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Are robots the solution to post-COVID staff shortage?

Are robots the solution to the endemic hospitality industry staff shortage, asks Amsa Hospitality
Pepper, the hotel concierge from SoftBank Robotics

I briefly discussed, in two of my previous blogs, hotels who were using robots mostly to check-in guests (Accor Hospitality’s F1 and Japanese brand Henn-Na). In both cases, robots were eventually replaced by humans.

On the other hand, since the COVID-19 pandemic, our industry is suffering from a worse than ever staff shortage – many of these employees who were asked to stay home during the pandemic locked-down period refuse to return to work to the hospitality industry: Long hours, low salaries, guests more and more demanding and often aggressive don’t attract young workers.

According to an 2021 report, “[job seekers] searches for restaurant and food-service jobs in April [2021] were 35% lower than in the same period in 2019”. A Reuters report states that in Q1 2021, our industry increased salaries by 7.2%; “far outpacing any other sector” comments Reuters. The Wall Street Journal adds that “hiring woes could cost up to 10% of the annual tourist economy”.

Due to the harsh working conditions listed above, it is not news for the hospitality industry to face an endemic labor shortage - it’s been around for the past 60+ years. This is why a 2010 University of Nevada survey highlights a fact that every hotelier and restaurateur in the world knows:

A key problem is that the low wages, meager benefits, limited training and long hours lead to high turnover, an unstable workforce, poor service delivery, and the impression that the industry is an undesirable employment option for the long term”.

That was before the pandemic. Today, in this post-pandemic era, many of our industry’s employees will not return to their former job and look for a career change. For instance, according to a 2021 United Kingdom’ Labor office report, 2 out of 10 hospitality workers left the industry to never come back. Similar figures are reported worldwide: In the US, an October 2021 survey from the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) found that 94% of hotels were more understaffed than usual, among them 47% said they were severely understaffed.

The hospitality industry, which has been living for decades with a continuous moderate staff shortage, is before all a service industry – people serving people.

Then what to do, when the shortage increases to a dangerous level?

Hoteliers and restaurateurs adapt by proposing better salaries, improved working conditions… even going as far as giving cash incentives! (Travel Weekly reports that Terrapin Hospitality CEO Tony Sherman said they recently bumped the advertised pay for an Assistant Manager position from US$55,000 to US$70,000 because no one was showing up to interview) Not enough to attract as many employees as necessary – we even see restaurants closing for lunch and opening only for dinner, as they do not have enough staff to cover both services, with the dire financial consequences that entails after more than two years without any steady revenue. The future of many hotels and restaurants is at stake.

If having the number of employees required to properly run a hotel and / or a restaurant is not possible for the foreseeable future, we need to adapt and learn from the F1 and Henn-Na experiences:

F1 hotels prove that our industry is not shy from being new technologies early adopter.

For instance, as early as 2016, CitizenM was the first brand to implement self-check-in processes – which made them, incidentally, the first ‘pandemic-proof’ hotel brand!

What are the solutions? As usual when it comes to technology, we need to look East: Beside Henn-Na and its humanoid (except for the dinosaur!) robots, more down-to-earth machines have been developed and implemented for years, and slowly start to appear in other parts of the world to address post-pandemic issues.

Let’s look at some examples:

Usually, a waiter needs to visit the same table at least four to five times:

  • To give the menu

  • To take the order

  • To serve ordered dishes / drinks

  • To bring the check

  • To cash payment

If you are short in waiting staff, a tablet fixed on each table allows guests to easily access the menu, place the order… and pay – McDonald’s were the first to implement similar technology worldwide in all their restaurants.

Even shorter in staff? The robot-waiter may be the solution: Kitchen chefs cook ordered dishes. When they’re ready, they give them to the robot who will carry them to guests’ table.

Similarly, Hilton proposes – among others - a robot concierge, Connie, developed before the pandemic in partnership with IBM, now even more key to the brand development than before!

We shouldn’t forget the robot-bellman that bring guests’ luggage up to their room.

Or the room-service robot!

We can even expect in the near future robot-Chefs… well, they already exist for easy recipes like pizzas, burgers and salads.

Obviously, technology is working hard to eventually replace humans as often as possible. (I haven’t mentioned robot-housekeeper as the technology is still far away from being usable; demonstrating that some of our lowest regarded and paid employees are among the most important to our organization, being so difficult to be replaced by machines)

How do guests react to this in-coming robotic invasion? According to a January 2022 ‘Information and Communication Technologies in Tourism’ report, guests have mix feelings:

  • People who watched a video about service robot working in a hotel, show higher intention to book a room in that hotel.

  • While dealing with human staff is always a hit-and-miss when it comes to feeling welcome and well taken care of, robots always recognize faces, remember names and guest preferences. Hence always providing a constant quality of service; a consistency appreciated by guests.

  • Pre-pandemic guests were looking at robots as a fun gadget but preferred being attended to by humans. Post-pandemic, “the use of robots in hotels as perceived by hotel guests is very positive with exciting innovative experiences.”

Let's keep in mind that it works if guests are computer-literate enough to not feel intimidated and annoyed by their laptop, smartphone and therefore even more so a robot and its inherent limitations: According to the World Bank, in 2019 digital skills among the world population was rated at 4.0 (where 1 is the lowest and 7 the highest), meaning that a good half of the population does not feel yet confident enough to deal constantly with computers, smartphones and similar devices – and therefore robots.

At Amsa Hospitality, we do recognize and address this recruitment crisis. This is the reason why it is in our DNA to be a ‘people company’, meaning that all our efforts and policies are made to be jobseekers and colleagues preferred employer: Within the limited pool of employees looking to make a career in our industry, we work hard to always come at the top of the list! Nevertheless, we recognize that the hospitality industry is changing and tomorrow hotels and restaurants will be different than what they are today.

Amsa Hospitality is not about following trends but defining them, always taking into consideration the world we live in:

We are adopting technologies and constantly updating them to always be user-friendly and providing our guests and colleagues with the best possible environment and ease of use.

At the same time, we understand that our guests and colleagues are not always fully computer literate.

Therefore, we do pay attention to them and recognize their needs and expectations to properly address them.

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