FeaturesStephen Ayers

Artificial Intelligence: Are front desk associates facing extinction?

Technology has already put many job roles to extinction in industries across the globe. Could AI technology now be gunning for the hospitality industry, and could the front desk be in its sights?

Self check-out stations are prevalent in today’s supermarkets, but has the very real progress in AI created a looming survival threat to the cashiers? I read an interesting and quite frankly frightening article that heralds the end of cashiers in retail in the not-too-distant future. This is worrying, not only because we will miss the human interaction but because it will undoubtedly spill over into all other industries. It is a chance too good to miss for the profit-hungry corporations intent on cutting payroll considerably.
Will the introduction of AI and humanoid robots into the mainstream of life mean eventually that one day the only humans we meet will be those in the streets, while all business functions will be fulfilled with lifelike robots? Does that sound too farfetched?

Of course when I say ‘one day’, I appreciate that this is not imminent, but perhaps the writing is on the wall, or at least being written as you read this article. While the big brands are playing around with room service delivery by robots, it is time to sit up, take stock and look for solutions to combat and fight back when the AI day comes.

The news is not all bad and a great good can come from it for the small players and independents. I see huge positive potential for independents when AI finally impacts our industry.

Unfortunately, from past history I do not see many hospitality property owners and operators who will react in the right way in good time.

Take a look at the current situation and you will understand what I mean. The big brands are buying up the smaller brands, with three out of every ten hotels now belonging to Marriott or Hilton. Each of the large companies has sub brands in the tens and twenties. Search online and you will see all the logos of the brands they own that cover virtually every class and standard of hotel.  They are in it to win it and every new, unique and creative hotel that opens is being copied by them in short time. They want to clean up and many are allowing them to.

The OTAs are taking ever-increasing chunks of business from hotels. I would suggest that it will not be long before big brands come together to create their own OTA and scoop the commissions for themselves, leaving the rest at the mercy of the online vultures.

Costs are rising; from the largest item – payroll, to the everyday operational items and of course utilities, food and beverage and the others.

The common reaction? Employees are let go, with more burden falling on those remaining. Increased use of OTAs for revenue is the easy answer. Cheaper materials that are not as good in quality as those purchased prior are bought. Fewer funds are spent on maintenance and upkeep, renovations are put off until critical, and funds for training staff disappear.

The result? Even though at the beginning hotels, having taken drastic measures, think that things are fine, the opposite is true. The downward spiral begins the minute the steps above are adopted. The same will be true if independent property owners and operators go along with fading out front desk staff when robotics happens, and they will. Think about all the positions that have been eliminated by technology. The big brands will have the better robots, and independents will lose out again.
We have seen the trend when independents try and compete with the big guns.

The solution? Watch for the writing on the wall and take steps to differentiate your property before it happens. Don’t you love it when you call a business and someone human actually answers the call? It’s refreshing and most importantly, it is human! The same can be said of your potential guests. So when robotics happens along, keep your desk staff human. You will level the playing field by keeping human staff. You will stand out from the crowd; you might even be unique in your community.

Do not take the bait as so many do today. It still amazes me to see how many independents think that they can beat the generic brands at their own game. It is much easier to take this route rather than finding creative ways to engage guests, reach operational excellence and differentiation in their own way.

Do you really want to meet a robot when you check into a hotel and hear, “For check in please say ‘check in’, for check out please say ‘check out’, for other information please say..?”

No I didn’t think so. Yet that is what will happen at the big brands when advanced AI allows it, and that is your golden opportunity to differentiate and create your own brand.

I know it will be tempting to jump on the bandwagon of cost cutting and eliminating staff, but do not think about that, think rather of the increased occupancy you will experience with humans at your desk, and about the increased rates you will be able to harvest. You will also be able to distance yourself a little from the OTAs.

Many of you may think that AI replacing desk clerks is not an immediate threat, but then neither were the OTAs when they appeared on the scene. Would you have ever believed in self driving cars? My advice: Start thinking and planning today for the tomorrow when AI will certainly come

Stephen W.Ayers is a British and Canadian author and former hotel manager. He is currently the CEO of Stay Ahead Hospitality. This feature first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Hotel Owner 

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