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Robots and Artificial Intelligence Present Challenges, Opportunities for Hospitality Industry

jbowen.jpg Christian Morosan

HOUSTON – Feb. 25, 2019 –Friendly and generous human-to-human interaction is at the core of good hospitality whether at a hotel, restaurant or club. However, what will the hospitality industry look and feel like when human workers are replaced by machines?

It’s already happening around the world, from robots staffing hotel front desks to machines capable of grilling hamburgers. Experts predict that robots will make up 25 percent of the hospitality workforce by 2030, presenting challenges and opportunities for an industry historically slow to adopt new technology.

University of Houston Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management professors John Bowen and Cristian Morosan recently published one of the first studies to discuss the major disruption robots will cause in the hospitality industry. The study in the journal Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes examines how service delivery systems need to be redesigned to maximize the benefits of robots, while still maintaining authentic customer service.

“The hospitality industry has high turnover in a lot of entry level jobs. Robots are good at doing repetitive tasks like food prep, cleaning and even delivery,” said Bowen. “We’re already seeing some large hotels replace front desk personnel with automated kiosks. Machines will be taking over these positions, which could produce a more error-free product.”

Worldwide labor shortages play a role in the demand for robots, along with the need to communicate with an increasing number of international travelers, according to the study, “Beware hospitality industry; the robots are coming.” Robotic hotel check-in systems will be able to respond to countless languages and react to cultural differences and expectations. Several Las Vegas hotels already use robots to deliver amenities and food directly to a guest’s room.

New systems will need to integrate seamlessly with the service environment while being attractive and easy to use for consumers of all ages. The researchers predict companies that embrace artificial intelligence and robotics will have a competitive advantage.

“It’s a way for hotels to become more efficient and cut down check-in wait times for guests, “ said Bowen. “Ultimately it will lead to a better guest experience and create customer value.”

How to use customer data has long been a challenge for the travel industry. By developing systems that learn from consumer behavior, companies can present products or services tailored to guest preferences. If a hotel guest ordered a particular red wine during a previous visit, for example, they can be offered the same wine as one of their choices subsequent visits.

However, the researchers warn that guest information needs to be used discreetly and securely. A customer may not be traveling with the same companion as on a previous trip, for example.

“Customers bring a lot of data into the hospitality service experience, including credit card and ID info, and also through their mobile device. If companies can determine behavioral data, such as what you’re purchasing and when, they can take this info and learn from it to enhance the customer experience,” said Morosan, who specializes in information technology adoption.

The study also predicts robots will save the customer time and money by offering services that previously were cost prohibitive.

“Autonomous cars, a type of robot, will pick up guests at the airport. If they have not checked into the hotel, the car can check them in and set up their smartphone to use as a key. Based on the customer information available on the guest, the car can make suggestions regarding restaurants near the hotel. It will be able to ask questions, and based on the responses, the car can make reservations for the guest,” according to the study. “As they head toward the hotel, the guest may see a large stadium on the other side of the river and ask about it. The car can recognize the building and then provide information on the stadium. The robot serves as an airport pick-up, front desk clerk, concierge, and tour guide.”

Hospitality as we know it will be redefined during the robot revolution, and while some companies will thrive, others could be put out of business if they don’t find the right blend of hospitality and technology.

“We have to combine high tech with high touch. I don’t think the hospitality aspect will ever go away, no matter how many robots are used. We just need to find the right combination between artificial intelligence and human touch,” said Morosan. “For example, four and five start hotels will still preserve the human touch in the front of the house, while using AI and machines in the back of the house to better serve the guest.”

Chris Stipes