By Thomas Dubaere, COO Northern Europe, AccorHotels
In the hotel sector, as in many service industries, fear is rife that artificial intelligence is set to replace people. A recent report by McKinsey suggests that half of the work activities as we know them today could be automated by 20551. In some hotels, check-in kiosks that require no human interaction are the norm and this kind of ‘people-replacement technology’ is evolving quickly, with interactive robots being used as receptionists in some Japanese hotels and piloted as concierges in the US.
Such changes have come about in a hospitality market that has become increasingly complex, with traditional players now facing competition from digital players that have disrupted the industry, from online travel agents to sharing economy private rental companies. Consequently, they have been forced to adapt in order to thrive, giving rise to a wide range of innovations.
But is complete automation the future? I don’t believe so. Yes, hotels must successfully adopt modern technology to stay relevant. But for me, it is best deployed in a manner that instead of replacing people, enhances their ability to provide guests with an outstanding experience.
One weapon that I believe is vital for hotels to harness correctly is mobile technology. This is fundamental to modern hotel services because it is how a rapidly increasing majority of people access most services in their lives now, it can improve convenience for both employees and guests, and it can create a vastly improved environment for staff to interact with guests.
As an example, last year AccorHotels introduced a new mobile operating system allowing employees to run the ibis hotels it manages directly in the UK network from mobile devices. Employees can welcome and help guests as well as manage their schedules from an app on their smartphones. It allowed ibis to completely remove the traditional reception desk from the majority of its hotels and gives staff more time to assist guests.
Guests are also now starting to order and pay for hotel services via messaging services such as WhatsApp from their smartphones, with payment processed and receipts provided all from the same platform. WhatsApp can also be used if a guest wants to get in touch with a member of staff, removing the need for in-room telephones and allowing guests to use their own devices.
The deployment of digital tech has proved highly successful in terms of improving guest satisfaction, making operations more efficient, and improving the bottom line – with cost savings of around 30 per cent on hardware alone when implementing these systems in a new hotel.
But deploying this technology in isolation wouldn’t have the desired effect on guest service levels, its primary goal. To do that, we had to make sure our people were maximising the opportunity provided by the tech, so we empowered over 7,000 staff in our UK hotels to rip up the rule book, go ‘off-script’ and provide the spontaneous, heart-felt acts of service that transform hotel stays.
A great example of this was when one of our ibis employees helped a man propose to his now wife, arranging the whole thing via WhatsApp. The guest was able to communicate with hotel staff to ensure all the details and timings were perfect as well as keep the whole event a surprise for his partner. The result was an experience the guests will never forget.
This is the kind of example of humans using their emotional intelligence to go the extra mile that can’t be replicated by technology alone; a harmonious blend of investment in tech and talent with guest satisfaction the aim. Our evidence suggests the strategy is having a great impact – one of our London hotels jumped almost 100 places on TripAdvisor following these changes.
Technological innovation is vital for hotels in many ways and I am passionate believer in it. But in hotels themselves, we can’t forget that the essence of hospitality is the relationship between the host and the guest. Using digital technology in a way that allows employees to be heroes instead of administrators and provides guests with a more convenient, personal and happy experience will pay dividends for the hotel owner, the workforce and the guests.