In a guest post from Frank Reeves, a speaker at EyeforTravel Europe last week, he attempts to demystify what artificial intelligence actually means for hotels

“What is a lobby boy? A lobby boy is completely invisible, yet always in sight. A lobby boy remembers what people hate. A lobby boy anticipates the client's needs before the needs are needed”.

This quote, from the critically acclaimed Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, nicely sums up what the human touch of (great) hotels actually means: staff invisibility and anticipation of guest's needs. Ultimately, this is what makes a good hotel great. And this is, de facto, what hospitality is all about.

But, as the volume of guests increase and hotels get bigger, the notion of hospitality tends to become more industrialised and less personal, until it all but disappears. In mega hotels and big chains, that unique human touch becomes an expensive commodity, and can lead to a one-size-fits-all approach.

This is where AI really can add value; by helping hotels to make the human touch more scalable.

At Avvio, we know that many hotels just want to understand, in plain and simple terms, what AI means for hotels. Unfortunately, however, the problem with all new hotel technology is that innovation gets turned into buzzwords, usually in order to sell more products and services. Worse still, these buzzwords - AI, machine learning neural networks, recommendation engines et al - are then thrown into the same marketing pot, creating even more confusion that only ‘experts’ understand. To address this, we have put together this handy infographic to explain some of the terms that are bandied about, and have learnt a few things along the way.

1. It doesn’t have to be complicated

Great first impressions really can win a customer over, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Imagine, for example, a system alerting the hotel about the expected arrival time of a guest. In such a scenario, the guest’s room could be ready before a specific time, the valet (knowing the car’s registration) could greet the guest by name, and the front desk would have all the elements to deliver a memorable and highly personalised check-in experience. As another example, a guest arriving late in the evening might be hungry, but instead of having to page through in-room hotel brochures, the system automatically emails the room-service menu on arrival. Such tailored experiences based on already known data, is what a hotel should be focused on, as it is often the first point of contact with the guest.

Just to be clear though, this not deep AI, but examples of how a handful of simple and small improvements can help transform an acceptable guest experience into a great one.

2. AI does not mean the end of the lobby boy

In the publication The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?, authors Michael Osborne and Carl Benedikt Frey estimate that 47% of US jobs are at ‘high risk’ of potential automation. The fact is, any repetitive job is at risk of being replaced by machines.

Although this trend is unlikely to impact the hospitality industry as significantly, it is undeniable that replacing human interaction where it does not add any value, and increasing it where it does, is the optimum use of AI. So, hoteliers should let computers analyse trends and patterns in guest behaviour, freeing staff up to focus on personal, meaningful interactions. There should be no need to browse through tonnes of emails just to remember if Mr. Smith prefers a poolside or a streetside room.

It is not, however, a question of machines replacing humans (and, to be fair, this hasn’t been the case, as technology has increased rather than reduced total employment over the years), but rather machines working together with humans, in the fields they are respectively best at.

3. Empathy at the hotel desk may be irrelevant

Hoteliers tend to forget that while there may be many things guests enjoy doing while travelling, such as relaxing by the pool or having a drink at the bar, there are just as many things they could do without. Who wants to check in after a long flight, or check out when already late for a meeting? The intangible, yet precious human touch, in these cases, is close to irrelevant. In our time-pressed world, guests just want to get to their room (or out of it) as soon as possible.

Joseph Weizenbaum, German-American Professor at MIT, wrote that AI “cannot, by definition, successfully simulate genuine human empathy” and that is true, but a good part of the actions guests perform when in the hotel need no human empathy.

So, if a computer can do it, let it. Instead, hoteliers should use staff to focus on situations where personal interaction is critical. For example, hotels typically sit on large amounts of data, and it would be cost prohibitive to have people crunching the data to analyse trends, yet machines do that in seconds. Why waste human potential on this kind of task?

4. AI can be useful in ways you never thought of

While a lot of the current uses for AI in hospitality are related to revenue management, marketing, and advertising, there are many other possible applications. It can be applied to optimise housekeeping, by estimating early check-in or late check out needs or to predict room maintenance requirements. Little things, such as estimating when to refill soaps, can reduce time spent by staff knocking on doors and improve the guest experience - not to mention, optimise inventory management.

The customer experience can benefit from AI too: think about pre-set room temperature based on guest preferences or voice-activated room service, rooms control, music, and TV. AI could predict estimated guest arrival time based on their nationality, and housekeeping can prioritise room availability accordingly.

By adding AI to hotel websites and booking engines to optimise the guest experience and conversion rate, we quickly saw how several tiny improvements led to increased efficiency and revenues. But be warned, AI in hotels isn’t about one ‘killer app’ that changes everything. Much like hotels themselves, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller improvements that make the experience better.

5. Tomorrow’s ‘wow’ is what hotels should be thinking about

Every year, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos pens an annual letter, a document that has become a must-read for many executives. A passage from this year’s letter resonates. “People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary.’ I see that cycle of improvement happening at a faster rate than ever before. It may be because customers have such easy access to more information than ever before. You cannot rest on your laurels in this world. Customers won’t have it.”

AI may not be what we thought a few decades ago - it has more to do with statistical algorithms than with human-like machines. The truth is that we already interact with AI on a daily basis, often without even realising it. When Netflix suggests a film for you, or Spotify a new track, that’s AI in action. It’s just mathematics, but it sure looks like the human touch.

The human touch is what AI can bring back to hotels. Quite simply, by helping staff know and predict what service or offer the guest will want before they have to voice it.

This is a guest post from Frank Reeves, CEO and co-founder of Avvio, a technology firm serving hotels and serviced apartments, who shared his insights at EyeforTravel Europe last week. If you missed the show, join us at one of our upcoming events

EyeforTravel North America 2018

October 2018, Las Vegas

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