Skift Take

Robots and automation are easy PR wins, but distract from the core mission of hotels: humans serving humans.

The Wall Street Journal recently documented Hilton’s research and development efforts with Connie, a two-foot tall robotic concierge, stationed at the concierge desk.

IBM’s Watson powers the responses, which include cursory information about the hotel’s offerings and ostensibly more as it learns and crunches more data.

The Aloft, in Cupertino, does something similar with their Botlr, a servant on wheels delivering the toothbrush you forgot to your door. Andaz had an ill-fated experiment where casually dressed staff would check you in on a tablet with no actual check-in desk.

Of course, some of these shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After all, it is hard to resist a public relations hook like that travel blogs and USA Today will readily lap up. But when you consider this is an industry where private equity overlords look to cut the fruit plate and charge extra for the bottle of water, it is easy to see a dystopian future. Automation creating efficiency, and cutting costs. Why would I pay a human to engage with a guest when Connie the friendly artificial intelligence robot can capably tell them when the gym opens?

We’re at a time of device and screen overload. Where we’re tipping into a digital abyss and having our brains re-wired for fast twitch dopamine hits. The bigger question is, what will the cultural reaction be? If the surge of vinyl sales is a reaction to depersonalized mp3s and iTunes ADD, it would seem that hospitality, and the very best of what it represents, is nicely positioned to step into the void of a de-personalized digital world.

Think of a bustling, perfect hotel bar or lobby, the type of scene that hotelier Andre Balazs creates over and over. Perfect lighting, a nice scent, well thought out design: a real-life social network in and of itself. Something much more compelling than some virtual reality headset.

In an age of digital overload, simple, human spaces, great service and great food and drink will be even more relevant. The hospitality industry can be a huge beneficiary of where the world is culturally right now. And it should double down.

To succeed in this, hotels and other service industries must not look to the cheap temptations of AI and automation in order to provide something novel or to cut costs. Rather, they should focus more deeply on training staff, and creating human centric, empathetic experience.

To be sure, tech still has a growing role in hospitality. As Marcela Sapone commented recently in a PSFK article, “How does technology stay hidden in the background, the so-called “invisible app,” while enabling better levels of empathy, anticipation and follow-through?” She argues that technology should not be in your face, like our friendly robot concierge, but rather used to create a new service standard, humming quietly in the background and turning staff into superhumans in terms of recalling customer preferences or just generally adding an element of surprise and delight based on data that can be elegantly stitched together for the first time.

Hospitality is all about the very human trait of empathy. And businesses need to remember that humans should remain front and center to create incredible experiences, helped — but in no way supplanted — by modern technology.

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Tags: hospitality, robots, VR

Photo credit: Visitors to the Hilton Hotel in McLean, Virginia, meet "Connie," a robot concierge powered by IBM Watson and WayBlazer. Hilton

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