If the ongoing staffing shortages in travel and hospitality have shown us anything, it's that the sector is endlessly resilient. As demand has soared in the post-pandemic world, industry leaders have been compelled to find new solutions that allow them to do more with less — specifically, maintaining high standards for the guest experience while operating with a reduced workforce.
Hoteliers have long found value in a reliable, integrated tech stack (many of today's hotel operations would be unimaginable without a good revenue-management or property management system in place), but in recent years the exponential advancement of contactless technologies and artificial intelligence have truly changed the game.
Replaced by robots?
This raises a question with which many other industries have had to grapple in the face of increased automation: will machines replace human workers?
An even more thorny point to ponder is whether machines should replace human workers.
At least one industry consultant thinks so.
In his book Hotel Distribution 2050, Italian author and futurist Simone Puorto makes a case for what he calls "post-human hospitality".
"If a machine can fulfill the role of a human employee without the customer perceiving a diminished experience due to this substitution," Puorto writes, "then the machine is preferable to the human for that specific position."
Returning to the essence of hospitality
It's clear that Puorto is not, in fact, arguing for the wholesale replacement of flesh-and-blood employees with robots. He told Hospitality Net recently that, thanks to recent technological advances, "hoteliers can finally be freed from complex and non-scalable tasks, allowing them to return to the essence of their profession: taking care of their guests."
Consider the checkout counter at a supermarket: what added value does a human cashier truly provide to our purchasing experience, especially if their role is limited to scanning the barcodes of our items? Does the presence of a person behind the counter really make a difference? In most cases, no, except for exceptional situations (an extremely friendly cashier, problem-solving skills, etc.). In all other cases, allocating human resources to areas where their strengths can shine would undoubtedly make more sense.
Well, here you have it. The same goes for hospitality.
The hospitality industry is built on relationships
Laurent May echoed Puorto's sentiments in a Restobiz op-ed last year. Speaking specifically of the impact of contactless ordering and pay-at-table solutions in restaurants, the CEO of Ready wrote, "When they focus less on transactional concerns and more on bolstering relationships, staff can add significantly to the guest experience."
There are many reasons for upgrading your hotel tech stack, but one of the primary ones should be to improve the experience of your "human stack" — that unique combination of individuals who bring different but equally valuable skills to their roles. After all, as we have observed, guest retention starts with employee retention.
An AI hotel receptionist?
Earlier this month, the Israeli hotel-technology company Easyway announced the launch of what it touted as the "world's first generative AI hotel receptionist".
Although the technologies underlying Easyway's offering are not new — it combines the functions of an artificial intelligence–powered chatbot and a digital concierge — the company touts that its AI Agent "has direct and constant communication with guests, which allows hotels to provide quick and accurate responses in the guest's native language, offer personalized recommendations, additional offers or services and manage any queries immediately — from late check-out requests to which wine to pair with your meal."
Digital concierge is a "life raft"
In a press release, Sir David Michels, Co-owner and Chairman of Michels & Taylor and Former CEO of the Hilton Group, said:
Amid a massive global shortage of labor for hotels, especially in the Western world, the kind of technology Easyway has developed — where the platform ensures customer queries are answered quickly and in the native tongue of the enquirer — offers a life raft to the industry. By automating guest management in such a sophisticated way, Easyway offers a demonstrable benefit to both hotel operators and their customers.
Finding the right balance
In other words, technologies like AI Agent do exactly what Puorto suggests — they automate processes and functions that would otherwise have to be undertaken by a hotel staff member.
While this can indeed free up employee bandwidth for tackling higher-level tasks, simply adding a chatbot or virtual concierge to your hotel tech stack is not a magic bullet guaranteed to improve guest satisfaction.
Each guest-facing function that becomes automated eliminates one opportunity for human interaction, which is a key component of customer relations. And when it comes to guest satisfaction, an integrated hotel tech stack is just one piece of the puzzle.
The real trick is to find the right balance between implementing high-tech modern solutions and retaining the human touch in guest communications — and to respect guests' individual preferences.
One size may not fit all
Travelers have come to expect a hotel stay to be something of a high-tech experience, whether that means mobile check-in, virtual assistants in smart guest rooms or digital amenities such as PressReader.
While some guests might love the idea of a hotel stay where they never have to contact the front desk at all, others would at least like to have the option of dealing with a living, breathing team member.
As Jane Pendlebury, CEO of the UK-based Hospitality Professionals Association (HOSPA) wrote in Geberit's 2023 Hotel Guest Experience Report: "It’s important to recognize that not everyone wants to chat and not everybody wants to interact digitally. The same guest might want different things on different days which is why choice is paramount. We see this a lot with the check-in process, whereby hotels offer the opportunity to check in digitally and also via the reception desk.
"It’s this level of choice that illustrates the value of technology as it is able to cater for differing needs and preferences, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach."
Providing as many choices as possible
It's about giving guests options.
Laura Calin, the VP of Strategy and Solutions Management at Oracle Hospitality, told Hospitality Net that even the most sophisticated tech stack functions best when it is employed alongside employees who can be on-site to provide customers with a human touch. Calin wrote:
There are still many customers who still place an emphasis on in-person services and prefer to come into a hotel and check in with a receptionist. Other guests may prefer to do it all on their phones and simply pick up their key, but even they would prefer to have a real human nearby in case they run into any errors or have questions throughout the process. The best way to employ technology is as a means of providing as many choices as possible and allowing each guest to choose what best serves their needs.
Expect more automation
Calin predicted that the hotel business will see more and more automation, and that this will enable hotel staff to shift their focus to "soft skills".
Freed from the more menial tasks that keep a hotel operation going, employees will be better able to engage with guests on an interpersonal level and serve their needs.
"Even as hotels and their staff focus on becoming more efficient," she noted, "I think in an ideal world there is a hybrid workforce, where humans and machines can work together to deliver optimal and personalized experiences for travelers."
Focusing on what matters
Even if a hotel rethinks its entire tech stack in order to remain competitive in 2024 and beyond — whether that means adding housekeeping robots, new cloud-based systems or simply updated accounting software — the human stack should always remain top-of-mind.
Increased automation has the potential to improve the employee experience in the hospitality industry by streamlining operations, which can save money and result in productivity gains.
Hospitality employees are often responsible for fulfilling a variety of repetitive and time-consuming tasks, such as checking in guests, answering common questions and managing reservations. When these repetitive tasks are automated, hotel workers are able to spend more of their time and energy on providing visitors with excellent customer service and addressing more complex guest issues.
Artificial intelligence will continue its exponential growth, of course, but there will always be jobs for human beings in the hospitality sector, from the concierge desk to the back office. The function of any new technology in the hotel industry should be to make the burdens on those human beings a little lighter so they can focus on what really matters — elevating the customer journey.