The Rise of the Hotel Chatbot

The only source of knowledge, Einstein famously said, is experience. It would appear that growing numbers of people agree with him. In a world saturated with information and convenience, the value of old-fashioned connectivity has become visible in a new light. “Digital detox” has become a popular travel niche, while the industry as a whole is focusing on experiences rather than ‘places to stay.’ The desire for authentic connection to people and communities has become a major theme in hospitality.

But we also have compelling technologies that could lighten the load for hotel employees and managers — even if a certain amount of human interaction is lost in the transaction. Hotel Chatbots are one of the most interesting examples. Not only for their technological promise, but for the questions they raise about our trade.

For those who don’t know, Chatbots are computer programs that mimic human conversation. They can answer questions and provide reasonably sophisticated answers within a limited framework. This technology has previously existed in simple forms, but has advanced exponentially in recent years. We’re starting to see dependable results with services like Siri (Apple) and Echo (Amazon), among other voice-machine interfaces. (We might forget Microsoft’s efforts with Tay however which were an unmitigated disaster).

More to the point, there are specialised Chatbots designed to make things easier for hotel staff and guests. A Chabot, for instance, can take orders for room service, answer questions about local surroundings, provide restaurant recommendations, and handle various other requests (such as late check-out or complimentary shaving kits). Guests simply access the Chatbot through an app or online, and instead of pouring through complicated menus of pre-determined options, they type a question in their own words. The question goes into the interface, information is sorted and received, and a conversational answer is given. It sounds simple, but the technology is truly impressive. Think of it as interactive FAQ.

Meeting an expectation

If there were ever a time when the expectations of prospective guests shape the hotel business, it’s now. We have a superabundance of information which means that the more people know about what’s possible for their money, the higher their expectations become (there is no shortage of commentary on this phenomenon).

So — whether you’re a boutique hotel or a global chain, you’re constantly trying to stay abreast of what people want.

As it turns out, people do want instant answers to their questions, whether they’re in the research/booking phase or have already checked in. And the more information-rich the environment becomes, the more important it is to find relevant information to facilitate the successful completion of tasks.

This is where Chatbots have the potential to shine. Hotels would ordinarily use human resources to field large numbers of individual queries that may or may not bear fruit. With Chatbots, guests can get specific answers to their questions (and even promotional offers) by interacting conversationally with software.

Put simply, receiving instant answers to detailed questions is an expectation that hotels (especially smaller properties) will find themselves hard-pressed to meet using human resources. Chatbots allow this expectation to be met with far greater efficiency, and the major players know it. A number of OTAs and global hotel chains are already experimenting with Chatbots in some way — including booking.com, Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Radisson and others.

Using human resources to enhance the guest experience

So where are the humans you might be asking? One compelling argument for Chatbots is that they can free up human resources, which can then be used to enhance the guest experience. In this sense, Chatbots are a highly sensitive firewall against the onslaught of queries in cyberspace. These queries are valuable, but they’re also numerous and diverse. They arrive at any time of day or night — and the longer it takes to give an accurate answer, the less likely people are to engage.

Instead of building your firewall out of precious human resources or static information, artificial intelligence (Chatbots) are used to mimic human interaction and provide timely, relevant information at a moment’s notice. Suddenly, the real people at the hotel have more time and energy for what matters: Creating a better experience for guests on the ground.

Crossing the line

The potential of Chatbots for delivering personalised suggestions based on collected user data is enormous. But there is a line between personalised information, which people want, and the invasion of privacy (real or perceived), which they do not.

Nobody knows exactly where this demarcation line is. Chatbots are still only a few years old, but they’ve already come a long way. At what point does ‘personalised’ become ‘inappropriate’ or ‘creepy,’ given the fact that these interactions are facilitated by non-human agents?

The research firm Gartner predicts that in two or three year’s time, around one-third of human interactions with technology will be conversational, whether through text or voice. If this prediction is accurate, people will undoubtedly “get used to” Chatbots as a way to get things done, whether it’s finding a great hotel deal or having a burger and a beer brought to the room.

The larger question, which cannot yet be answered, is whether people will see Chatbots as alienating or advantageous in the long run — and in what measure.

Getting back to basics

In order to make sense of the future, I find it helpful to look at the past. For instance, what is the hospitality industry about anyway? Why are we here and what are we trying to provide to our guests?

It is very easy to get caught up in the hype but before we use any new technology we always need to ask ourselves, ‘how does this help my guests?’ Too often hoteliers implement technology because it seems cool or places them at the cutting edge, but if you are on the wrong side of the blade then you end up falling off!

In thinking about what guests want and what they might want in the future, we certainly need to consider how guest expectations might be shaped in the future by technology like Chatbots but we can’t forget the basics either.

My own prediction is that Chatbots will be successful to the extent that they 1) enhance the definition of hospitality by creating more human interactions, and 2) facilitate stronger connections between guests and communities.

BUT, if Chatbots create a lazy atmosphere in which human resources are not robustly applied elsewhere; and if people grow weary with the idea that nobody real is listening, Chatbots will run afoul of the spirit of hospitality. They must empower hotels and guests to create meaningful experiences (which, as Einstein said, is the only true knowledge) in order to earn a permanent place at the table.

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