Are Robots Taking Over Hotels?
In last week’s post, we talked about The Matrix and how the ability to see and interpret big data is the future of success in the hospitality industry. There’s another theme in that film that applies—or will soon apply—to hotels and hotel management.
Namely the rise of artificial intelligence, how it will be applied to the work we do, and how it might change the service experience for guests. Before everything went south in The Matrix, machines must have dominated the service industry and might things quite a bit easier for people. But even if robotic service is easier, would it be better?
It won’t be long before we’ll have more feedback on how guests feel about this. Last year’s opening of the five star Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan, signaled a big step forward in robotic customer service. Several tasks—including greetings, check-in and even carting luggage—are performed by robots of different sizes and appearances. There is a strong novelty factor in play, as Japan loves robots and this is one of the most automated hotels in the world right now. The company behind Henn-na has plans to expand around the globe, potentially offering lower prices as a result of lower operating costs.
But when the novelty fades and it becomes a larger-scale reality for hotel guests, how will people feel about it then?
Let’s look at it from a practical point of view. Robots, at least in theory, have infinitely thick skin. They could take abuse without exhibiting the slightest emotional reaction. They could be programmed to give a pragmatic response to virtually any question or problem. They could be filled to the brim with useful information about the community—information they would never forget or miscommunicate.
But when we really focus our attention on this possibility, and consider what it would be like to remove the human element from major aspects of customer service in our industry, a long list of problems come up. What would it feel like, as a guest, to voice your concerns and requests to a robot? If you had a problem, how would it feel to know that your listening set of ears was really nothing more than a hard drive? Would it make you feel more comfortable and better served, or less so? (Having said that, many travellers would say that they experience robotic responses from humans anyway so what is the difference?)
On the other hand, look at the number of tasks and transactions that have already become automated. The majority of banking takes place online or at ATMs. The majority of travel bookings are made in cyberspace, without ever speaking to another human being. Most big insurance companies, or any entity that deals with a lot of customers, have robotic telephone systems that speak back and forth directly with callers, and can resolve a huge number of queries without ever involving an actual employee. Shopping, job searching, even looking for love have all made increasing use of artificial intelligence.
Why not hotels?
It could be that service automation thrives better in some places than others. In Japan, a country known for its fondness of technology and automation, automated hospitality has been going on for some time now. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon a hotel in Tokyo that offers no human interaction whatsoever. Reservations, check-in and check-out are all conducted via machines—essentially ATMs that take money and distribute room keys. But Japan already has an affinity for minimal human contact in the service industry. Many restaurants and cafes are also partly automated. Orders are placed at a machine which prints a ticket. The ticket is then presented to the cook or barista, who fills the order.
If robotic hotel receptionists truly become more realistic and practical, and able to solve complex problems, perhaps they will have a serious impact on how hotels are run. Whether or not this is a passing trend will depend on aspects of guest psychology that might not be understood until people have the opportunity to experience robotic service.
We’ll inevitably find out what the sweet spot between human service and automated convenience actually is when it comes to our industry, for which service is such an important component.
More likely, the advent of robots in the service industry will serve to illustrate the supreme importance of human contact, and of positive interactions between guests and staff. Twenty years from now, robots will be able to do a lot more than they can do today. But they’ll always be robots; and I suspect there will always be real people behind the best hotel experiences.
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