Written By: Carson Booth, CHTP
AI will become embedded and ubiquitous, and in the pocket of every associate and guest. Are you ready?
Some industries remain stubborn and resistant to change by not embracing new technology as fast as others. However, over the last few years, the hospitality industry has seen dramatic technology changes with the sudden maturing of suppliers as a result of consolidation and larger more sophisticated supplier entrants, competing hospitality business-model entrants that leverage technology as a platform, and technology strategy changes as a result of brand management company consolidations. These trends will continue to impact the industry’s technology strategies for the foreseeable future. However, there is a new, more permanent check-in about to arrive.
On October 4, 2016, Google embarked on a strategy to challenge Apple more directly by announcing their first smartphone to be designed and manufactured by Google: Pixel. Google is clearly betting that by more closely aligning hardware and software, they will be able to offer the same kind of seamless user experience that Apple provides its own users. More importantly, on the same day Google announced a strategy to leverage its vast information capacities by embedding voice-based AI within Pixel, envisioning a more intelligent natural language future for services like restaurant reservations, map directions, local points of interest, etc.
This is not exactly new – Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google’s Now, have all been around for some time. While each of these respective companies have the capability to make the user voice experience seamless, natural and accurate, what separates Google’s announcement from the pack is sheer footprint. Google’s Android has an astonishing 87.6 percent mobile OS market share versus Apple’s 11.7 percent for IOS. With this penetration, combined with improving voice recognition accuracy, speed and ability to manage increasingly complex natural-language capabilities, Google is positioning itself to dominate the smartphone and mobile AI space. This pervasive strategy embeds further as Google increasingly moves into your living room with Drive, Android TV, Home, Chromecast, Daydream View, WiFi routers, etc.
How will pervasive AI impact the hospitality industry?
Guest knowledge – A consumer starts their guest experience even before a room is booked by shopping around different channels, seeking rates, availability and room types, and even booking the exact room for their stay. They have access to more information today than ever before in helping with the decision process. By adding AI assistance in their pockets, guests will be able to query against very specific criteria and compare results seamlessly with competitive options or while approaching the hotel or even standing at the front desk. Precursor examples of leveraging technology and inferring information exist today; for example, gaming the loyalty program upgrade policies to ensure suites are available for upper level loyalty members at check-in.
Guest and associate experience – Hospitality management companies and technology vendors must consider the impact of guests wanting a rich, personalized stay experience by using familiar and increasingly sophisticated technology that is always available in their pocket. Guests prefer to use this familiar tool to leverage biometric or secured-device identification, and will also prefer it for natural language voice assistance to interact with various hotel services – from the pre-stay booking process through the in-stay experience with key-locks, room environment control, ordering pool-bar cocktails, or requesting their car to be brought around.
Additionally, as consumers are now accustomed to self-service in and beyond the travel industry through kiosks and apps, there is an accelerated natural evolution with advancements in AI and robotic capabilities to directly deliver guest service in the industry. Some examples include Starwood’s “Project Jetson” which pilots Siri-activated rooms and the Botlr robot program at the Aloft Cupertino, as well as Japan’s Henn-na Hotel which is almost exclusively run by robots. The challenge for the industry will be how to bridge the uncanny valley of robotics in a guest service experience. These examples can provide a learning opportunity as they bypass the phenomenon altogether as a way to start the introduction into the guest experience. In parallel, the industry is on the cusp of major transformations to be generated when guest AI starts interacting with hotel AI driven by the intersection of advancements in AI, cloud data storage, natural language interpretation, and the pervasiveness of it all coming together in the mobile technology footprint.
The associate experience will be greatly impacted as well. In addition to the change in the traditional roles and responsibilities that robotics will bring to hotel operations, associates that remain will naturally bring their lens of the consumer AI experience to their work tasks, tools and data. This, along with increasing personalization expectations by guests, will drive a bottom-up demand for more intelligent data and subsequent improvement of tools for associates to use.
Consider the example of evolving available consumer chat services to handle more complex voice/natural language guest requests. The immediate solution is to staff the hotel service at sufficient levels to handle and route the request with high personalization and efficiency. However, the human portion of work involved in transforming the natural language request is a major bottleneck in this process. AI presents the opportunity to enable the transformation of the request into discrete instructions consumed by next generation solutions that employ a micro-services architecture. This removes the human bottleneck and enables the redeployment of people to ensure the high quality of service standards are maintained for the guest — a more profitable process for the business.
Another area to be profoundly impacted by AI will be the current state of data privacy and related legislation. As Google and others become further embedded into our daily lives, we will naturally add more personal data to our profile through increased usage. AI will mine that data and determine what artifacts are pertinent to retain and file, or discard. Single platform data mining is not inherently difficult. What is difficult is mining across multiple platforms and data repositories – think about the numerous areas where data is stored today: map POIs, music, pictures, browser favorites, etc., variously stored across Google, Apple, Facebook, private cloud storage and other platforms. Compounding this challenge are conflicting requirements from governments to try to nationalize citizen data and storage for multi-national industries, e.g. hospitality servicing multi-national travelers. Data will be shared and stored cross-border – its naïve to believe legislation will stop international personal data transfers especially when guests want similar experiences and recognition while visiting Madrid, Melbourne and Mendoza. AI is the only solution capable to meet the complexities of intelligent data aggregation on demand, while supporting anonymizing and other legislation requirements.
Beyond the data privacy and legislation concerns, hotels and loyalty programs already struggle in trying to deliver a personalized experience for the guest due to the difficulty in interpreting the guest’s particular stay profile. Identifying when a guest is on business or leisure, with family or without, are relatively easy observations to make. More difficult is understanding when to leverage specific information to engage the guest with a more personalized interaction, which usually requires some indication from the guest themselves as to the level of personalization that is appropriate. Today, these interactions are left to human judgement or canned technology processes. Going forward, AI will support the ability to access, codify and appropriately present more data about the guest at every touchpoint in the stay cycle. AI won’t replace the human touch completely, but will better support the human or machine process by presenting more relevant information at the right time.
AI is coming fast and going mobile. As stated before, some industries are traditionally stubborn and resistant to technology change, however, there are significant and natural AI opportunities presented by the hospitality industry’s business model, diversity by physical geography, and data complexity. No industry is better positioned to leverage AI’s ability to sift through vast amounts of data and help create a unique guest experience. A new breed of major technology companies have already embarked on leveraging the advancements of AI with many supporting the hospitality industry. Suppliers, hotels and management companies must begin to understand this opportunity now and undertake a significant evaluation of their current technology platforms and strategies to determine readiness for AI.
AI will become embedded and ubiquitous, and in the pocket of every associate and guest.
Are you ready?
Carson Booth, CHTP is the general manager at Starwood International Licensing Company Sàrl and vice president of Global Property Technology at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. He is the chair of the HITEC Amsterdam Advisory Council. Contact Carson at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on LinkedIn.