Automating hospitality in times of social distancing

The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought the travel and hospitality sectors to a halt. The calls to enact social distancing measures mean no more travelling or meeting friends at pubs or restaurants. The consequences are devastating for airlines, hotels, events, restaurants etc. and result in closures and job loss around the world. Although governments have taken various measures to address these, we can expect consumers to remain cautious when interacting with others, thus continuing the negative impact beyond the end of the crisis. 

Hence, as we look forward to having a greater control over the Coronavirus spread and returning from isolation, it is perhaps the best time to regroup, reimagine, and re-strategise to ready the sectors for what comes next with better solutions than what we already have available. One of these could be automation.

In recent years, we have witnessed an increasing interest in the implementation of automation and robotics in travel and hospitality, especially due to the advancements in artificial intelligence. This has been reflected in research (see, for example, here, here, and here) as well as in practice. We have seen self-service technologies brought to the extremes, with robotised hotels and restaurants, unmanned retail services, and autonomous transport systems. Public opinion on this has been mixed. While deploying robots for safety-critical roles has received a favourable view, many have been sceptical about automating services, especially hospitality. Conversations were dominated by how robots will outperform staff in certain tasks, making various service roles redundant.

Bringing automation to the sectors now may sound contradictory to the spirit of opening as many job opportunities as possible to those who need them post isolation. However, giving a careful consideration to immediate and long-term impacts of the pandemic and social distancing measures on overall consumer behaviour and business continuity, integrating automation into service operations could help addressing some of the issues around safety and access.

“It is perhaps the best time to regroup, reimagine, and re-strategise to ready the sectors for what comes next with better solutions than what we already have available. One of these could be automation.”

Attitude Change

While some see the pandemic as an opportunity for the travel and hospitality sectors to have a fresh start, the viability of implementing new practices will highly depend on consumers’ attitude and behaviour after social distancing measures are lifted. In this period of isolation, we are witnessing how people change behaviours that long have been taken for granted: shaking hands or standing closely next to somebody to order drinks at a bar. It is yet to be seen if consumers will start flocking back to tourist destinations or pubs, as being on lockdown makes them appreciate more the value of travelling and socializing, or if they will take a more cautious approach. Whether they will continue to distance themselves from service attendants as they dine out, or if touching surfaces of menus, self-service kiosks, or other interfaces will draw them weary.

Importantly, having limited mobility and restricted access to services while in lockdown may bring about felt needs for automated services and self-service technologies. Some consumers may get used to ordering meals online or through an app and opting for ‘click and collect’ or delivery for other shopping needs. As such, consumers may grow warm to the idea of not interacting with a human being, but with service robots, autonomous taxis, and drone deliveries. Recent research on hotel service robots, robotic bartenders, and autonomous vehicles has shown that people trust and are willing to use these technologies when they have a positive attitude towards intelligent autonomous machines in general.

Beneficial Automation

As suggested here, key to implementing automation in travel and hospitality is ensuring that the technology will bring value and benefits to the industry and its people. We have seen cases where robots and other automated machines can help with the operational upkeep of buildings and facilities. Hotels employ robots to sanitise rooms and common areas, freeing staff from risk of contamination. Hotels and restaurants can keep their kitchen operational using intelligent food preparation system, combining automation, robotics, and machine learning techniques. Then, a fleet of delivery robots can help with deliveries. In addition to business continuity, implementing fully-customised systems can help businesses serve consumers with special dietary restrictions and those in the high-risk groups.

Another important application in times of crisis is employee and customer relationship management. With the likes of World Health Organisation (WHO) implementing chatbots to spread information about COVID-19, businesses can use similar conversational agents to engage employees and customers while they are on lockdown. Aside from a chatbot designed to have conversations or small talks with customers, companies can also implement one to send automated or on-demand messages, tips, and nudges, to share recipes and travel inspirations, and so on. For those yearning to go outside, when virtual tours and walkthroughs can no longer cut it, autonomous sightseeing pods with robotic guides may be the way to go.

To prepare for when hospitality businesses and tourism destinations welcome guests again, having a solution that helps them deal with uncertainty is critical. This is where predictive analytics and artificial intelligence techniques can come into play. Being able to recognise and determine from relevant pools of data a short-term upshot or a new consumption trend that will linger a little longer will give businesses the advantage of operating in a more proactive way.

Responsible Adoption

The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed the process of digital transformation to happen overnight in many organisations, especially at schools and universities where the future workforce is now getting used to more human-machine interaction. However, automating hospitality will not be as straightforward. The sectors will still be constrained by affordance and affordability. Those who can quickly adopt automation may face some challenges from the technical limitations of current applications. Those who are independent owners and operators may find it too costly to come on board. For small businesses, working together with technology providers, being part of a platform/network, or taking advantage of free digital services, such as those offering marketing dashboards, may be a solution.Looking into the future, the emphasis should be about responsible adoption of automation, whereby technologies augment people in delivering what the businesses do best: hospitality. As outlined here, adoption of automation in the travel and hospitality sectors should be balanced with priorities to invest in people. Perhaps while letting the robots handle things at work, we should give employees opportunities to up their digital skills at home, but only if they wish to.

Iis Tussyadiah is Professor of Intelligent Systems in Service and Head of Department of Hospitality in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at University of Surrey. Iis conducts research on digital transformation in the travel and hospitality industry, focusing on human-computer interaction, consumer behavior, and mobility. She investigates the applications and implications of intelligent systems in the services sector to inform business practice and policy.