Coronavirus Awakens Ailing Travel Sector to Need for Technology Cures

Israeli startups offer a wide array of solutions that do everything from facilitating social distancing at hotels to disinfecting surfaces in airports

Hadar Kane
Hadar Kane
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A worker wearing protective gear sanitizes a room at a hotel in Kolkata, India, June 15, 2020
A worker wearing protective gear sanitizes a room at a hotel in Kolkata, India, June 15, 2020Credit: RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/ Reuters
Hadar Kane
Hadar Kane

Imagine a visit to a Paris hotel in the coronavirus era. Even before you’ve reached the reception desk, you have been automatically identified and your temperature taken remotely. By the time you reach the desk, you’ve been checked in and given a room. Your suitcases reach your room before you do. To top it off, all of this is done in your own language, and you haven’t had to wait in a line at all between the time you stepped into the airport and the time you turned off the light in your hotel room for your first night’s sleep.

If this sounds a little too futuristic for travel anytime in the foreseeable future, think again: Most of the technology is already in development by travel tech startups in Israel and around the world.

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With the coronavirus forcing the global travel industry to rethink the way we travel, their work has gone into overdrive. There’s no going back for airlines, hotels, rental car companies and tourist attractions – they face a new era of heightened concern for hygiene, health and social distancing, and technology will be a key part of the solution.

“The travel industry has been among the most badly hurt by the coronavirus and to come out of this, they will have to invest a lot of money in innovation,” said Itai Green, founder and CEO of Innovate Israel, which connects global corporations with Israeli startups. “Social distancing and trust between tourists and tourism companies will only happen by integrating travel tech solutions.”

Green said no travel industry player wants to end up like Nokia, the Finnish cellphone maker that saw its dominance of the mobile market evaporate because it failed to adapt to the rise of smartphones.

Green said there are scores of Israeli startups working on a host of solutions for travel in the post-coronavirus era, ranging from applications that use sensors to detect virus symptoms, video screens that reduce the need for human interaction, smart sinks that provide data on users’ hand hygiene at airports and artificial intelligence-based travel assistants for routine tasks like flight cancellations and delays and lost luggage.

“The growth in technology development is in the hundreds of percent and the rate of adoption has been fantastic. It’s technology that already exists but hasn’t been used by the tourism industry. Now it’s being adopted by the industry so it can return to normal,” said Green.

VAT refunds by app

Among the Israeli startups Green pointed to is Refundit, whose app is used by tourists visiting foreign countries to get the value-added tax they paid refunded. The app scans receipts and processes the refunds without the user having to wait on line at the airport to apply – a savings of time, and in the pandemic era, risk as well.

Green counts the Refundit solution among many “designed to provide the traveler with peace of mind.”

One Israeli startup that’s adapting its existing technology  the travel industry is Binah.ai. Its monitoring solutions allow anyone to measure vital signs at medical-grade precision using a smartphone camera. It’s now being offered to airports to monitor travelers and ensure they don’t present a health risk.

“Our technology can extract metrics from the human body using a beam of flashing light on the skin to examine its response and color change,” said David Maman, cofounder and CEO. “This enables us to analyze things such as heart rate, blood oxygen and the like. It works with all mobile devices and cameras.”

David Maman, cofounder and CEO of Binah.ai, June 9, 2020

Binah.ai developed the technology three years ago, with a target market of insurance companies seeking to monitor the health of their policy holders, said Maman. Later it expanded to medical clinics in Japan, Europe and the United States that wanted to provide patients with remote diagnostic services, he said.

“Now we’ve turned to the world of aviation and tourism, which needs to be able to provide a secure environment to their customers and their workers,” Maman said.

He said the applications is suitable for the coronavirus. “In the beginning, everyone was confident that temperature was the most important parameter for detecting the coronavirus, but recent research coming out of Italy and the U.S. makes it clear that more than 70% of the people who have been admitted to hospitals didn’t have a fever. We now realize that the important measurements are breath rate, oxygen and heart rate – and that’s exactly what we provide.”

Binah.ai has invested $17.5 million in developing the application and is now awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as from European Union regulators. Maman said he expected the app to go into widespread use by the end of the year.

The app is designed for large organizations and will be priced according to the number of users – from tens of dollars per user for smaller organizations to single dollars for those with millions of users, he said. Binah.ai is also in talks with three major world airlines.

“Airlines that offer check-in 24 hours before the flight will be able to request ticker holders to do a health scan with the applications. If there are any worrying readings, they can ask tell the customers not to arrive for the flight or to condition flying on a doctor’s approval. The same thing will be at hotels, which can ask guests to do a scan a few hours before they arrive,” said Maman.

Nobio is another Israeli startup that has changed direction with the onset of the coronavirus. It developed an adhesive with proprietary anti-bacterial technology that is used to bond enamel, dentin and other materials used in dentistry. It can keep bacteria and viruses away from the protected surface for months.

“The main reason people lose their teeth is bacteria,” said CEO Yoram Ashery. “Our goal was to coat teeth with a disinfectant and give your teeth permanent protection from the bacteria. We were already approved by the FDA last September and launched in the U.S.”

Toothache

Then, everything came to a halt in March because of the coronavirus. All the dental clinics closed – dental procedures are considered high risk due to saliva splashes. That prompted the company to expand in new directions.

“We looked around for what we could do while the dental market was in deep freeze,” he said. “We realized that while our focus was on bacteria, the technology we developed was also effective against viruses like the coronavirus. Very quickly and with some funding from the Israel Innovation Authority we developed a spray that disinfects surfaces and keeps them that way for an extended period. It’s a product that can help return things to normal at tourism sites and airports by spraying planes, large public spaces in hotels, hotel rooms and even public transportation.”

Ashery said that the big problem with disinfectants now is that they are effective for only a very short time – just a few minutes – so the second someone who is infected touches the surface, it becomes infected again. Research has shown that the coronavirus can survive on surfaces for a long time: eight hours on rubber gloves, 48 hours on steel, four days on wood, paper and glass, and five days on plastic.

He said there has been a lot of interest in Nobio’s product from the tourism and auto sectors. Ashery’s goal is to make the product widely affordable, at cost of about $3 to disinfect a square meter of surface for a month. The product can protect against infections for longer but only by applying more of the material, which raises the cost, Ashery explained.

The Wishbox guest app, an online service for hotel check-in and other services, June 15, 2020Credit: Elad Diamant

“The goal is making public areas more secure so that people don’t need to constantly wash their hands and open doors with a handkerchief, or be afraid of putting their hand on anything in a plane or taxi. It is simply to a return to normal contact,” said Ashery.

Not all the Israeli startups now offering travel tech technology started by addressing other markets.

Wishbox, for instance, had developed an online platform for hotel check-in, room upgrades and service, selling tickets for local attractions and payment processing that saves the hotel manpower costs while saving guests time. The Wishbox system also reduces human contact and coronavirus risk.

The company, which has raised $3.5 million and operates in more than 60 countries, counts hundreds of hotels and hostels as customers, including the Crown Plaza and Prima hotels in Tel Aviv.

“The coronavirus has shorted the process [of ado ption] that was supposed to take four or five years to just a few months,” said David Mezuman, Wishbox’s founder and CEO. “Hotels hadn’t been rushing into the digital era – they still preferred the traditional system of a reception desk and personal contact. Today everyone is looking for technology solutions. Our order book has soared by hundreds of percent.

David Mezuman, Wishbox’s founder and CEO, January 12, 2020Credit: Elad Diamant

“No one today wants to stand at check-in with another 50 people or to deal with paper documents. With our platform you can manage everything over your phone, which connects with all the key hotel functions.”

The Wishbox system links the guests to the hotel from the moment the booking process has been completed, even if it’s done through a booking website. No matter where the hotel is located, communication is done in the guest’s native language.

Big chains interested

Until the onset of the coronavirus, Wishbox mostly worked with independent hotels of 500-200 rooms, according to Mezuman. Now, he said, the big chains have approached him. It’s also enabled the company to reduce installation time for the technology to just seven days.

Another startup that found itself at the right place at the right time with the coronavirus is Fetcherr, whose algorithm helps airlines and hotels with pricing. The technology assesses supply and demand in real time through a search engine and generates prices in response without any human intervention. That’s a big saving at a time when the travel industry is reeling from huge losses.

“The old world of aviation, before the coronavirus, suffered from two problems: No sharing of information and manpower was a big barrier to entry,” said Roy Cohen, founder and CEO. “Our technology has created a model aimed at reducing the time and manpower involved. It’s a bespoke solution adaptable to every business according to its size, so that airlines will be able to cut its costs and lower prices.”

Among other things, Fetcherr brings enormous amounts of data points into the model, including weather conditions, the stock and real estate markets, the Travelport Worldwide air travel website and travel agencies.

“Our engine scans all the world all the time. We find things like, for example, that Chicago is having a hailstorm, and it’s damaging people’s cars. From that, our model knows that average family expenses in Chicago for an annual vacation will fall because some of the money they have will have to go to fixing their car,” explained Cohen.

And how is this connected to the coronavirus?

“[The virus] killed the models,” said Cohen. “You can no longer predict anything in air travel and tourism.”

Before the coronavirus, all the airlines used pricing models developed in the 1970s and 1980s that were based on demand data from the previous year to predict current demand. In addition, they had staff that was checking competitors’ prices. The problem was that they could check 20% of the prices at most because no one had enough manpower, said Cohen.

Old model is out

“Suddenly, with the coronavirus, there’s no demand, there are no flights and no competitors – it’s hard to figure out how much prices will go up. The old models failed. We’ve solved this with our system, which knows how to build a new model, predict demand and suggest a certain price. It doesn’t require 30 people checking competitors’ prices, it needs just four,” he said.

Fetcherr presented its models at a recent aviation conference, where it was greeted with surprise by some of the world’s biggest airlines, said Cohen. Still, he admitted, winning airlines and hotels over to the system will take time.

“Airlines and hotels are by their nature suspicious. No one is willing to buy a black box that tells them what to do, so we’ve developed an engine that explains all the factors that the system takes into consideration,” he explained.

But Cohen is confident the travel industry will come around. “If world aviation is going to exit the crisis, they need to create savings. Our system makes sure that the planes are flying full, with maximum seat utilization. That’s important because airlines lose money in every empty seat,” he said. “We adjust the price to exactly what consumers can pay. Consumers save on average 15% and the airlines make 25% more profits.”

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