By Venkat Sakamuri, CEO and Co-Founder, Stayflexi

Decades ago, self-service was largely defined by one, often lackluster offering: vending machines. We would carefully feed a bill into the designated slot, punch in the code for our desired drink or snack, watch the machine whirred to life and push our selection forward, and then often watch in dismay as it got stuck against the glass on its journey down to the basket for retrieval. In this sense, vending machines were hardly a luxury offering.  Instead, they served a distinct (and limited) purpose and were often reserved for moments in which we had no other food or beverage options to explore.

Today, however, the self-service landscape looks entirely different – in fact, it’s taken on a life of its own. First, our vending machines received a significant makeover, shifting away from a cash-only payment model to accepting digital forms of payments. In time, vending machines also began to offer non-traditional products, including electronics, high-end beauty supplies, and even gourmet cakes and desserts. Slowly, the digital revolution took hold, and self-service became its own retail segment as many consumers began to show a preference for online shopping, self-service kiosks, cashless payments, online customer service, mobile functionality, and personalized digital experiences. For the first time, new technology like AI and machine learning gave brands the ability to connect with consumers based on convenience and relevance, enriching each transaction or touch-point with data-backed personalization without the human touch.

If you ask me, self-service technology isn’t simply a movement or a segment of digital evolution; rather, it’s the future of business as brands look to keep up with customer demands in a scalable manner. And in the world of hospitality, specifically, the self-service era is now well underway.

Self-Service is Changing the Game for Hotels and Their Guests

In an article published in Forbes, titled ‘How Self-Service is Changing Technology,’ author Adrian Bridgwater eloquently explains that self-service now goes beyond Artificial Intelligence (AI), airport-style kiosk computers, and chatbots and includes digital automation layers built into business models, so jobs can be executed without a service agent needing to physically engage. “It is also the extended use of AI to ‘talk’ to humans, the ability for social media platforms to communicate with you on increasingly direct (but essentially automated) interactions… and for IT systems to remind you to be at the dentist by text message and so on,” he shares. “All of these self-service elements are now driving software application developers’ interest levels towards platforms that can understand the language patterns being expressed by real human beings, and so help to self-serve.”

Now, more than ever before, self-service technology goes above and beyond in its attempt to streamline experiences for both customers and businesses and eliminate traditional barriers to information and service. Using platforms and technology like service kiosks and mobile check-in, keyless room entry, AI-powered robots, smart speakers and thermostats, and AI-powered assistants allow hoteliers to provide key services without the need for human interaction while reducing operating costs, increasing profits, and empowering hotel staff to focus on more meaningful guest touchpoints.

On the customer side, self-service is increasingly well-received, as it empowers a level of user convenience that was never before possible. Customer feedback studies indicate that more customers prefer self-service over contacting a support agent. Moreover, research shows that 77% of US consumers consider “valuing my time” as the most critical part of good customer service, and Oracle reports that on average, guests using digital keys rate a hotel 7 points higher than key card guests with 84% of guests likely to use digital keys again. Not only that, but 94% of business travelers and 80% of leisure travelers expressed interest in using mobile guest apps or smartphones to request service and message, hotel staff.

The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Catalyst to Self-Service Adoption

In the past, our industry often expressed apprehension about adopting innovative, digital technology. Perhaps, this was rooted in the belief that a large proportion of travelers (such as baby boomers) would push back against the introduction of technological touch-points, opting instead for traditional service delivery. At one time, this might have been true; however, those tides have since changed, and the preference for digital touch-points within the guest traveler now spans across generational groups. Research indicates that 70% of hotel guests want to use technology to speed up service time. Moreover, Phocuswright research reveals that nearly two-thirds of U.S. guests believe it is “very or extremely important” for hotels to continue investing in technology to enhance the guest experience.

Of course, this isn’t to say that traditional, face-to-face service will ever be rendered obsolete within our industry; rather, self-service technology empowers experience autonomy and allows hotel guests to address their needs quickly. At the same time, hotels can improve overall service by outsourcing basic tasks to platforms, which frees up staff to be more focused on meaningful guest interactions. Although this movement had already begun pre-pandemic, the willingness exhibited by consumers to engage with (or actively seek out) self-service technology has – undeniably – skyrocketed. With increased public health and safety awareness, many travelers are now more likely to engage with self-service touch-points that allow them to feel more comfortable in their journey while also empowering convenience.

To this effect, in 2020, the global self-services technologies market was valued at $32.23 billion, and it is projected to reach $88.33 billion by 2030. “The pandemic has radically shifted consumer and business behavior,” reads a report shared by Allied Market Research. “With increase in social distancing and stringent regulations, businesses are forced to stop their operations, which limits their spending on opportunistic technologies. Despite the short-term social lockdown impact, the increase in demand for groceries, medical supplies, general merchandise, and home improvement among shoppers forced businesses to adopt self-assisted technologies to promote social distancing and zero-touch practice.” Even as the pandemic fades into recent memory, these habits and preferences are expected to stick – especially within the world of hospitality. There is simply no denying it. The pandemic was a catalyst for self-service adoption. Now, more than ever before, hotels of all size and scale should look to implement self-service technology to streamline their operations and appeal to guest preferences.

The Future is Here

Fortunately, the self-service era stands to directly benefit hotels by way of unparalleled automation. With the right hotel management platform, such as Stayflexi’s Magic Link, hoteliers can finally run their property like a self-driving car, while offering guests an impressive menu of self-service options, including flexible bookings, mobile check-in, mobile reservation management (including easy upgrade options, and early/late check-out), contactless payments, mobile itinerary management, and so much more.

On the hotel side, properties can benefit from a truly intuitive hospitality system that automates property management tasks, capitalizes on upselling and upgrade/add-on opportunities,  optimizes housekeeping, manages bookings, and more. Unlike a legacy PMS, modern property management systems like Stayflexi leverage seamless automation and plug-and-play APIs to help hotels offer heightened in-person service for more memorable and meaningful touch-points. 

Much like the clunky and archaic vending machines of the past, gone are the limitations of legacy property management systems. We’ve now entered a new world of digital possibility. Self-service technology isn’t simply here – it’s the future. Are you ready for it?