Friendly greetings are part of the everyday vernacular of hotel lobbies across the world. Book to stay at the Henn-na in south-western Japan though and you’ll be greeted on arrival by an English-speaking dinosaur sporting a bow tie and bellhop hat. Reserve a room at the Hilton McLean hotel in Virginia and a robot named Connie will act as a member of the concierge, answering your questions regarding amenities and dining options.
Hotels manned by artificial intelligence may sound like something that has leapt off the pages of a dystopian fiction novel, but the ability to augment tasks in the hospitality industry is growing. According to research by the holiday deal website Travelzoo, 80% of 6,000 respondents said robotics and automation would feature heavily in the future, with international and well-seasoned travellers being more comfortable with the idea. Of those surveyed, 79% were convinced robots would be better equipped at dealing with different languages and 81% thought they would be better than humans at handling data.
The advantage of any technology that uses machine learning is that over time it gets better at processing data and predicting what people want. Ultimately, this is what hospitality is about – making sure guests are satisfied and creating the best experience possible.
Guy Marson, co-founder of the data science consultancy Profusion, says “hotels are the perfect test bed” for technology, particularly the internet of things and smart devices. “Using phones, wristbands or smartwatches as alternatives to room keys, access to on-site facilities or to control a room’s air conditioning and TV are all relatively straightforward applications. However, the most interesting approach is creating a fully personalised experience. By integrating data from every touchpoint in the hotel, hoteliers can improve customer service, reduce costs and tailor services.”
He adds: “Data collected through smart devices can show what food and drink a guest prefers, their movements around a resort and even if they’ve had a bad night’s sleep. This information can be used by a hotel to offer that guest an extra strong coffee in the morning or their favourite tipple at the pool where they often spend time, and recommend new dishes that might be to their taste.”
At the Aloft Hotel in Manhattan, guests have previously been able to order from a room service menu using emojis; at Radisson Blu Edwardian hotels across London, a chatbot named Edward uses a natural language understanding interface to respond to the requests of guests who text it. And at other chains, companies such as Alice have built smartphone apps that connect staff and guests directly, and help businesses streamline their concierge operations.
A whole host of technologies being developed are consumer-facing. But there are also startups building platforms that “play a back-of-house role, unseen by guests, yet the benefits are evident in front-of-house services”, according to Tom Meehan, founder of Minibarra, which is aiming to innovate minibar management.
Meehan thought up his cloud-based software after realising that “the current [paper-based] system means too much time is spent on repetitive tasks [such as stocktaking], which usually have to be completed manually”. He says that by “automating and speeding up these tasks, and having relevant information instantly available”, staff can spend more time on ensuring guests are being looked after.
Minibarra is currently in a pre-launch stage, but beta tests have concluded that staff could save more than two hours a day.
Staffing itself is a big issue for hotels, restaurants and bars. The hospitality industry has one of the highest turnover rates in the UK and employment can be precarious.
“According to a report by People 1st on labour market trends in the industry, the average posting for a position receives 71 applications,” says Alex Hanson-Smith, co-founder of Inploi, a new web- and mobile-based on-demand jobs platform that wants to reimagine the employment process. He adds that the oversaturated market can make it harder for businesses to hire the right people.
The platform uses an intelligent algorithm to match employers with jobseekers based on a number of metrics. It also has a back-end function that gives employers a complete picture of their staffing, including information on turnover and cost of recruitment.
Inploi aims to “drive down the candidate-to-hires ratio and minimise friction at multiple points along the process”, but to label it as just another online recruitment option would be simplifying it, says co-founder Matthew de la Hey. “The solution isn’t just to take recruitment and put it on a mobile phone, as some have done. This doesn’t solve issues of candidate quality or the applicant experience.”
Hanson-Smith says the platform may be in its infancy, but it will become more accurate as the database grows. The more the algorithm learns about its users, the more success it is likely to have in helping businesses connect with the right people with the right mix of skills and personality to keep guests satisfied.
Digital innovation is shaking up the hospitality industry, from concierge smartphone apps to smart keyless entry. But whether robots will one day be able to replicate hotel or restaurant staff’s interpersonal skills is debatable.
Source: The guardian