Tech innovation is transforming the future of the hospitality industry. Chatbots, robots and AI can help provide a seamless customer experience, removing pain points and providing more personalised service. But how far is too far? How do you balance the need for efficiency with the need for human touch?
At Alibaba’s ultramodern boutique hotel, Flyzoo, in China, robots mix cocktails and deliver fresh towels. Guests check in and access their rooms with face recognition on the Flyzoo app. A voice assistant facilitates requests for food, drink and pillows, and adjusts room temperature, swaps TV channels and closes the curtains. As for paying the restaurant bill? Put your card away: it’s all charged to your room via face-scanning technology. Of course.
The last year or two has seen the hospitality industry undergo a wave of digital transformation. Increasingly advanced mobile apps, in-room tech and big data all work to enhance the guest experience and minimise friction points.
But the very best hotels offer service with heart. Can this be achieved or sustained through tech innovations? Where is the line? We looked to explore this interesting balancing act of technology in hospitality and the potential benefits to hoteliers.
The age of innovation
The Youtube comments on Marriott’s offering would suggest this one is more of a gimmick. Marriott has developed high-tech showers equipped with touch-sensitive glass for scribbling ideas down on, that is then available to share via social media or email (because all the best ideas happen in the shower).
Meanwhile, in the US, Amazon launched Alexa for Hospitality, which offers hotels and holiday rentals the opportunity to set up customised versions of Echo products that act as an in-room digital concierge.
Digital natives are expected to account for at least half of hotel guests worldwide by 2020.
There’s no denying the benefits technology can provide. Hyper-personalised experiences and new tech is unlocking creativity in experience design, shaping a new era of hospitality. New levels of system integration and connectivity are changing both back-office operations and the customer experience.
A balance between convenience and compassion
OK, the opportunities to dazzle and delight with tech are numerous. But are we really so reluctant to interact with other people that we’d forego the quality service and rapport that can only come from a fellow human?
Chatbots like Radisson’s Edward the Chatbot help customers get answers to questions the business have found rarely asked reception staff as well as gain valuable feedback. The chatbot generates instant gratification with 24/7 automated service. But Edward has his limits…
For more complex questions or conversations, a chatbot is seen as a deflection. Less, delivering an exceptional service experience, more a frustrating episode of confusion and disappointment. Underpinning the use of a chatbot should be a wider understanding of the quirks and nuances of human interaction. For instance, chatbots can answer simple questions in real time, freeing employees to interact with guests in more meaningful ways.
Four Seasons launched the award-winning Four Seasons Chat for guests in 2017, a messaging app that translates 100+ languages in real time. Guests can send and receive instant messages with property teams before, during and after their stay via WhatsApp, the Four Seasons App, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, KakaoTalk, LINE, Apple Business Chat and SMS.
Forget dodgy, grammatically-flawed translations; they are powered by humans – not bots.
This kind of technology both liberates and connects guests across the world – but understands tech’s role in augmented human service.
The growing use of technology within hospitality coincides with a shift in the way that we all live and work. The flexibility of our working lives and pervasiveness of the sharing economy has given way to new definitions of what a hotel should offer for business travellers. Alongside a place to stay and sleep, the hotel is a solution to coworking and co-living ventures.
Take the newly opened Kafnu Alexandria Hotel in Sydney, a space that combines coworking, office space, a boutique hotel and members club. This is a hive for digital nomads to come and collaborate with each other.
So, technology within this new wave of design-driven ‘lifestyle’ hotels has to offer a new kind of functionality for the agile worker. Hotel rooms adorned with interactive screens, the latest audio equipment, high-speed connectivity and virtual reality facilitate conferences spanning the globe.
Meanwhile, hotel lobbies and reception areas have been transformed into vibrant coworking hubs equipped with self-check-in iPads, re-charging ports, TV screens and private areas for guests to catch up over a coffee.
Underpinning this new appetite for tech enablement is a transgression of the on/offline divide. It’s a seamless intertwining of human capabilities and digital support that nurtures the growth of ideas and empowers working lives. The collaboration that technology facilitates offers an incredible opportunity for lifestyle hoteliers, but integration with the physical space must be frictionless and relevant to the brand.
A big data balancing act
Big data offers clear benefits to hoteliers: namely in personalisation and helping support ‘surprise and delight’ moments that make a guest feel special (and will then lead to more positive brand associations, upsells, positive reviews, etcetera).
“What is apparent from the way technology continues to develop and penetrate our lives in all realms of consumer activity, is that the consumer is expecting that you know ever more about them and their preferences.” Four Seasons CEO J. Allen Smith, speaking to Skift.com
But we live in a climate of controversy surrounding the handling of data and privacy infringement. People are simultaneously more wary of technology as they stay connected.
Treating a traveller as nothing more than a selection of preferences and emotional buttons to be exploited for upselling will backfire on hoteliers.
We are see-sawing back to storytelling as a conversion driver. The fulfilled promise of escapism: a retreat from the encroaching stress of everyday life in one-of-a-kind locations.
Hotels like FlyZoo are working harder than ever before to forge tech-driven relationships with their customers. Infrastructure undergoes continual innovation, resulting in dramatic changes in hotel service, layout and design.
It is shared moments of delight that forge memories, and form a successful backbone of a hospitality experience. This relies on a deep connection with both the physical space around us and each other, and gradually engraves in our memory as we share, discuss and reminisce. Whether that comes from a doodle-screen in a shower is up for debate.