By Max Starkov – Adjunct Professor NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality and Hospitality & Online Travel Tech Consultant

By 2025, over 85 million existing jobs will be lost due to the seismic shift toward robotization and automation, according to estimates in the “Future of Jobs Report 2020” published by the World Economic Forum. Dangerous, mundane and repetitive jobs performed by manual laborers, unskilled and low skilled workers, assembly and factory workers will be affected the hardest.

This same report estimates that some 97 million new roles – the “jobs of tomorrow” – will emerge over the next decade, jobs that are more in tune with this new division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms. These are jobs like data analysts, AI learning specialists, digital transformation specialists, software and applications developers, robotization strategists, robotics technologists, robot training and maintenance specialists, etc.

McKinsey & Company claims that the current COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the digitization of customer interactions around the globe by three years.

Whether we like it or not: robotization and automation are coming even to our technology-averse hospitality industry. Robots already are being used at thousands of hotels worldwide and will continue to replace greater numbers of hospitality employees in performing dangerous, repetitive and mundane jobs like housekeepers, porters and baggage handlers, concierges, security guards, line cooks, room service, bar tenders, waiters, etc.

Next gen technologies like AI, robotics, automation, mobility and IoT are called upon to solve a number of issues in our industry:

  • Solve dull, repetitive, dirty or dangerous jobs.
  • Solve high turnover of trained employees (20%-30%)
  • Solve problems like poor discipline, lack of motivation, etc.
  • Lower labor costs, which are especially burdensome now
  • Increase productivity
  • Solve labor shortage of entry-level and unskilled workers, which plague the industry in “normal” times.

Labor costs constitute 36%-50% of hotel operational costs, based on hotel category, and in these times of low travel demand, low occupancies and catastrophic RevPARs, robotization and automation are becoming increasingly appealing to hotel owners and operators.

Here are just a few examples of successful robotics and automation deployments in hospitality:

  • Automated “Smart Room”, developed by Marriott (IoT Guestroom Lab), Hilton (The Connected Room) and other major brands: a hotel room that knows your preferences and automatically adapts to your likes via IoT, mobility and automation from lighting to room temperature, syncing the smart TV with your Netflix, Prime or Hulu streaming accounts, automatically ordering from housekeeping extra pillows or blankets or your brand of single malt whisky from room service, if this is what you like. Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta describes the “Connected Room” concept: “Imagine a world where the room knows you, and you know your room.”
  • Front desk: mobile and contactless check-in applications have already made the front desk staff obsolete. The Henn Na Hotel in Japan and its front desk robots have been proving the concept of a fully-robotic front desk for years now.
  • Concierge: Robots like Hilton’s concierge robot Connie, developed in collaboration with IBM, provide guests with information about nearby attractions, places to eat, and hotel information.
  • Cleanliness and Disinfection: The LightStrike UV-C light Germ-Zapping Robot by Xenex Disinfection Services and the Germinator Robots by Germbusters use xenon ultraviolet light pulses to kill viruses, bacteria and fungi and are already deployed at hundreds of hotels in the U.S.
  • Housekeeping: Robots like Rosie by Maidbot, 2,000 of which have already been deployed at various hotels, clean guest rooms 20 percent faster and public areas up to 80 percent faster than human housekeepers. Robot-housekeepers mean 24/7 cleanliness programs, no health risks when handling toxic disinfectants, electrostatic sprayers, UV-C light devices, and all of this at 6 times lower cost per hour.
  • Hotel Security: Fully autonomous security robots by Knightscope are already being used as security guards at resorts, large hotels and casinos, airports, theme parks and outdoors perimeters. The rental of a security robot goes for $7-$10 per hour vs $25-$30/hour for a human guard.
  • Servers: Robot waiters by Keenon Robotics are deployed in over 5,000 restaurants worldwide and replace 100% of the waitstaff.
  • Bartending: Robot-bartenders like the Tipsy Robot by Makr Shakr makes 120 plus drinks per hour, replaces up to 4 human bartenders and saves 25% of the drink waste/spillage. Other bar tending robots like Barsys 2.0 by New York-based startup Barsys and the DrinkBot by Botrista are also being deployed across the nation.
  • Kitchen staff: Robots like Flippy by Miso Robotics are flipping burgers at CaliBurger and White Castle Restaurants to the delight of their customers, while the salad-making robot Sally by Chowbotics prepares signature salads at quadruple the human pace.
  • Fully-automated restaurants are no longer a thing of science fiction novels. Spyce, a robot-powered restaurant in Boston, has successfully pioneered an entire restaurant built around automation.
  • Hotel porters: Porter and delivery robots have been in use at hotels ever since the Aloft Cupertino debuted a Relay delivery robot by Savioke back in 2014. Relay robots and Tug robots by Aethon are increasingly used at hotels to deliver in-room items to guests, like their luggage, room service meals and fresh linens.

I believe at this time there are three main impediments to fast robotization of our industry: a) reluctance to invest in new technologies by real-estate minded owners and operators, b) lack of understanding and fear of new technology: “Who will deal with it? I don’t have trained staff to deal with it. It makes operations very complex”, etc., and c) The labor unions in major metropolitan areas with highly-unionized hospitality labor force are dead set against any robotization and automation or any technology advancement that can reduce the number of paying members.

In my view, none of the above can stop the rapid advancements in the adoption of robotics and automation in our industry, in the same manner as the Luddite movement in early 19th century England could not stop the Industrial Revolution.

Many owners and operators still have the mindset that hospitality is a real estate industry. Some hoteliers would prioritize changing the carpet in the lobby over installing IoT devices in the guest rooms or implementing mobile check-in.

Whether we like it or not, hospitality is fast becoming a tech industry now. The digital transformation is already changing the industry and the current crisis will only accelerate it. The main reason is the emergence of today’s tech-savvy customer who expects to find at hotels the same or better technology advancements they already enjoy at home. Robotics, AI, mobility, IoT devices and contactless check-in tech are being adopted across the industry at a very fast clip.

Will technology ever replace all humans in hospitality? Next gen technology will undoubtedly replace mundane, repetitive and dangerous jobs in hospitality. But technology will not be replacing anytime soon highly qualified hospitality jobs requiring people skills, warm customer service, quick, out of the box decision making and handling of customer and operational issues. In the same manner as robot line cooks would never be able to replace a celebrity chef, automation and robotics will not be replacing highly skilled customer service personnel, seasoned hotel managers, revenue managers, IT managers, CRM and marketing experts, sales managers, as well as hospitality jobs of tomorrow such as digital transformation strategists, automation specialists, robotization technologists, data analysts, robot trainers and maintenance specialists, etc.

The robotization and automation of our industry is inevitable. I believe that within the next 10 years many hotels will operate at half the pre-coronavirus staff level and we will be seeing more and more examples of semi and fully automated hotels. The savings from labor costs and technology-derived new efficiencies will be more than sufficient to pay for the next-gen technology required for the hotel robotization and automation.

*Article originally published on December 3, 2020 in Hotels Magazine

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