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Companies turn to tech for answers



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When Golden State Warriors execs cut the ribbon on their new Chase Center in San Francisco last September, they felt like they’d just introduced a new arena that was ready for anything.

And then came COVID.

“Our original definition of flexible and malleable really centered on the ability to go from basketball to concert to corporate event, and then back to basketball,” Mike Kitts, the Warriors’ Senior Vice President of Partnerships told me. “And now, our definitions of flexible and malleable have completely changed.”

Indeed. Flexibility, Kitts said, now means crafting an experience for the upcoming NBA season that is destined to be as novel as the coronavirus itself. The team is examining how best to minimize lines, ensure adequate spacing, limit contact and provide sufficient opportunities to sanitize – for a number of fans the NBA has yet to decide.

That likely will translate into new capabilities for the team’s smartphone app, along with more displays to help fans find their way around. The team is also exploring pandemic-era innovations like smart kiosks to check temperatures and connected hand sanitizers that help staff maintain them.

Of course, the flexibility dilemma isn’t unique to the Warriors, or even to basketball. Owners and executives of myriad brick-and-mortar businesses, from grocery chains and hardware stores to hotels and restaurants, are coming around to the same idea that they need to rearchitect the flow of the in-person experience to meet regulations and protect their workers and customers.

But unlike the Warriors, which won’t play another game before the 2020 season opens Dec. 1, other businesses have struggled to meet regulations and keep everyone safe while open for business, even as their understanding of what they needed to do – and how long they’d need to do it – evolved.

The evolving impact of coronavirus on businesses

Call it the three stages of COVID:

Stage 1: In March and April, many believed that COVID-19 would be a distant memory by Memorial Day. So proprietors made quick-and-dirty adjustments, like hanging white vinyl “we’re open” signs and spacing lines of blue painters’ tape 6 feet apart at checkout.

Stage 2: May rolled into June, with no end in sight to the pandemic. So many invested in more durable safety measures like sneeze guards and branded floor decals.

Stage 3: Acceptance. Here in the heat of summer, companies are coming to understand that the virus and its aftershocks will be felt for months, if not years. So they are starting to make longer-term investments in technology to inject distance into in-person commerce.

“We’re starting to see people use these technologies to keep their guests safe, to keep their employees safe. And we think it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Harry Patz, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Samsung Electronics America’s Display Division. “This is going to be a change to our way of life in kind of the same way that 9/11 forever changed airport security nearly 20 years ago.”

Patz said that Samsung and partners are seeing demand from healthcare providers for temperature-checking kiosks. As well, some grocery stores and big-box retailers are actively exploring electronic curbside pickup. They are particularly excited by the ability to update the displays remotely, he said.

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Shopping reinvented: America’s stores, malls reopen with masks, curbside pickup and closed fitting rooms

“Groceries and retailers have been overwhelmed during COVID,” Patz said. “And they’re looking for a better way to manage traffic, people, safety than with clipboards and paper signs.”

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The world post-COVID-19 will look very different. Hotels are looking forward to welcoming guests again, but they will be instituting many changes.

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Hotels checking in to tech solutions amid COVID

Companies in hard-hit businesses like travel and hospitality also are responding aggressively to the pandemic. Joseph Bojanowski, President of PM Hotel Group, said the company is putting more space between lobby seats, and upgrading to sofas and chairs with higher backs and armrests “to provide distancing and separation within the furniture itself.”

PM Hotel Group, which manages more than 60 Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Westin and other brand-name hotels across 20 states, is also accelerating the move to digital. And while the firm has added connected, 13-inch monitors at high-contact points around their hotels to aid navigation, the real focus has been on digital access.

“If you go to a hotel right now, do you really want to get a plastic key that who knows who had or how many times it was used before?” Bojanowski said. He said desk attendants are now urging customers to load the app at check-in, and help them navigate the process.

Once installed, the phone acts as more than just a digital key, controlling the lights, thermostat and television inside the room. It promotes contactless interaction outside the room as well.

“We’ve literally taken every single menu out of every one of our restaurants and bars,” he said. “We’re using QR codes right now. So you point your device to the QR code, and there’s our menu.”

PM already had been investing in digital transformation ahead of COVID-19, which Bojanowski said greatly helped the firm’s virus response. Much easier and faster to accelerate digital key adoption, for example, than to build and launch a new program. Since the start of the pandemic, digital key use has climbed to more than 50%, he said, up dramatically from about 35%.

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The Warriors’ Kitts agreed. He said he’s got a jump on other NBA teams, in two respects: Chase Center is 5G-ready and also equipped with state-of-the-art Wi-Fi. Plus, the Warriors built a new app from the ground up for last season, which Kitts said means the foundation is in place for all the programs they’re considering.

“We thought last year that this was going to be something that was really nice to have,” Kitts said. “But now that we’re into this situation, it’s proving to be one of the most important tools that we have. Because right now, we’d be trying to figure out how to build the app rather than how to use the app to solve the problem. It’s a huge leap ahead.”

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USA TODAY columnist Mike Feibus is president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm, and producer of the Privacy Now interview series on YouTube. Reach him at mikef@feibustech.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.

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Hotels are hoping for an upswing in travel and want you to know your experience will be safer, and cleaner, during the coronavirus pandemic.

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