Despite being one of the oldest industries known to man, the core tenets of hospitality have changed little since its inception. The beds are more comfortable, the breakfast is free in most locations and sometimes the drapes open when you enter the guestroom for the first time. But at the end of the day, human interaction is at the core of what makes hospitality real, and operators are always looking for ways to build a competitive advantage.
Like most challenges in today's marketplace, modern hotel companies are turning to technology for solutions, and in the process they are courting automation in order to strip away the minutia of daily operations to favor guest interaction.
Gal Bareket, co-founder and CEO of digital developer Routier, said there is a growing asymmetry between user interaction and companies, and in the case of the hotel industry he is referring to guests and operators. As technology continues to improve and reshape the guest experience, he said guest expectations are changing wildly in tandem.
"In 2018, the guest is no longer looking for you. They are instead looking for experiences, and it is up to [companies] to find them wherever the guest expects them," Bareket said. "So the balance of power has shifted."
Bareket's goal is to use machine learning to sift through the treasure trove of data hotels have collected from guests and turn it into something that can be used to improve hotel operations. Meanwhile, technology of this sort will allow hotels to avoid hiring data scientists and instead focus on line-level workers and expand customer touchpoints.
"The main opportunity that technology brings to the table is to alert us to business needs and provide processes that will help us do a better job," Bareket said.
The great fear of many in the service sector is that as corporations invest more in technology, workers will see their jobs eliminated. Tim Laughlin, VP of diversified industries at software developer DISYS, said this is a fair criticism of all automation technology, calling it the next generation of outsourcing. However, while outsourcing was great for business, Laughlin said it often brought with it failures in customer experience, which is something hospitality cannot afford.
"When outsourcing first hit the market, the initial feedback was that things happening offshore were producing good results, but in order to succeed your processes had to be documented from A to Z," Laughlin said. "Outsourced employees were effective, but they couldn't think outside the box. This is the limitation we have right now with automation. With smart process automation, or robots, we hope that in the future computers will be able to teach themselves."
Laughlin said hotel employees that fear technology will replace them have a valid concern because it already has taken place. Mobile key capability is more than a novelty and they permit a hotel to have fewer front-desk staff on hand, for example. However, Laughlin said it is more likely that positions within hospitality will be repurposed rather than replaced due to the importance of the service element in providing a quality guest experience.
"We are already seeing a shift away from the traditional front desk toward a customer service representative," Laughlin said. "If every one of your guests signed up for a digital key and used it, you could roll three jobs into one at the front desk. But it's unlikely this would ever happen."
In one example, Laughlin pointed to banks. After ATMs were introduced, it made sense for banks to hiring fewer tellers at fewer hours, but there was considerably less backlash to this move despite the industry being a prolific employer. According to Laughlin, in the majority of cases these tellers were repurposed, not replaced.
Bareket expects machine learning to gradually grow its presence throughout the industry due to the high cost of implementation in hotels. Because there is some lag between when this technology is invented and when it is implemented, Bareket said it is important to begin educating hospitality workers on how to work in a world run by automation.
"This industry does not need another disruptor, it requires assistance," Bareket said. "The hospitality industry is flooded with people who need the opportunity to gain another skill set."