Written By: Katerina Berezina, Ph.D., CHTP, CRME
Even though robotic technologies have recently made their way into the hospitality industry, we can already see robots working at the front desk, concierge, housekeeping, restaurants and bars. Robots employed by the hospitality industry come in different shapes and forms. For example, HITEC attendees had a chance to interact with Botlr, a robot that is currently being used in different hotels to assist front desk agents in fulfilling guest requests by running deliveries. We also have seen Hilton’s robot Connie that works as a concierge and helps hotel guests with giving recommendations for places to explore in the area, and finding answers to other questions. There are also examples of employing robot chefs and waiters in restaurants, as well as robotic bartenders.
As a new and exciting technology, the use of robots in the hospitality industry is also surrounded by numerous questions. Are robots the right choice for the hospitality industry? Can robots deliver the same level of service that we expect from front line employees? Are we losing the personal touch? Are guests ready for interactions with robots? Are operators ready for employing them? Will robots take away our jobs? These and many other questions were tackled during the panel discussion “Robotics in Hospitality: the Future or just a Gimmick?” at HITEC 2016.
Robots have already proven themselves useful in many different industries including manufacturing, military, marine and space exploration, healthcare, and agriculture. However, as you introduce a question of robotic technologies to hospitality industry professionals very often you would hear a concern about the service quality delivered by robots and the loss of personal touch. The debate about high tech versus high touch has been going on for years. But are we asking this question right? Is the only way to use a robot is by replacing a human?
Another way to look at this issue is to ask whether robotic technologies may co-exist with humans, assist them, change the process, and enhance customer service instead of ruining it. We have already seen an example of Botlr working side by side with front desk agents. Botlr can run a delivery, but a human front desk agent needs to receive the order and load it into the robot. Similarly, we may imagine a robotic vacuum cleaner assisting a housekeeper with cleaning rooms. In these scenarios, robots are not replacing humans, but saving time and adding efficiency to the process. By robot participation in the service delivery front desk agents may receive more time for personal interaction with guests, while housekeepers may gain more time for adding personal touches to the guest room.
These are just some examples of robots assisting humans with different physical tasks. But what about the artificial intelligence? Robots may have access to incredibly vast knowledge, such as facts, locations, weather, languages and many more. The hospitality industry may benefit from robots that in addition to other functions may also provide translation services into any language in the world. Would not that be an asset to a hotel and a great help to front desk agents? Taking this a step further we may also think about the continued development of cognitive computing power and analytics. The recent developments in this area introduced such systems that may analyze data and build strategies. An example of such technology may be Lucy, powered by IBM Watson. Can you imagine a robotic concierge that may provide recommendations for choosing between two events happening in the area at the same time based on the analysis of online reviews, ticket availability and traffic on the way from the hotel to each of the places?
All of these examples lead us to a concept of a cobot, or a collaborative robot. Maybe robots will not replace a human in the hospitality industry, but augment the human; not just be added to the process, but change the process? We do not shy away from the assistance of mobile technologies, and embrace the convenience and intelligence that they bring to our lives. Probably, we should give a chance to robots too. Just like the adoption of mobile technologies gave a great push to the development of location-based services, reputation management, pricing strategies and many other aspects of the industry, robots may open the door to new developments as well. But for this to happen, we also may want to think differently, see things differently and ask questions differently.
Katerina Berezina, Ph.D., CHTP, CRME is an official 2016 HITEC Guest Blogger, and an Assistant Professor in the College of Hospitality and Tourism Leadership (CHTL) at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee (USFSM). She also serves as a Coordinator of the M3 Center for Hospitality Technology and Innovation. Her industry experience includes working in travel agencies and hotels in Russia and the United States. Follow her on Twitter at @KateBerezina.