With countries around the world still in lockdown, it’s difficult to imagine a time when it is ‘business as usual’ for the hotel industry.

Looking ahead, however, one of the biggest challenges is likely to be consumer confidence, as hotels and accommodation providers strive to prove that they are clean and safe, long after the pandemic has subsided.

Before then, with social distancing rules likely to remain even after lockdown restrictions are lifted, we could see automation coming to the forefront; used as a way to minimise contact between guests and hotel staff.

Automation in the age of social distancing

Many hotel chains already use contactless technology such as mobile apps and digital keys to enable guests to seamlessly check in and out. Hilton’s Digital Key is one of the most well-known examples, enabling guests to use their smartphone as a room key.

Further to this, we could see the adoption of other forms of contactless technology such as face recognition. Last year, three hotels in Singapore piloted the E-Visitor Authentication (EVA) system, which enables guests to use standalone kiosks to scan their passports through facial recognition technology, instead of waiting for a member of staff to do so. 

Yanolja is another company that offers hotel self-check-in systems, as part of the South Korean company’s cloud-based hotel automation solution. According to Skift, inquiries into the service have more than doubled since the coronavirus outbreak, as hotels look to omit unnecessary contact wherever possible. On top of this immediate aim, the wider purpose of the technology is to streamline the customer experience, making the whole process quicker and easier for guests. The aforementioned EVA system reportedly reduces the time it takes to check-in by up to 70%

Naturally, this topic brings up questions related to employment; specifically whether automation decreases the need for manual roles. With coronavirus already resulting in the loss of employment for many within the hospitality industry, it does seem somewhat contradictory to invest in technology that could further eliminate jobs. That being said, with social distancing likely to stay the norm indefinitely, we will undoubtedly see consumer demand shift towards hotels that have clearly adapted to this new technology-driven standard.

At the same time, automation does not necessarily result in the elimination of human roles, but rather, the shifting of resources to other areas. Since the outbreak, hotels like the the Four Seasons in New York have replaced breakfast buffets with single serve boxes, and deployed staff to serve guests rather than allowing them to help themselves. In future, it might be the case that hotels will keep this kind of practice, perhaps meaning the need for new roles in different areas will counteract displacement due to automation.

Robots & self-cleaning rooms

In 2019, Copenhagen’s Hotel Ottilia announced that it would be using self-cleaning technology in its 155 rooms and suites. The product, called ACT CleanCoat, is a transparent and odourless substance that automatically breaks down microbes like bacteria, viruses, airborne mould spores when exposed to sunlight. Essentially, the technology reduces the amount of manual labour needed to thoroughly sanitise rooms. It also reduces water usage and cuts down on harsh chemicals.

With sanitation now more of a priority than ever for hotels, we could see further investment in this type of technology after Covid-19. Some hotels have already implemented it, as they fight to stop the spread of the virus while remaining open. The New York Times reports how the Westin Houston Medical Center (hotel) in Texas is using automated cleaning technology to keep guests safe (as well as reassure them during their stay). The ‘LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robots’ – which are also used in over 400 US hospitals – kills bacteria with xenon ultraviolet light pulses. According to the technology’s manufacturer, the robots have decreased environmental infection rates between 50 and 100%.

Amid coronavirus, we’ve seen a number of hotel chains offer ‘quarantine packages’, allowing consumers to use hotel rooms in order to self-isolate. In most cases, this has involved guests receiving ‘no-contact’ room service, with staff leaving food and drink outside of hotel rooms. In China, however, hotels have capitalised on technology to make the experience even safer and more streamlined. Hotel Quanji in Wuhan, for example, has been using service robots to deliver food and other essentials, meaning guests are required to have zero interaction with staff.

Similarly, Hong Kong hotel operator L’hotel Group has also implemented robots to provide meals to guests in order to reduce interaction with staff. A spokesperson for the company commented on the decision: “With the rapid development of information technology, L’Hotel Group is convinced that the introduction of robots in the hotel industry, to implement automated services, will be a mega-trend in the next five years.”

Naturally, the automation of customer service doesn’t always end up in a smooth or seamless experience. The Henn na in Japan – touted as the first robot-run hotel – resorted to human intervention following complaints from guests, as well as unforeseen costs in maintaining the robots after breakdowns. This example shows the importance of the human touch, particularly when it comes to ensuring that customer needs are met.

In the near future, with coronavirus forcing the hotel and hospitality industry to adapt to new working practices, we could certainly see automation come to the forefront (for leaders in the industry). However, it’s unlikely to be entirely at the expense of human interaction, particularly at a time that has made many people acutely aware of its importance.

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