Android managers – like a cross between C3-PO and Basil Fawlty – aren't what the hotel industry should expect from the AI revolution. In fact there are many more robots that are much more useful, say our experts.
Robot chefs rolled off the production line only this month. ‘Sally' is ideal for making salads, as it can chop the veg and mix it all up. Sally's programmers need to work on her presentation skills though; her dishes look like they've already found their way to the top of the compost heap. She also bears an unfortunate resemblance to the cubed robot henchmen from Gerry Anderson's Terrahawks - Or for now she does, at least - Sally's creators Chowbiotics are hard at work on various practical and aesthetic upgrades. A curry-making ‘patch' is promised soon.
Tech Crunch asked Chowbiotics' founder Rich Page, a silicon valley grandee, how he felt about Sally taking jobs from chefs. “There's always some trade-off between existing jobs and new jobs” he weaseled in return. With the utmost respect, any of your hotel's sous chefs who are concerned about their job security are unlikely to be relieved that alternative employment might be found in artificial intelligence.
Sally isn't the only piece of high technology to hit the hospitality industry. A whole hotel staffed by robots has emerged in – guess where? – Japan. The Henn-na in Nagasaki prefecture currently has ten ‘droids on duty, and threatens to increase the number (So far, so Clive James). But ‘automation', a term that more realistically represents the robot takeover, is a very real phenomenon here in 2017 – and the hospitality industry is at its forefront.
Rather than intelligent machines of the kind in the Henn-na Hotel, chatbots and data processors are the robots that hospitality is embracing,” says Steve Johnson of Furthermore, a Silicon Roundabout-based user experience firm that's worked with various hotels and is currently overseeing a digital revamp for one of the major London airports.
“Hotels in particular know a huge amount about their customers that they don't always put to work,” he continues, “for instance, something as simple as knowing when you like to go away on holiday. Or, do you have kids? What restaurants do you like? Are you a teetotaller and you'd prefer it if there wasn't a bottle of red wine waiting on the side in your hotel room?”
Nervous independent hoteliers might worry about intruding on their guests' privacy. Access to that level of personal knowledge could seem creepy – like checking into the ‘Bytes Motel', perhaps. But Johnson claims that in his company's experience, it actually makes everyone feel special. “It's the same feeling that people have when they see the driver holding up the sign with their name on it at the other side of the airport gates,” he says. “Hotels will start to use technology to make it seem like they're being intelligent. I can't actually see it affecting staff, like automation will in other industries. Ironically,” he adds, “the hotel industry will actually use automation to make its staff seem more warm and human.”
It's the luxury sector in particular that seems poised to utilise guest data collection. Paul Croughton, former Sunday Times Travel staff writer and now the editor of wealth magazine Robb Report, knows precisely what's pushing the buttons of high net worth individuals. “Cornflake, a tech start-up in Soho, have made a fridge that throws a ball for your pet while you're away,” he illuminates us, “and top-end Range Rovers can now park themselves. But what luxury really means in hospitality is speed and service. Automation is fine if it works,” he says, but room 404 errors are unacceptable – “as soon as it goes wrong, that's when you want an old-fashioned voice on the phone. In the luxury world you don't get a second chance to get that right.”
Croughton is more optimistic about technology use in operations departments. “The Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore has two and a half thousand rooms, and tending that many guests requires 160,000 pieces of uniform for the staff. They go to a bank of 18 rails, punch in their ID number, and a freshly-laundered uniform trundles out.”
Matthew Payne, head of creative technology at heavy-hitting London agency We Are Social, thinks that data analysis will be democratised beyond the luxury market soon.
“Being able to anticipate your customer's peccadilloes is ideal for catering to the millennial market,” he explains, “as their strongest desire is for new experiences – the more personal and unique the better. The experience side of travel is also getting more complex by the day – for instance, the guys now want spa treatments and the women play golf. Now that the owners of The Hoxton have taken over Gleneagles, the complex has around 160 different activities to choose from. The more hotels can understand people, the better they can tailor their service – ‘as if by magic', like Steve Jobs said.”
Payne targets two travel start ups for their successful use of automation – bespoke experiential travel agent Fixers (catchphrase – ‘We don't do boring holidays'), and Trip4Real. The latter assigns local guides to visitors, “so an aficionado with insider knowledge can take you around their favourite art galleries, rather than you having to join the queue at the tourist trap.”
So, the days of re-programming the Robo-Chambermaid 5000 when she starts asking “tell me about this Earth thing you call room service” seem a long way off. But after a few years of disruption from the sharing economy, automation could actually be a boon to the industry – both for travel agencies and hotels alike.