Deloitte: Travel leaders embrace automation, tech as workforce challenges remain

Nearly all airports and half of hotels surveyed are adopting new technology to bridge the labor gap, according to Deloitte's new report, “Toward Travel’s Frictionless Frontline: Integrating Technology and Workforce.” The report examines how leaders across aviation and hospitality are evaluating investments in both technology and people to help make an immediate and lasting impact. 

Despite increased reliance on automation, only one-third of those surveyed expect it to reduce the size of their staff in the next five years, and most expect technology to improve the work experience and create new opportunities for frontline workers. Nearly half of all respondents cite reskilling workers for new technology as one of their top three workforce concerns. Approximately 56 percent of hotel general managers expect automation to boost the bottom line due to a better guest experience.

"Travel leaders have been battling labor shortages and other frontline challenges for the past several years," Danielle Hawkins, principal, Deloitte Consulting, and hospitality, transportation and services human capital leader, said in a statement. "The rapid ascension of automation and other emerging technologies presents an opportunity to address this disruption while still helping ensure the travel experience remains front-and-center. Companies who simultaneously invest in the technology and the people behind it—helping ensure employees are well-equipped and appropriately trained—should be well-positioned to navigate the shifting dynamics of the industry, while unlocking future growth and unprecedented opportunity."

Steering Towards Tech

More than half (53 percent) of hotel respondents say they are at 25 to 74 percent of their pre-pandemic workforce. Looking ahead, many expect ongoing advancements in next-gen technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloud to not only help address existing labor issues but improve performance within five years and create competitive differentiation.

While hotels and airports are confident staffing levels will keep climbing, most do not expect a return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. Fewer than 1 in 10 expect to reach 2019 staffing levels by the end of 2023, and 38 percent of hotel managers and only 3 percent of airport executives expect to be there any time in 2024.

Hotels are employing these strategies as well but at a lower rate, adopting new technology (50 percent), automating repetitive tasks (43 percent) or upgrading existing technology (39 percent). Nearly all airports are adopting new technology (99 percent), upgrading existing technology (96 percent) or automating repetitive tasks (93 percent) to bridge the labor gap. 

Seven in 10 surveyed airports invested in at least three new technology types, compared to 57 percent of hotels, a differentiator likely due to the structure of the respective industries.

Some leaders do not feel current options are strong enough to address current needs: For the hospitality industry in particular, leading tech adopters surveyed were nearly twice as likely (54 percent) as others (29 percent) to say existing "technology is not advanced enough."

As technology proliferates, helping ensure workers have the skills to operate effectively is key — and challenging. While hotels largely struggle with a mismatch of needs with skills of available workers (51 percent), aviation executives are challenged with redesigning work for new technology (71 percent). 

Nearly half of leading tech adopters among hotel (43 percent) leaders expect automation to decrease labor costs.

Reskilling to address technology's impact is top-of-mind, as a 4 in 10 hotel general managers place it among their top three workforce challenges.

Leaders are seeing technology enhance recruitment and training practices. Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of hoteliers say they are increasing their use of virtual reality in training.

Overall, most survey respondents positively expect automation to create new opportunities for workers (64 percent of hotels, 95 percent of airports) and improve the work environment (58 percent of hotels, 88 percent of airports.)

The Guest Experience

Staffing challenges impacted what it is like to be a traveler, just as much as it impacted being a travel industry employee. Just as solutions to the labor gap present opportunity to change the workday for the gate agent or hotel restaurant manager, leaders hope to see it enhance guest experiences as well.

Labor challenges affected the travel experience: 70 percent of hotel respondents and 84 percent of airport respondents reduced or eliminated amenities and services in response to staffing shortfalls.

Most airports (90 percent) are creating self-service offerings for guests, but only 36 percent of hotels are doing the same. Sixty percent of hotel leaders expect automation to improve the guest experience.

AI stands out for its potential to improve guest experiences for airports in particular. Within five years, they expect to see it enhance guest processing (100 percent), strengthen personalized recommendations and services (100 percent), and improve the customer experience (98 percent).

Hotels, on the other hand, see most value coming from cloud computing in processing guests (29 percent), managing bookings (26 percent), and offering personalized recommendations and services (23 percent) in the next five years.