In the early 19th century, textile workers in the UK began a movement to object to the introduction of new practices that would see their art dying out, with unskilled workers using large machinery to mass produce items previously made by skilled artisans. These workers, known as “Luddites” after one of the early objectors, were made up of framework knitters, croppers, spinners and weavers who all saw the introduction of new technology as a threat to their skill and livelihood. Unhappy workers would threaten the mill owners to remove the new machinery or else they would smash them in late night raids. The mill owners of course, were keen to maximise their profits and output, and with the Government’s help, eventually quashed the rebellion.
Today, the term “Luddite” refers to anyone who resists the introduction of new technology and most people would now appreciate the benefits of technology across all parts of our life.
Automation has played a role in our lives for decades if not longer – especially in the area of manufacturing, where complex products like cars and home appliances are churned out by robotic arms on assembly lines. Recently though, we’re becoming aware of how far it could go. We use voice commands and artificial intelligence to navigate the internet. Self-driving cars, while far from perfect, are currently in circulation as are delivery drones. Automatic vacuum cleaners are roving carpets all over the world as homeowners put their feet up with beverage in hand.
How will automation affect hotels and hospitality? I’ve been asked this question a lot lately, and I think the best place to start is by looking at how automation has already infiltrated the industry.
On the booking side of things, travel agents have been impacted greatly by OTAs, which use powerful algorithms (and supreme convenience) to capture a larger slice of the pie. Self-serve kiosks have replaced human receptionists at some hotels, while others have experimented with “chatbots” to field common queries from guests. Room controls are increasingly automated, voice-controlled, and/or connected to a digital device.
In the kitchen, robotic food prep machines are coming to market. A company called Chowbotics has seemingly replaced apprentices by designing automated salad-making technology that could be utilised by kitchen staff, or directly by guests. Is it even necessary for a human being to deliver that salad to the guestroom? Yotel and Aloft are both using robots to deliver room service and other requested items.
Automated bartending solutions are also popping up. I wrote some years ago about the robotic bartender seen at the World Expo in Milan, but we now have The Tipsy Robot in Las Vegas, as well as Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, both with robotic systems that mix cocktails in full view of amazed onlookers.
And let’s not forget the most labour-intensive part of hotel operation: Keeping house. As mentioned in a recent blog, properties in Denmark are experimenting with anti-bacterial coatings that automatically clean surfaces when activated by sunlight. Automated vacuum technology is advancing quickly, while other housekeeping tools (e.g. ergonomic and/or motorised caddies) allow fewer humans to accomplish more.
Finally, we can’t forget Uber’s next innovation to disrupt public transport - Uber Elevate, who is planning flying transport services by 2023. That’s only four years away. Whilst initial vehicles will have pilots, it surely won’t be long till these vehicles are self-flying. Jetsons here we come!
A nuanced relationship between hospitality and tech
Given that human labour is the largest cost in most hospitality operations, the reduction of this labour is generally irresistible to shareholders. The total subtraction of human elements from the guest experience however is untested, and may itself prove costly in the long-run. It could create new arguments for hotels to abandon certain technologies in favour of other guest experiences. In other words, the idea that hotels are on the verge of a high-speed mass migration toward full automation is (perhaps) misguided.
In reality, hoteliers will have to make careful decisions about what to adopt and what to observe. We should keep in mind not only the bottom line, but also the type of guest experiences demanded by our guests, the work cultures we want to exemplify, and the relationships we want to have with our surrounding communities.
The degree to which automation is used by hotels will, of course, be determined in part by the extent to which it is embraced in society. If things like automated food prep and housekeeping become accessible to hoteliers, they will become accessible to homeowners also, and will therefore be normalised. Hoteliers could then enjoy a better bottom line without having to worry about violating norms, appearing silly, or spending too much money. The Catch-22 is that commonly-available tech will result in a level playing field. Hoteliers will still be looking for ways to deliver a more unique guest experience. Innovation and humanness will become more relevant, not less.
How far will automation go?
Whilst outsourcing and automation are two of the biggest opportunities to reduce costs in any operation, there are nonetheless big companies who go on TV and promise that you’ll be able to talk to a real person in your locale when you call – that’s one example of how science and social awareness can push back at modern tech.
Digital detox, which certain hotels and resorts now offer, is another. The negative consequences of screen addiction are a mainstream discussion with the London School of Economics publishing a paper to effect that banning mobile phones in schools sees better academic results. One State government in Australia has just legislated to remove mobile phones from public schools and it may well be that the push towards automation will encounter similar challenges. Nonetheless, it is still early days and the effects of automation in hotel operation will be better understood as the experiment continues.
It’s easy to imagine that droids and other forms of automation will take over most aspects of the hotel. It’s also easy to imagine that new arguments will arise to hold automation in check. To the extent that automation has negative consequences on a guest experience, or on a hotel’s ethical relationship to the community it serves, robots will lose a certain amount of charm. After all, this is still about connecting emotionally to a guest and creating a fantastic guest experience – and for that, human talent is mostly necessary.
Of course we cannot be like the Luddites and seek to reject any technology we see as a threat, however we can ensure that any technology not only assists in improving profitability but continues to meet the needs of both the customer, and our team.
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