George Clooney vs. chatty androids & what it means for hospitality

EHL Faculty | 7 Feb, 2016

Hospitality is a people business, as the saying goes. But will it be that way in the future? Probably not and there is nothing we can do to stop it, because as much as we like to say it’s all about the people, our industry simply comes down to economics.

The inevitable arrival of robotics in the hospitality industry has started with a few trial and niche concepts. There is the Henn-na Hotel in Japan – the world’s first hotel staffed by robots, where a “little electronic creature will switch on the lights and offer weather forecasts”, the multilingual robots utilized by Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi to assist foreign customers during the Tokyo Olympics, and Nestlé’s fleet of talkative androids, nicknamed Pepper and deployed to get a better understanding of customer needs, while selling coffee and rivalling George Clooney as the face of the brand in Japan.

Intercontinental Hotel Group and Starwood Hotels have also invested in robotics, with Dash and Botlr as the new faces of service, helping with a variety of tasks from processing and delivering orders to selecting the correct elevator button.

To get an idea of just how powerful this technology has become, consider that eight of the 12 companies purchased by Google in 2014 focus on robotics.  

Image : Gizmodo

We only need to look at the car industry, where production has been taken over by robots and many companies are moving towards driverless cars.

As the above concepts use robotics in guest-facing environments, the idea of robots has become very interesting for the hospitality industry. Beyond the current marketing buzz, robotics have the potential to greatly impact back of house operations. Ask any hotelier about their greatest cost and they will answer “Staff” – which includes salaries, insurance, training and development, sick leave, maternity leave, uniforms, appraisal and all other aspects that come with staffing.

But what if we used robots to perform repetitive and time-consuming back of house tasks? While we will not replace humans with robots, there is plenty of room for them in hospitality. For years we have been automating various tasks: dishwashers, vacuum-cleaners and kitchenette machines are just some examples that have helped humans become more efficient, productive and precise.

The next step is to completely remove the human from such duties, evaluating the need to do so based on the task itself, the required skills, and performance time. That’s exactly what this Shanghai restaurant did, with two robots responsible for ramen production. And it could be applied to many of the mundane tasks often performed by operational hotel staff, from polishing cutlery and glasses to moving laundry, peeling and chopping vegetables, stacking chairs and simply moving things around. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a robot who polishes, sorts and stores cutlery? This isn’t outside the realms of possibility for such a machine. Heavy lifting has always posed challenges, but it wouldn’t for the correct type of robot. And in the 5-star hotel scene, the quest for perfection could be neared thanks to behind-the-scenes robots who repetitively fold napkins and change linens to perfection.

While many people believe that robots must have human interaction, they cannot replace humans on that level; rather, they are made to perform routine tasks as a complement to the interactions provided by people. For instance, robots could assist hotel concierges by performing automated tasks, freeing some time to focus on elevating the guest experience.

Most importantly, these changes make perfect sense from an economic standpoint. Indeed robot staff don’t require a salary, a bonus or wage increase. They don’t need annual appraisal, won’t go off sick or on strike. All they need is an upgrade from time to time. This option is far from science fiction today, it is not radical but merely a logical next step in the evolution of our industry. Why? Because it makes sense, or to be more precise, it makes economic sense and economics always win.

Author: Ian Millar, Senior Lecturer, Information Technology

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