This summer has been unofficially penned as the season of “revenge travel,” a phrase referring to consumers’ increased willingness to spend more money on travel after 28 long months of lockdowns and restrictions. But as hotels and resorts prepare to usher in more guests, they also need to prepare for the industry’s new challenges, including continued labor shortages. Many technology companies are touting automation as the answer to this problem. But how can the hospitality industry find the right balance of automation and human touch to be able to provide guests with an optimal travel experience? To answer this question, Hospitality Technology spoke with Prakash Hariharasubramanian, Director of the Automation Practice at HGS.
Do hotel guests really want a contactless experience? When and where do they prefer human touchpoints?
Numerous survey results show guests wanting to have a more contactless experience in the hospitality industry post-COVID compared to pre-pandemic. According to a survey by Oracle, over two-thirds (74%) of consumers agreed they would be more likely to stay at a hotel offering self-service technologies – and this number is continuing to grow.
The industry is adapting by leveraging technology, such as automation & digital transformation, with more than 70% of hotels already having or planning to adopt contactless technology for check-in, food ordering, and concierge services, among others The success of the seamless contactless experience opened the industry to the possibilities of automation & digital transformation in different touchpoints/departments within the hospitality operations.
Though the hospitality industry is all about people, automation and digital transformation supports and augments personal interactions at a higher level – elevating the overall customer experience. Touch points such as sales, collecting instant feedback, interactive experiences through digital menus, drinks selections, and so on, are areas where technology can blend with human interaction to provide a memorable & enriching experience for the guests.
How can hotels balance a labor shortage with a high-touch guest experience?
Through automation, hotels can streamline their operations and enable staff productivity – whether that is through automating checking-in, checking-out, billing and reporting, housekeeping management, or other repetitive administrative functions. This enables staff to deliver a more personalized guest journey & experience.
Recent surveys have found that contactless check-in and a touchless journey provides guests with a more comfortable stay – with 26% of consumers indicating they want digital key rooms and 35% looking for contactless payment options. By providing guests with automated self check-in options, hotels are able to free up staff that would normally be tied down to the front desk. Through automation, hotels can provide guests with a welcome experience that is more convenient, hygienic and delivers an unburdened, personalized service to guests anywhere on property.
What are some automation myths that hoteliers (and possibly guests) have bought into in a post-covid world of travel?
Here are a few that come to mind:
Automation will take over jobs. While automation does help in increasing operational efficiencies & reducing cost, it also frees employees from doing mundane, repetitive tasks thus helping them to perform more imperative tasks such as providing personalized services to guests. Relationship building is key to a guest’s experience while staying at a hotel, through those personalized services, employees are able to build a relationship with guests, which is something automation can never replace.
Automation is impersonal. By implementing hyper-automation, guest interactions can become personalized & interactive. Data analytics, AI & NLP can be leveraged to provide an engaging, interactive & personalized interaction with guests giving them a truly unique experience based on what they, as the customer, care about. Hyper-automation can be implemented in areas to streamline and create more efficiency – for example, hotels can utilize chatbots to cut down on wait time when guests call with a query. If the chatbot is unable to answer the guest’s question, it can then transition the conversation with all the data needed to an employee who can take over the conversation. Chatbots also allow the hospitality industry to create a robust history on their guests which hotels, or other sectors, can then use in the future for returning guests.
Implement automation & forget. Automation is not to be considered as ‘set and forget’. Change management & maintenance are both very much a vital part of automation and hospitality leaders need to make provisions to incorporate change management & maintenance as part of their automation journey. By keeping automation in line with the hospitality industry’s goals, processes, and new technologies – they can implement strategies for growth and expansion.
What are the new and emerging trends in this space that guests can expect?
As the hospitality industry embraces automation & digital transformation, here are a few emerging trends that guests could expect:
- Personalized & customized experience: Automation allows hotels to create new relationships with customers, by gaining access to previously untouched and unique consumer data.
- Virtual concierge: Through AI, a virtual concierge can provide guests with necessary information right when they need it.
- Mobile check-in: Rather than waiting in long, slow check-in lines, guests are able to complete the check-in process on their mobile devices, it also frees up front desk employees to spend more time assisting guests.
- Mobile/digital key: Instead of a physical key card, which guests often misplace, the key to their room is stored on their mobile phone – providing guests with more convenience.
- Virtual reality: Ahead of booking their trip, guests can use virtual reality to tour their potential hotels, activities they are interested in, and key sights around the area they are visiting. This allows guests to become comfortable and secure in their choices before even booking their flight.
- AI chatbots: Chatbots can support the hospitality industry in a number of areas, including time management, guest services, cost reduction, and 24-7 customer care, among others.
- IoT: The Internet of Things technology has the potential to transform the hospitality industry by improving how hotels, restaurants, and others gather and implement their data – which can then enable further automation and personalization to create a better customer experience.
- Automated marketing: Through automation, the hospitality industry is now able to gain valuable insight into guest data, which they can then use to create more effective marketing techniques
- Interactive informational kiosks: Allows guests to find their own answers through digital signage
- Interactive digital menus: Allows guests access to a menu at any time and any place on their mobile phones, which saves time for the employees to focus on other tasks like preparing food and helping other guests
What key differences could automation make to the hospitality industry?
Automation can significantly contribute to running a successful hospitality business. Automation helps improve productivity, lower costs, and creates a superior experience for both guests and staff. Automation can help make positive difference to operations in areas such as:
- Increased efficiency of daily & routine operations
- Streamlined staff efforts
- Higher achievement with fewer resources
- Personalized & customized guest interactions & engagements
- Increased revenues