By Dean Minett

Isn’t it strange that technology designed to bring people together could have the opposite effect? As smartphones and tablets have become more engrained in daily life, prospects for real human interaction feel strangely diminished. Why strike up a conversation – or look out the window, for that matter – when there’s always a task, a search, or a social media post to absorb your attention? Academics and researchers have been saying plenty about this in recent years. The Media Consumer Survey 2017 by Deloitte found clear patterns of fatigue amongst social media users in Australia, with nearly half of the study’s respondents stating that they spend more time on social media than they’d like to, and nearly a third admitting that they spend more time cultivating relationships on social media than they do in real life.

Hotels are a microcosm of these issues because they stand at the intersection of technology and human connection. These days, much of the news in our industry is about leveraging technology to improve guest experiences and back-of-house operations. There is a constant stream of ideas and analysis around digital room controls, energy-efficient HVAC systems, mobile check-in, keyless entry, and countless other tech upgrades.

The other big discussion is around people. It’s about how to create hotels that have warmth, culture, flavor, and human interaction. That’s what travel is about these days – not just getting from A to B, but savouring the details. Experiencing the texture of a place. Interacting with real human beings.

If you’re a fully automised hotel in Japan, and your business model is working, that’s great. It’s a novel idea, and people are curious. Or if you are a fan of WestWorld, you can see the value in creating lifelike characters that interact with guests and create a story. What you don’t want however are the glitches.

But let’s be honest: Even if such technology were perfected and mass-produced, it would not dominate the global hospitality industry. People like dealing with people. We like putting a face to a name. We enjoy having our dignity affirmed by another human being.

That said, automation may yet have a long way to travel in mainstream hospitality models. We already see examples of automation in the way rooms are cleaned and prepared (Maidbot is a cleaning robot startup that is marketing directly to the hotel industry), the way supplies are delivered, and even the way certain requests are handled (e.g. chatbots for processing basic guest queries).

Yet the sharpest technological solutions are not always the right ones – and in some cases, it takes time to build trust in new technology. A 2016 survey by J.D. Power in North America found that only 3% of hotel guests were using mobile check-in where available. Among those 3%, satisfaction around the check-in process was much higher.

Robotics and automation, insofar as they save cash and makes hotels more profitable, will progress. As they do, it will be even more important to ask ourselves: How can we be more human? How can we infuse our properties with warmth, dignity, culture, and flavor? (And no, it is not by creating a more human AI unit!)

There are those who say we should use technology to bring greater personalisation to the guest experience. We can read examples of hotel managers fitting their employees with smart watches that deliver guest personalisation prompts (derived from dining and spending histories, apparently); or the Hilton HHonors App, which offers a stream of personalized data. I was amazed when I once heard a regional head of a international group proudly announce that they have a program that texts guests after arrival to see if everything is OK in their room. I understood their thinking but I was surprised they didn’t see the problem.

In the midst of this technological smorgasbord, we might discover that increased robotics and automation actually increases the need for a genuine human quality. We might discover that human dignity can really only be affirmed by another human being. We might find that creating and maintaining a cohesive team of good people is better business than bringing robots onto the payroll (they do use electricity, after all).

None of this is to say that technology isn’t great, or that hotels shouldn’t make full use of it to enhance the guest experience. But unless you’re playing the novelty card, technology should never encroach upon or diminish the human element. And it’s worth staking out these issues in advance, since automation technology is only going to progress further.

Will the hotel of the future be largely automated, and staffed by only one or two humans? If so, those humans had better know their stuff. They’d better have great personalities, too, because guests are going to rely on them for putting something real into the experience.