occur if cash is handled in person. Recorded data is stored on the cloud, says Wee, which is also synchronised to the hotel’s booking system.
“This helps the hotel protect its data security because it is not easily hacked and, assuming the booking system crashes or experiences data loss, it can be retrieved as well,” he says.
The kiosk can dispense complimentary gifts and services to guests, such as free breakfast at the hotel, to give guests a value-added travelling experience.
“The food and beverage aspect in hotels typically accounts for 20% to 30% of a hotel’s revenue. Budget and boutique hotels usually don’t have an in-house restaurant and thus have nothing to sell. So, with our upcoming e-concierge solution, businesses in the neighbourhood can offer breakfast discounts to guests, creating a relationship between the hotel, guests and the local economy.”
When developing the kiosk’s hardware and software, Wee spoke to hoteliers to find out why they turn away from kiosk solutions. The most common problem is that most kiosks would require the hotel to completely change its property management system (PMS) to be the same as the kiosk. Another factor is the high outright purchase price ranging from RM50,000 to RM70,000 per kiosk on top of a yearly maintenance fee.
Not only is it costly, but it would also create downtime when the systems are being put in place. On top of that, all the staff would need to be retrained to use the new system. Taking all this into consideration, Vendfun developed a middleware, or “software glue”, where the hotel’s system is integrated into the kiosk.
“Instead of them adapting to us, we adapt to them so that we use the same system and all the data is in sync. With this feature, it wouldn’t matter whether a person books in person, at the kiosk or online. All the data will be stored and synced, so the front desk staff will know what is going on.
“For those who don’t want to integrate their system with us, we also have an open API (application programming interface) to allow us to integrate with them.”
Wee believes contactless services and solutions will still be in demand in the post-pandemic world, as people have become more conscious about personal hygiene and social interactions. With that in mind, he says, the company is looking to continue to expand the tech offerings of the kiosk to go beyond just managing check-ins.
Another aspect he is looking to address is when bookings are made for a third party, for example, when someone makes a booking for his parents. In this instance, the booking will be registered under the person making the reservation and not the guests. Wee says the kiosk’s system will flag this check-in and allow the front desk personnel to decide whether to accept the booking.
He is looking to deploy artificial intelligence (AI) solutions to provide a more precise decision-making process as well as a higher level of security. It will also include a thermal sensor to check guests’ temperature. If a guest’s temperature is 37.5°C and above, the hotel will be flagged. Wee hopes to release the upgraded kiosk by year-end.
“The AI solution we’re working on will have the ability to scan a guest’s photo on their ID or passport. After that, we will ask them to take a photo of themselves and we will use these two elements to do facial verification to confirm their identity,” he says.
“What we’re trying to do is mimic what a front desk staff will do in this process, so that the guest can do it on their own at the kiosk.”
After 1½ years of being in lockdown, it is no surprise that the hospitality industry was the hardest hit, as it relies on travellers. Wee says one of the biggest problems he sees is that the government is not looking at the tourism ecosystem holistically but focusing only on hotels.
The industry, he explains, is made up of many more aspects, such as tourist attractions, local cuisine and snacks as well as trip planners.
“The government should consolidate all these players to understand what they can do instead of just providing wage subsidies. The recent Pemulih initiative is definitely a big help for short-term financial aid, but a long-term strategy needs thorough planning,” he adds.
“By getting the ecosystem players together, including tech players like Vendfun, we can discuss how we can help each other in the post-pandemic world to boost domestic and, eventually, international tourism.”
Wee hopes to tackle this problem by developing more solutions to incorporate into the kiosk to bridge the gap between offline and online tourism needs. As the system receives and stores data of hotel guests, he is looking to incorporate a big data analytics solution so that hotels can provide guests with personalised trip suggestions based on data collected. This will also allow the local ecosystem to thrive.
“For example, if you go to Melaka, typically, a tourist will just go to Jonker Street, visit some of the historical sites and call it a day. We’re hoping to provide a better travelling experience by suggesting restaurants to visit or even hidden gems in Melaka,” he explains.
“We can also do that for rides, for example, the riverboat ride, and offer guests special rates. The most important thing here is that we can help the businesses around where a kiosk is located, which is something we will need when the economy reopens.”
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