Ramon Adillon is a seasoned hotelier who has led sales, rooms division, F&B operations, and the quality assurance department in large hotel chains around Spain and in Europe. Passionate about the industry, he also shares his extensive knowledge with students at various institutions and universities, in addition to promoting Hospitality’s betterment as president of Skål International Madrid, an Affiliate Member of UNWTO. In this editorial, he presents his take on the progress of the industry’s digital transformation and the multiple facets of the debate surrounding it.
Some may not remember, but not too long ago, check-in at a hotel looked very different. Room deposits were taken with a credit card imprint machine once you had filled out your particulars in a form (by hand, using a good ol’ pen), after which you received your physical room key – which usually weighed a ton due to the heavy keychains that were supposed to remind you to leave the key at the reception when you went out for the day. The keys were hung on hooks corresponding to each room number, and the form you filled out went into little pigeonholes also marked with the number of your room. That information was copied to a large reservations book, where all of the consumption you had throughout the hotel (remember that receipt you signed at dinner last night with your itemized bill? That little docket was passed to the reception so that your bill could be written onto the guest ledger). Then, during the night shift, an employee conducted the night audit by compiling all check in, check out, and in-house guest information, along with all their bills, and manually (or with the help of a calculator) updated each guest folio so the balance could carry on to the next day of each guest’s stay.
Any guest information had to be sieved through manually and obtained from this book, most guest services required speaking to an actual human, and there were plenty of menial, repetitive tasks that staff had to conduct multiple times each day. Guest recognition lived and died with each staff member: all of a guest’s preferences were kept inside an employee’s mind and were gone with them once they left the company or retired. Keeping all this information accurate and up-to-date required intensive man hours – which we all know translates into higher headcount needs – and an unbelievable amount of office supplies, not to mention the storage space wasted to keep all these records, resources that could have been better used to generate revenue or improve staff wellbeing.
Luckily, the gradual implementation of technology has made it easier to perform most of these tasks, and today no one has any doubts about the benefits of its use in the daily operations of the Hospitality Industry – whether you have experienced the above scenario before or not.
The widespread use of the internet has brought about a real digital transformation, starting in the sub-sector of electronic distribution of travel products and services and with the management of companies in the travel and tourism sector. Central Reservations Systems and Global Distribution Systems came about, making it easier and faster for agencies to book hotel rooms and trips, this then evolved into OTAs that transferred that booking power to individuals. When this happened, hotels and travel agencies had to adapt to this new reality. While it increased their reach to more customers and, consequently, their booking numbers, it also decentralized control over their own inventories and added a middle man and fees.
Concurrently, Property Management Systems (PMS) and Point Of Sale (POS) Systems further streamlined the flow of information, improving the ease of completing daily tasks for staff and the guest experience alike. Subsequently, more innovations made their debut, from Customer Relationship Management Systems, Revenue Management Systems, and mobile apps, to automation, robotics, and the use of artificial intelligence.
More recently, digital transformation was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, making it necessary for to re-think internal business operations, guest experiences, preference, and trust in the business.
Digitalization can be defined as the process by which analogue processes and/or physical objects are converted into digital format. In the field of businesses and companies, digitalization implies the application of technological resources in the strategy of a business and in the way its activities are carried out on a regular basis
In the current technological landscape, tasks that are considered dangerous, boring, or routine can be automated or performed by machines – both physical or software. Very well-known and now somewhat commonplace (as examples) are service robots that deliver items to guest rooms and chatbots that answer guest questions. However, much more is now possible with the introduction of AI-powered solutions, such as RPA-based replies to booking requests, targeted recommendations for pre-arrival and during the stay, integration of a guest’s own device into the stay experience, and improvements to the safety and security of processes.
Over time, experience has shown that the use of technology, in addition to facilitating the work of human beings by allowing processes to be carried out in a faster, more efficient, and safer way, can also work towards improving the quality of the experience a guest has with a hotel.
Recently, however, some hoteliers have expressed concerns about excessive digital transformation in an industry where the human touch is so important. The degree to which automation and some technological solutions can be employed varies greatly amongst hotel segments. Guest expectations from a budget hotel are obviously not the same as from a luxury property. An automated check in kiosk at a three-star property may be perfectly acceptable, whereas at a luxury property, a guest may expect a real human to at least be available as an option. A survey by Travelzoo shows that 53% of travelers will accept a robot receptionist as long as it is supplemented by a human, against 29% who would approve of dealing solely with a robot.
Apart from the guest-facing technology debate, there is also concern from employees regarding their job security. Traditionally a labor-intensive industry, technology can now substitute humans in a number of tasks within the Hospitality Industry. Increasing automation that reduces the number of manual tasks performed by staff at the back-end of processes, as well as the introduction of robots that can, for instance, clean rooms, check in guests, deliver items, transport luggage, make coffee, serve food, and so on, spark the discussion of whether real people will see their jobs disappear.
The fact is, in Hospitality, as in any other industry, some tasks will indeed disappear, while new ones will be created. Job functions will change, and people must change along with them. Such is the trade-off technology poses: efficiencies will be created, wastage will be reduced, processes will be streamlined, but the workforce must also adjust, evolve, and keep up with the technological advancements to remain relevant. This is where upskilling and keeping an open mindset work for the benefit of employees, and companies must support their workforce in these efforts. Keeping your toolkit sharp and up-to-date with the new landscape is crucial, but there is something that isn’t expected to change, be it in the short- or long-term: the human connection and the amazing, memorable experiences that can only be provided by real interactions and the human touch remain one of the biggest assets of our industry and our staff. Therefore, as much as digital transformation and being able to work with technology is important, so is the warmth and degree of personable service only humans can deliver. Remember: if you act like a robot, you can be replaced by a robot.