One good thing about COVID-19, we finally got the tech to work

by Sarah Firisen

This Christmas, I stayed in a Marriott in the town where my kids live. Like most people, my business and personal travel has mostly ground to a halt in the last 9 months. So I was pleasantly surprised by the check-in experience the hotel provided me to allow for social distancing. I’m a long-time Marriot member and have their app on my phone. Using it, I was able to check-in ahead of time, and when my room was ready, they sent me a mobile key. 

There are a few things to unpack here. Starwood’s, who were bought by Marriot in 2015, had been playing around with mobile keys for years. I remember staying in the W Hotel in London maybe 7 years ago when they first rolled them out with much fanfare. They were a total bust. After a couple of frustrating trips back and forth to the lobby for staff to try to fix mine, I gave up and took the key card. I’m a techie and constant loser of key cards, the concept of doing it on my phone was a powerful draw for me.   So, I tried again at a couple of different hotels over the years. I don’t think I ever got a mobile key to work consistently enough to not be incredibly frustrating. But this Christmas, the experience was seamless, because finally, it had to be.

The rest of the check-in/check-out mobile experience was also great and a vast improvement over the in-person check-in pre-COVID. I was always irritated by Marriott’s need to have me wait in a check-in line to give a person my credit card and ID. I’m a rewards member, they know who I am, and have multiple credit cards on file for me. This time-consuming duplication was the last thing I needed coming off a long, often red-eye flight. And why did I need to go a desk to check-out only to have them tell me that they’d email me my final bill, which is my preference in their app? They’d already emailed my statement ahead of check-out, if I had any issues with it, I could choose to stop by the desk or contact Marriot support. Now, this is all done on my app. I’m assuming that people without the Marriot app or smartphones, still do have to do this in-person. But, the reduction in staff needed for this minority probably ensures that even post-COVID, I’ll never have to wait at a front desk again.

Looking back on our lives since March 2020, everything has been so hard; professionally, personally, for many many people financially. Our physical fitness has suffered for many of us, and for many others, their mental health has declined. But the one thing that is true for us all is that as bad as it’s been, it’s hard to fathom how much harder it would have been without technology. It’s amazing that our technology infrastructure stood up as well as it did. Internet access, videoconferencing and augmented, and virtual reality tools have enabled many of us to continue to work, socialize, exercise, learn how to make sourdough bread and attend weddings and funerals. 

In fact, virtual funerals are another area where necessity forced an industry to finally get real about tech, “In 2019 it was estimated that 20 percent of US funeral homes offered some form of live streaming service. Now, the demand for such services has skyrocketed all around the world, with many mourners finding online funerals to be a surprisingly intimate way to honor loved ones. With 360 VR funeral live streaming, remote attendees can witness the service with perfect image quality and audio, and immerse themselves in the scene as if they were there.” Given that, for some people, there may be something more immersive and personal about a virtual funeral, this also seems likely to be a tech enhancement that is here to stay.

A month ago, I married for the second time. The first time was almost 25 years ago. I remember the process of getting my wedding license: we both had to take the morning off work to go to City Hall in New York City. We had to wait in a security line, then take a number and wait and wait to talk to a City Clerk. Like the DMV, if you timed it badly, this could be a whole morning affair. But during COVID, New York City had to go virtual. When New York went into lockdown, City Hall suspended most services. This wasn’t sustainable for long so, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo on April 18 issued an executive order allowing state residents to secure marriage licenses remotely and marry via video conference, but the technology to complete the process online wasn’t yet in place.” At a pace of technology rollout that doesn’t usually mark government projects, by May 18th NYC rolled out Project Cupid. In this online wedding portal, it is possible to go through all the steps from getting through to submitting a license. 

This marriage around, I went online to the wedding portal. I filled out forms with all our information and uploaded photos of our driver’s licenses and my divorce decree and paid.  We were then able to choose an appointment for our virtual meeting with the Clerk. When the allotted day and time came around, I logged back into the portal, which directed me to a zoom link. We logged on and had a 10-minute conversation with the Clerk. We both had to be onscreen, and we held up our licenses so she could verify them. She then sent us a DocuSign document (another company that has been invaluable this year), which we signed while she was watching. After the interview, she emailed me the license. Once the marriage ceremony was over, I uploaded the signed license to the portal.  The entire process was easy, seamless and incredibly efficient for a government agency. The technology worked and wouldn’t have happened anytime soon without the COVID-driven necessity. I’m assuming that they will keep this system in place post-COVID. Hopefully, no one will ever have to take the morning off work to go and waste hours at City Hall ever again.

As this New York Times piece discusses, some technology came through for us, even though some did let us down. COVID-19, lockdown and the ensuing disruption caused many companies and organizations to finally step up and take tech seriously. Even if they’d merely dabbled before. This year, necessity truly was the mother of invention. And in the long-term, we’ll all be better off for the innovation that this year has accelerated, even though the price we all paid was very high.