A recent University of Houston report on robots in hospitality claims that by 2030 over a quarter of hospitality jobs will be replaced by robots. Will robots ever replace all humans in hospitality? Next-gen technology will undoubtedly replace mundane, repetitive, and dangerous jobs in hospitality performed by housekeepers, porters and baggage handlers, concierges, security guards, line cooks, room service, bartenders, waiters, etc. Some hoteliers claim that hospitality is an industry of "people serving people" and robots will be playing only a marginal role. Others, citing the high labor costs which constitute as much as 50%-84% of overall hotel costs in these low travel demand, low occupancies era, predict that robots will replace humans in all dangerous, repetitive and mundane jobs at the property.
The question is, are robots coming to a hotel near you anytime soon?
For me, this very much depends on how you define 'robot'. Do I expect (or want) to be greeted, or served by a fleet of humanoid robots any time soon? No. Do I expect hotel operations to be profoundly changed by the use of technology and automation? Undoubtedly, yes.
If it's easier and faster to do something yourself, why wait in line, or pick up the phone to get someone else to do it for you? We check in for our flights online, ask voice assistants for directions, use apps to order taxis and meals, and live chat when shopping online. Why would we not expect the same conveniences from our hotels?
I think that automation will become both more prevalent, and less noticeable (as the better technology gets, the more intuitive, and therefore less visible it becomes).
Technologies to look out for include:
- Seamless and secure online check-in without the need to enter passport details, etc on yet another form (using distributed ledgers).
- NFC enabled mobile key (that doesn't require an app, an internet connection, or Bluetooth to be turned on).
- Multi-channel communication designed around a conversational support funnel that incorporates proactive, self-serve, and both AI powered chatbot and human support.
- AI powered CCTV systems that can create an alert if an obstruction has been placed in the way of a fire exit, or a guest needs assistance, etc.
- Noise monitoring systems that create an alert if a set decibel level is breached for a period of time.
- In-room voice assistants/ tablets that can instantly provide information about the hotel and local area, adjust room controls and entertainment, relay guest requests to housekeeping, order room service, connect to front desk, etc.
- Built in UV lights in elevators, public toilets and even guest rooms that can be programmed to automatically disinfect the room when unoccupied.
- Occupancy sensors/ CCTV systems that can detect if a guest has checked out/ removed their luggage from their room.
Technology will never replace a friendly smile, or great banter. However, there are some things it will always do better. Yes, the robots are coming, however in the hotels that get it right, we probably won't even notice that they're there - just that it's easier for staff to do their jobs well, and for guests to enjoy great service (whether in digital form, or face to face).
Whether we like it or not, hospitality is fast becoming a tech industry now. Robotics, AI, mobility, IoT devices and contactless check-in tech are being adopted across the industry at a very fast clip. The digital transformation is already changing the industry and the current crisis have accelerated it by 7 years (McKinsey & Company). The main reasons are a) the high labor cost in hospitality, today consuming as much as 60%-87% of RevPAR (CBRE) and b) the emergence of today's tech-savvy customer who expects to find at hotels the same or better technology advancements they already enjoy at home.
Will technology ever replace all humans in hospitality? Next gen technology like robotics will undoubtedly replace mundane, repetitive and dangerous jobs in hospitality like housekeepers, porters and baggage handlers, concierges, security guards, line cooks, room service, bar tenders, waiters, etc.
But technology will not be replacing anytime soon highly qualified hospitality jobs requiring people skills, warm customer service, quick, out of the box decision making and handling of customer and operational issues. In the same manner as robot line cooks would never be able to replace a celebrity chef, automation and robotics will not be replacing highly skilled customer service personnel, seasoned hotel managers, revenue managers, IT managers, CRM and marketing experts, sales managers, as well as hospitality jobs of tomorrow such as digital transformation strategists, automation specialists, robotization technologists, data analysts, robot trainers and maintenance specialists, etc.
The robotization and automation of our industry is inevitable. Ex. Housekeeping robots like Rosie by Maidbot, 2,000 of which have already been deployed at various U.S. hotels, clean guest rooms 20 percent faster and public areas up to 80 percent faster than human housekeepers. Robot-housekeepers mean 24/7 cleanliness programs, no health risks when handling toxic disinfectants, electrostatic sprayers, UV-C light devices, and all of this at 6 times lower cost per hour.
What about robots at boutique and luxury hotels? Very high end hotels will “mask” their robots behind a polite and ever-smiling “human shield” and use them in the background: housekeeping, line cooks, loading/unloading, etc. These hotels will rely more on AI and IoT applications and devices to improve quality of service and guest satisfaction.
I believe that within the next 10 years many hotels will operate at half the pre-coronavirus staff level and we will be seeing more and more examples of semi and fully automated hotels. The savings from labor costs and technology-derived new efficiencies will be more than sufficient to pay for the next-gen technology required for the hotel robotization and automation.
Robots No!, No!, No! so no R2D2 coming soon in a hotel. But automation yes as a first step. Hospitality is ripe for RPA and many benefits can be taken from that. Maybe one day physical robots will in hotels but positioning this as a labour cost reduction option and really seeing this wrongly. Robots will need constant attention and maintenance. so you will need to employ extra engineers to "service" the robots. they are currently cumbersome and slow and have limited capabilities. A hotel employee could carry bags to a room, then fold napkins and polish cutlery. there is not one robot today that could do all three tasks with the same precision and timing as a human. For context, i imagine we have all seen the robot bar on the royal Caribbean cruise ship. It was reported that needed 67'000 hours of R&D.! that's a lot of hours to be served a pina colada in a paper cup.
It depends upon how one views a 'robot'. Is a chatbot a type of robot? Some would say yes. Or does it only apply to the truly automaton physical looking devices with the digital smiley face to make humans more comfortable?
Either way, they are on their way and some are already 'in-house'.
In my view of the onslaught of automatons there are two distinct tracks of application. One is customer facing service. The other is staff augmentation or replacement of certain roles.
On the customer facing side of the equation I would like to think that it will be the back of house or back up support nature of the latter that will mean the former remains a human driven experience. This will depend upon the product fit into the market. Perhaps a lower tier accommodation offering where service is not a driver of the brand promise might look like a fully automated experience where limited people interaction is offered or expected.
Although my view has long been that technology and its application is the great enabler for a higher standard (than ever before) of customer service leveraged on the back of automation that does not have to be seen by the customer or expected to replace the human connection. Robots whizzing around spaces cleaning, sanitising, moving equipment or monitoring environments and checking settings. Robotics in the back of the house handling logistics, storage, procurement and warehousing. Working on large scale of highly repetitive processes in the kitchen and production environments. There is much scope for application in these types of operational areas while not impacting the human side of the hospitality experience.
More practical examples are nearing the market now for public areas, kitchen equipment and applications that step past the cutesy 'let my robot talk to you' vs. providing meaningful workforce augmentation.
If we can find the balance in our industry it should bring about a genuine improvement of the hospitality service experience.
The use of robotics in travel is a controversial topic, often even mocked, due to what, I believe, is a fundamental misunderstanding. Whenever we talk about robotics in travel, we do it with a certain degree of superficiality. The application of robotics in hotels remains sporadic at best, and most guests tend to perceive it more as an attraction (such as a Disney avatar in a theme park) rather than a real problem-solver. And here, in my opinion, the misunderstanding arises. Technology is never the end, but a means to improve internal processes, build branding, guest loyalty and increase profits. However, in hospitality, robots contend with humans for a job that does not necessarily suit them, made of complex nuances, hard to understand by non-biological entities. The hotel of 2030, in my opinion, will not be populated by androids such as the case of the Hen-na hotel, but by invisible, "human-enhancing" technologies (AI, AR, VR, blockchain, open API, etc. ) at the service of biological employees. And, when the latter will be, eventually, replaced by robots, it will likely be in areas where machines tend to perform better (back office, revenue management, distribution, prediction, luggage transportation, self-service, etc.), rather than in more "human" areas (such as the interpretation of the nuances of human communication, for example).
To buy or to rent a robot? That is the question.
Robots are actively entering hospitality services. Hotels, restaurants and bars use them for cleaning, provision of information, room service delivery, as receptionists, waiters, bartenders, cooks, etc. Although hospitality is largely regarded as peoples' business, high tech is invading this human bastion, promising to disrupt the hospitality business. A major question that hospitality companies face is whether they have to buy or rent the robots they use in operations. The company needs to take a decision after or simultaneously with the decision to implement service robots. Each of the two options has advantages and disadvantages that need to be considered.
Buying the robot provides flexibility because the company would own the robot and can use it as it finds suitable. Additionally, from a financial perspective, owning a robot means that the company can depreciate it and decrease its taxable profit. At the same time, buying a robot requires significant financial costs – upfront costs for the purchase, costs for the (development of the) software to be used in the robot, annual insurance costs (for damages on the robot as an asset and damages caused by the robot to guests and employees and their property), and monthly costs for the maintenance. Furthermore, the company would need to ensure that it has employees or a contract with an external provider who can repair the robot when it malfunctions. Finally, the rapid technological development may make the robot outdated very fast which may put the company in a situation when it has a robot that has not been fully depreciated but it is already outdated.
Renting a robot (Robot-as-a-service, or RaaS) makes the lives of hospitality managers easier. The company does not need to deal with robot repair, software updates, etc., because they are the responsibility of the robot owner – the leasing company. The fact that the company needs to pay a monthly fee for renting the robot allows a direct comparison of the costs for the robot to the labour costs for the tasks performed by the robot. Thus, the company can evaluate the robot's cost efficiency easily. Moreover, when the rental contract expires, the company has the option to renew it or not depending on whether the robot met the company's expectations not only in terms of costs and productivity but in regard to the customers' and employees' experience of being served by / using the robot. On the negative side, the monthly rental payments are higher than the monthly maintenance costs the company would make if it buys the robot.
Overall, renting a robot seems like a better option for hospitality companies. Besides the financial advantages, it allows them to focus on their core competence to deliver a high-value hospitality experience to the guests.
When I first read the study published in 2018 by the University of Houston, "Beware hospitality industry: the robots are coming", a mix of surprise and disbelief crossed my mind. The bold statement ( based on PwC research) that by 2030 a quarter of all hospitality jobs in the USA would be automated didn't resonate. Regardless of my fellow technologists' enthusiasm, I still carry a hotelier hat, and I decided to analyse this matter with a good scepticism dose.
The truth is that jobs are complex. Robots can handle repetitive and tedious tasks like baggage handling or public areas cleaning, but these are part of much more complex functions. History shows us that jobs tend to be resilient. In 1950 the U.S. Census Bureau listed 250 different jobs. Since then, the only one to be eliminated was the position of the elevator operator. I have difficulties believing that functions like waiters, bell boys, concierges and room maids are on the brink of extinction. I foresee the introduction of robots in our industry at a much slower pace, very dependent on factors like the ones briefly explained below:
Class of service: If I can easily accept that robots will have a role in the economy segment, I have great difficulties believing in a similar success in the upscale and luxury markets where the guests valuate the human touch and glamour. A robot is ok to cook a burger but will never have the art of a maître to perform a champagne sabrage.
Business model: Robots are expensive to acquire and to maintain. An upfront cost in capital expenditure will be a barrier to such devices' entry into our industry. Some companies (e.g. Dishcraft Robotics) are already providing RaaS ( Robotics as a Service ) options that can become more attractive to hotel owners and operators. However, as we stand today, the Capex model is still prevalent.
Environment: The current generation of robots is successfully operating in controlled environments such as warehouses. By nature, all the guest spaces are uncontrolled environments with unpredictable movements, crowds and rhythms. I agree that we can see the adaption of robots in the back of the house functions rapidly. However, I am still reluctant about the massification of robot usage for guest-facing operations. Regardless of the fast-paced progress, initial experiments with robots in guest-facing functions were not so successful (e.g. Henn na Hotel in Japan "fired" in 2019 more than half of its robotic workforce)
Integrations: Finally, to be practical, robots need to be highly interoperable with other systems in usage at the hotel. Our industry is known to have a fragmented technology stack where integrations are the Achilles heel. One of the harsh realities that the Covid crisis brought us was that owners' willingness to invest in technology is still very low even when there is an opportunity to use it to optimise a cost structure. There are no signs that this will change dramatically in the next nine years, with some exceptions. It is unlikely that hotels will become highly connected and data-rich environments where robots can operate seamlessly like it happens, for instance, at an Amazon warehouse.
In a limited capacity and when it's proven to make financial and operational sense. I do not believe that hotels offering a higher level of service, whose reputation and brands have been established on product and service quality will want to hand important human to human relationships over to a robot anytime soon.
Robots cannot emotionally or empathetically respond to delicate guest situations that might be critical for brand reputation where a human can. I feel this still holds a lot of weight in the discussion. Of course, in ten years, the status could be completely different.
Unionisation is stronger in some places than others so I think replacing a bartender with a robot is still a very long way off. Plus, a robot is in no way qualified to replace your favourite bartender for that chat about all the troubles in the world, is it?
A realistic way forward is possibly a hybrid approach; introducing Robots to assist with cleaning duties such as vacuuming. We use Robotic vacuums in our homes; why not hotels.
Of course robots are headed our way. To quote the infamous Deep Throat, “Follow the money!” Investments that result in cost savings and improve shareholder returns always get top priority. We no longer argue about whether hotels need computers or if guests will ever use self-service access points, so why would we argue about other mechanisms that work more cheaply and improve the operation?
Automation most deeply offends those who are being replaced by it. So like the millions of workers displaced since the dawn of the Industrial Age, there will be millions more— possibly including you or me — whose services will no longer be required. Society will have to come to terms with that situation... and it will, as it always has in the past. But keep your chin up: hoteliers who keep a full human staff will become artisan providers who will make mountains of money offering a quaint boutique guest experience: human service.
I personally think robots is a far stretch for hotels. I do however think that automation and self service will make its move into Hotels at a faster pace than previously, for 2 reasons: First, it's what guest want. You can do anything on a phone, so why not check in to your hotel room, buy an upgrade or order room service, the guest "becomes it's own robot" so to speak, tasks done previously by hotel staff are now done by the guest. Second, there are lot's of automation opportunities in hotels, especially around the administrative parts of room assignment, inventory control, pricing etc. Those lend itself really well to be automated, and also generate quick and easy ROI for hotels.
I don't see robots replacing humans in hotels anytime soon, but with the advances in AI I do expect to see more specific hospitality applications. Robots have been largely seen as a gimmick in hotels, but I see some very practical uses that will make our industry even more human.
The use of robots for mundane, repetitive and hazardous tasks will free up quality time for hotel staff to spend with guests, while making hotel operations more efficient and sustainable.
For example, when self-service kiosks were introduced in our industry, they didn't reduce the need for staff, but it did make front office work more interesting and rewarding, what's not to like?
The next gen traveller is another reason why I expect to see more use of robots in hotels. In many other industries, self-service has become the norm and we even expect it, so why not in hospitality? As hoteliers we tend to impose the traditional concept of luxury on guests, but technology doesn't have to impact the luxury experience. Time is luxury, and if we can request simply things like a towel with the touch of a button or through voice with a virtual assistant, guests will have more time for what matters most.
One of the key take aways of this pandemic is to accept a new way of living, working and vacationing. On line shopping , contactless check in and remote meetings are now the new normal. Guests are not going to be surprised any more seeing robotic baggage handling, housekeeping and room service. Robots bustling around in hotel corridors with housekeeping carts may soon become the new normal!!
It is only a matter of time until robots are used in many guest facing functions in hotels. Robots as waiters in fine dining restaurants and providing aromatic massages in hotel spas may sound far fetched now but could become a reality in future. However, people cannot be replaced and human touch is the hall mark of hospitality. Robots are merely going to help people do their jobs better and thereby spend more time with their guests effectively.
Robots ARE coming to a hotel near you (and very soon). The 2020's are for robotics just like personal computing in the 1970's and 1980's and the internet in the 1990's. Given the combination of labor issues being at an all-time high, technology cost being at an all-time low, and societies growing openness to adopt robotics and artificial intelligence technologies, robotics will hit every industry - including hospitality. Robotics have traditionally been implemented in factories and warehouses, but they are already expanding into hospitality applications - from serving at restaurants to cleaning hotel floors.
There is a misconception that robots replace humans. In reality, there are huge labor shortages, deemed a 'labor crisis' by many in the industry, which has created massive challenges for operators. At the end of 2019, AHLA reported there were nearly 1,000,000 open roles in hospitality in the US alone. During COVID, the industry has been suffering even more as many associates found roles in other industries (ie. Amazon distribution centers) or retired. With this trend, the labor gap will continue to grow creating an even bigger hurdle for operators to overcome.
That said, robotics have reached a point of technological and financial feasibility to help bridge the labor gap. The cost of solutions has gone down in the prior years allowing robotics companies to offer solutions that provide real value with real returns of operators. Although we still have several years until we get to Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons (my vision and dream), robots are getting deployed at a new scale.
2020 completely changed the world and had a tremendous impact on hospitality. With these massive challenges the industry face, come big opportunities to shift in powerful ways - including implementing robotics.