Within these columns, we discussed at length the post-COVID issues related to staffing. Weeks ago, I reviewed the efforts made by hotels during the COVID-19 crisis to keep servicing guests while reducing human interaction to their bare minimum to avoid contamination.
Like most hoteliers, I wonder if a full hotel automation is not the immediate solution to our staffing problem – despite all the efforts that need to be (will be?) made to attract the best candidates to our industry instead of driving them away, it will take time to see noticeable results.
Based on the COVID-19 forced automation experience, it might be the right time to rethink our hotels designs and service standards.
A lot of hospitality automation tools already exist and have been around for many years, while a greater number of international brands started to implementing them. The most recently developed brands, such as CitizenM, have automation in their DNA: From self-checking to automated as much as possible F&B operation, this Netherlands-based hospitality group proposes assisted automation – meaning there are still employees available to assist guests whenever needed.
The same way they were the first to develop and implement yield management (American Airlines, 1980s) to run an efficient pricing strategy, the airline industry was the first to automate as much as possible their passengers ground service standards (Continental Airlines, 1995). Passengers have less and less issues using check-in kiosks as they are booking their flights at 78% online. What’s more, if passengers appreciate to avoid long queues thanks to these booths, airlines find also a financial interest in developing as much as possible self-checking kiosks: The process of checking-in a passenger at a kiosk costs an average of US$0.16, while the same process will total up to US$3.68 when using counter agents!
Globally, no less than 75% of hotel bookings are made online – Booking.com and Expedia keeping the lion’s share. If we compare guests behavior to airlines passengers, with a similar level of online booking, we can safely say that hotels customers are ready to a new level of hotel automation.
Even more so, according to FinancesOnline ‘2021/2022 data analysis and market share’, there are only benefits in implementing new technology in the hospitality industry:
135% increase in online revenue
71% reduction in guests’ complaints
19% increase in guests satisfaction rating
81% of travelers want greater digital customer service from hotel brands
As it could be expected, guests staying at economy to midscale hotels welcome more digital customer service than the upper-scale and luxury hospitality clientele.
The airline industry might be pioneering in ground passengers’ automation, their ground service is more or less limited to check-in, luggage dropping services, and onboarding processes. On the other hand, their level of automation is very limited to none when it comes to passengers’ so-called hotelier service, might it be in the business / first class lounges or onboard.
For the hospitality industry, it is a more complex issue as we need to see how far we can go when it comes to automation according to each hotel tier (economy, midscale, etc.).
Nevertheless, even if we don’t all have the exact same definition for ‘hotel automation’, we all agree globally that we need to improve our properties digital services: According to a March 2022 Duetto global survey, 77.6% of hoteliers expect to increase their hotel tech investment within the next three years. Of the remaining 22.4%, 50% sought to invest in revenue technology in 2022, with a further 23.4% are looking to invest in the next two years. Duetto explains:
“The digitization of the hospitality industry has been underway for decades, but the past two years [COVID-19 crisis] have accelerated tech adoption in hotels across the globe.”
To ensure that we all have the same understanding, let’s have a look at what ‘hospitality automation’ means at time of writing these lines – the landscape is changing so rapidly that what is true today might be incomplete or wrong tomorrow.
HotelTechReport proposes a comprehensive definition of hotel automation:
“Automation refers to anything (a technology, process or procedure) that exists to reduce or eliminate inputs (human or otherwise) while maintaining (or improving) outputs; the technology, process or procedure operates independently and requires little additional intervention. In its broadest sense, automation performs tasks that used to be done by people. However, as artificial intelligence technology advances, automation also refers to autonomous decision-making to do things that humans were never able to, such as analyzing massive data sets and continuously improving forecasts, recommendations, and actions.”
This definition clearly states that hospitality automation goes far beyond direct guest service. Let’s review a few examples, taken randomly:
Yield management Yield Management is the perfect illustration of a decision-making process that goes well beyond human minds capabilities. Yet, in this always connected price-sensitive world, we need to be able to compute at the speed of light the best possible rate at the time of a booking request, taking into consideration too many parameters for any human to be able to handle.
Property management system (PMS) PMS have been around for over 30 years. Nevertheless, they went from being a glorified cash register aiming at simplifying Front Desk clerks check-in / checkout processes and improve guests preferences, to become a very complex system that integrates connections to OTAs, CRSs, and more. Most PMS’ reservation module, for instance, can even optimize groups management by providing automated room block administration, allowing booking agents to spend more time on guests services and looking for more business.
Internal communication One of the many issues hotels faces on a daily basis is internal communication: Let’s take a typical example: Housekeeping controls a room immediately after a guest exits it to check-out: They notice that something is missing (coffee machine, or kettle, hair-dryer, alarm clock,…) and tell immediately Front Office that this item has been ‘borrowed’ by the guest who must be charged for it. But the guest never took that item: Engineering did as that article was reported as deficient and needed to be fixed. Rings a bell? Digital tools are widely available to allow a continuous flow of information between the hotel’s various department to avoid this, and similar, embarrassing situation. Also, they facilitate a smoothest communication stream between departments to allow a better guest service and hotel organization, resulting in a less stressful environment for employees, necessary basis for a higher guests’ satisfaction.
Two-ways digital communications with guests We discussed it before: Guests – mostly Millennials and Z generations – are not interested in meeting hotels’ Guests Relations Managers when they do have an issue with quality of service provided. They like better to comment online. This is why the development of tools that allow to communicate with these guests immediately through a social media is very useful: Hoteliers can now use the same communication mean than their clients, therefore diffusing any issue before it gets too important, improving at the same time these crucial hotel’ online ratings.
Full guests service applications Hospitality groups have been trying for years to control their guest’ journey (from thinking to book a hotel in that destination to think positively of the stay once they got back home). It is now easier than ever thanks to tools that improve the process with possibility for guests to book online directly from the hotel brand (or even independent hotel) app and / or Web site, modify their reservation, book side services (not necessarily immediately related to the hotel), block their favorite room, check-in online, open their room door with their smartphone, order room-service or extra towels from their phone, etc.
Rethink the lobby design and usage New technologies, quality and stable WiFi connections, new working habits (in particular with the development of the hybrid working model)… hotels more and more need to rethink their business centers – not much useful anymore that everyone carries a laptop with them at all times – and meeting-rooms usage: What’s more, the hybrid working model opens a new market that brands like Starbucks and CitizenM are already expanding into: The workplace away from home and also away… from the workplace!
The above list is by far not exhaustive:
Hotel automation widely opens new possibilities well beyond the iconic shelf-check-in / checkout booth!
This is how we, at Amsa Hospitality, see the future of hotels, globally. That’s what we mean, when we say that “we bring traditional Arabian hospitality of generosity and welcoming to today’s world”: Today’s world is a world of continuous online communication, hotel service reinvented, where guests and employees are equally important and enjoy staying / working at our hotels.
Yes, the hospitality industry is currently in a dramatic situation due to lack of staffing. It is during crisis times that the world is changing for the best. Let’s reinvent ourselves: The hotel of tomorrow will have less - but much better trained and motivated – employees. The way hotels will be designed will be much more efficient and quality of service driven – not only directed to guests but also to its workforce.
Guests will no longer expect hotels to provide only clean room and good food, but to become a place to live in, even for those living in the neighborhood. It already started...