Modern hospitality: Striking the right balance between high-tech and human

Technology is automating many aspects of dining and hotel experiences - and freeing up staff to provide more personalized service.

October 05, 2017

From iPad ordering to robot concierges, technology is automating many aspects of dining and hotel experiences – and freeing up staff to provide more personalized service.

At some Aloft hotels, a robot butler known as Botlr delivers room service and towels to guests, leaving staff to deal with more complex queries. In CitizenM hotels, guests bypass front desk queues at self check-in kiosks with hotel ambassadors to answer any questions, while at the Andaz West Hollywood, personal greeters take guests through an iPad check-in over a coffee or glass of wine.

“Technology has substantially improved both the behind-the-scenes management and the guest experience in the hospitality industry,” says Marko Vucinic, Senior Vice President and Acting Head of Hotels and Hospitality Group at JLL Middle East and North Africa. Online booking sites have transformed the way people find and book meals and accommodation, while apps such as Deliveroo are eliminating the need for restaurant staff to answer delivery calls. “Self-service technology is on the rise, as digital systems streamline processes from pre-payment to checking in and even dining experiences with new iPad menus.”

Meanwhile, loyalty apps and sophisticated customer relationship management systems allow hoteliers and restaurateurs to track guest preferences and personalize their benefits accordingly. For example, the Starbucks app learns its users’ habits, then pushes unique offers to their phones, smartwatches or drive-thru windows.

“Technology has become very good at making services more efficient, providing more information for guests, and reducing costs,” says Alexis Marcoux-Varvatsoulis, Consultant at JLL Foodservice Consulting. “But can it provide hospitality? I’m not sure it can.”

Hospitality is personal

Traditional vanguards of hospitality have been the savvy waiter or concierge who could decode customers’ wishes or make on-point recommendations using well-honed interpersonal skills. For brands whose key offering revolves around high-quality hospitality, this human factor and skill set will always be crucial. But where efficiency and speed are key to a brand’s offering, technology can successfully replace human labor and cut costs without alienating guests, notes Marcoux-Varvatsoulis.

Take fast-food chains, often the early adopters of industry technology. By year-end, burger chain Wendy’s will have 1,000 restaurants with self-order kiosks, while McDonald’s kiosks additionally allow diners to customize their burgers. In the mid-2020s, many fast-food restaurants could be fully automated, from the point of ordering to the burger-flipping.

From the hotels’ perspective, “budget to midscale hotel brands tend more to use technology as a replacement for human labor because there isn’t a significant need for that additional level of customer service – which is what guests are paying for with higher-end brands,” Vucinic says.

In contrast, guests at many budget and mid-range brands are looking for convenience – and automated technology therefore helps create an experience which meets their needs.

Getting the right mix

Yet as hoteliers look to boost spending on technology to provide their customers with increasingly personalized service, the impact of human connection can’t be overstated. The number of interactions guests have with hotel staff directly impacts how they rate customer service, while 68 percent of diners agree that automation in restaurants takes away from their dining experience.

“Some hoteliers want to have technology features because that’s what people increasingly expect, but they need to maintain a human factor as that’s what guests are paying for,” Vucinic says. “Hoteliers need to figure out the right balance for their particular product and decide which functions can be automated.”

Often, that entails the straightforward processes such as checking in and paying, where guests are not only unlikely to require a social connection, but would prefer to avoid waiting in line to do it.

For some of the hotel groups and brands such as CitizenM and Aloft, an affordable, tech-centric experience is part of the brand offering, targeted towards Millennial customers who often prefer self-service and technology such as keyless entry via smartphone app.

Conversely, at the Four Seasons, whose luxury brand is predicated on sky-high levels of customer service, the hotel app offers features in addition to what its human team can provide, such as GPS directions that users can show cab drivers in the local language and a facility to request housekeeping even if the privacy light is on – as well as direct access to the concierge for in-person assistance when required.

“The key objective of technology features is to add value to the overall experience brands are trying to deliver, not replace the human interaction,” Vucinic says.

At the Hilton McLean, Connie is a robot concierge that can answer routine questions and point the way to various hotel facilities – but rather than replacing any member of staff, Connie is intended to free up its human colleagues to focus on helping guests with more complicated queries.

“Using technology in hospitality should be all about improving the experience for guests,” Marcoux-Varvatsoulis concludes. “Efficiency can go a long way to creating a good guest experience, but thoughtful, personal customer service is what turns a good experience into a memorable one.”