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Humans versus machines

The pandemic has accelerated the roll-out of technological advances in hospitality which see guests being able to have far less contact with staff, but now the battle begins, writes Sue Bromley.

It’s some time now since the development of robotic cleaners to carry out more mundane hotel cleaning tasks such as vacuuming of lengthy corridors. And many executive housekeepers have discovered that apps and programmes which make it easier to keep in touch with colleagues and monitor progress provide precious time to engage with people, both fellow staff and guests.

But the latest advances, riding on the back of Covid, are creating increasing opportunities for guests to greatly limit interaction with us, from the moment they check in to when they leave, having paid a bill inclusive of any digital services they’ve chosen through the tap of a phone or tablet.

There is now a debate which goes well beyond ‘Do guests really want a stay without housekeeping services?’ and the champions of ‘people power’ are making their voices heard. Not surprisingly, much of this is happening in the USA and those involved in training staff to provide excellent customer service are at the forefront of the fight back. One such is Doug Kennedy, president of the Florida-based Kennedy Training Network serving hotels right across the States and author of ‘So You REALLY Like Working With People? – Five Principles for Hospitality Excellence.’ Kennedy, who insists he’s not ‘anti-tech’, has thrown down the gauntlet with a forthright article published by hospitality net, in which he asks: ‘Where Are All These Guests Who Supposedly Prefer Humanless Hotel Experiences?’

Doug Kennedy believes most guests, regardless of age, want to deal with other humans

Kennedy says that for the past 10 years he’s been reading articles and blogs about how today’s hotel guests prefer to interact with technology rather than humans, most authored by those selling ‘essential’ guest technology. What he sees as a Millennial Myth that everyone born between a certain range of years is a homogenous group that dislikes human interaction because they grew up with computers and smartphones, has now morphed into a ‘Gen Z Myth,’ courtesy of that cohort reaching their mid-twenties.

It’s short-sighted to lump together such a sizeable group or assume their preferences will not change as they age, he insists. Kennedy says tech comes into its own when booking the likes of short business trips but where ‘emotional investment’ involves special occasions, family events or even travelling with a pet, people want to talk to people. He warns that if hotels force guests to use tech out of a thinly disguised objective to cut labour costs, then hotel rooms will become a commodity with the only remaining differentiator being price.

His article describes what he calls ‘peddlers of tech’ as salivating like hungry pets waiting for bowls when it was first thought that Covid spread through droplets landing on surfaces. Guests would now prefer to text from their own smartphone instead of picking up the in-room guest phone, and that they would prefer to check-in on an app, even though most systems still require stopping by the front desk to get a key card, he writes.

if hotels force guests to use tech out of a thinly disguised objective to cut labour costs, then hotel rooms will become a commodity with the only remaining differentiator being price.

With coronavirus mostly spread via airborne transmission rather than contaminated surfaces, Kennedy believes this has become a message of guests apparently preferring contactless service, which he sees as ‘humanless service.’ He says his experience of extensive travel since May last year shows that people of all ages still enjoy human interactions especially when they have a need that is time-sensitive or personalised. “In fact, if anything, I sense in the winds of change that a tech backlash is blowing, especially from the younger age groups,” Kennedy predicts.

“Also, having checked in to an average of six hotels each month this past year, I have yet to see a single guest who has used a pre-check-in app approach the desk. Contrarily, I still see a lot of people of all ages patiently waiting in lines with me for a personalised welcome and key.” He’s expecting some kickback from tech providers, but his answer will be that usage doesn’t necessarily indicate preference. “I also want to make it clear that I am not anti-tech. On the contrary, I do think that hotels should embrace emerging tech that can help improve guest service efficiency. But let us not as an industry become so obsessed with tech that we forget that it is always the people that create guest experience, ultimately resulting in loyalty and social media buzz.”

It’s a deal: but how many guests will want to chat about specific room services with a virtual ‘member of staff’?

Meanwhile, champions of a more tech-focused approach are having their say, including the likes of Raj Singh, chief executive officer at Go Moment, creators of Ivy, the world’s first AI powered digital concierge, to have served over 40 million guests. A futurist, Singh is deeply involved in fast-evolving technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning. His latest contribution to hospitality net focusses on hotel digital concierges, their features and what potential users should look for, or avoid. Singh says that digital concierges provide guests with unparalleled service while being capable of accurately handling millions of interactions simultaneously.

He writes: “We live in times of instant gratification. With Amazon, Uber, AirBnB, we are able to instantly shop, book taxis and rooms. Guests at hotels expect nothing less. A good hotel digital concierge can understand and respond accurately in real time. The immediate response creates positivity and gives guests more time to enjoy their vacation instead of being on hold or waiting in line at a service desk.”

Raj Singh says digital concierges will be standard in hotels by 2025

He continues: “Even hotels with spectacular butler service cannot (and will not) be able to promise 24/7 presence at every guest’s side. A digital concierge can. They are close at hand since they are accessible by guests on their smartphones and can address guest requirements at any time of the day or night. There will be no difference in how digital concierges respond to guests even at 2am.”

Allowing guests to take full charge of such interactions means they can still easily switch between using the digital concierge or contact with a human, he points out. While Kennedy reports that in his travels involving an average of six hotels each month in the past year, he has not seen a single guest using a pre-check-in app approach the desk, all waiting in queues for a personalised welcome and key, Singh has a different outlook. He says American guests become anxious after just three minutes of waiting in line and allowing them to proceed directly to their rooms gives them an outlook which can lead to positive online reviews. Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas has added a 24-hour virtual concierge service, in more than 6,000 rooms making them the first major gaming company to offer their guests a text messaging programme with built-in artificial intelligence.

Hotel digital concierges follow a guest issue until it is resolved, which means providing both the guest and hotel staff with follow-ups and alerts until the task is complete, keeping the lines of communication open.

People enjoy responding to AI with human-like qualities, says Singh, and a hotel digital concierge that sounds and acts human, even understanding sentiments in messages from guests, including emojis, can quickly win them over. He believes such digital concierges will be standard by 2025 with the tech ‘hyper-personalised’ to suit individual hotels and the type of guests they most want to attract and retain through repeat business.

What’s in no doubt is that this debate will continue for some time to come. Getting the balance right while keeping ‘people power’ (and revenue!) is going to have an increasing effect on our working lives in hospitality.

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