In this series, we speak with four professionals about their views on the global labor shortage in hospitality, the challenges they are facing, and how they are coping and adapting. Our four interviewees span the industry with diverse experience and backgrounds: Stephen Burke, Founder of Robosize Me, Rosanna Maietta, EVP Communications & PR at the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), Danica Smith, Director of Product Engagement at Shiji Group, and Gefferson Alves, Managing Director at Ba’ra Hotel Joao Pessoa. You can read our first conversation with Danica here and our second conversation with Gefferson here. Today we connect with Stephen Burke, serial entrepreneur and founder of Robosize ME.
Stephen Burke is a serial entrepreneur and adventurous globetrotter, with vast experience in consulting, business development, and product design with a focus on hospitality technology. One of his recent projects has been as the founder of Robosize ME, a Robotic Processes Automation (RPA) specialist for hotels and restaurants. Read on to find out more about the solution and its repercussions for hospitality businesses experiencing labor shortage issues.
The World Of RPA
When pondering his next career move, Stephen Burke started looking at the staffing challenges in hospitality and began to notice processes that hotel leaders were constantly complaining about. They were small but critical tasks that required substantial manual input and took up hours of employees’ work day, such as running Virtual Credit Cards for OTA bookings, account processing tasks like commission tracking, supplier invoices, or rate loading. “If you’re a hotel that gets 100 reservations a day from an OTA, you’ve got 100 virtual credit cards that somebody has to run up manually by typing them into the PMS,” Stephen explains.
He also realized that these manual tasks didn’t need to be done this way. While a number of them had to be fulfilled by humans some could be automated. Stephen then focused his interest on a new technology called Robotic Processes Automation (RPA), consisting of software “robots” designed to automate all sorts of tasks from distribution and reservations to group sales and back office duties. Listing some of the pros, he cites that, “They’re fast, they’re accurate, and they don’t take days off”. Through industry research, he found that many large chains with 200 or more properties were usually already investing millions in RPAs, and that’s where he saw the potential for smaller operations to equally benefit from it.
These kinds of programs, or robots, work with databases and APIs, increasing efficiency and productivity while freeing up valuable staff to deal with guests directly. However, they come with downsides, too. Such software can be expensive, require a substantial upfront investment, carry annual licensing costs, and generally need a development team on site. Much the same way data scientists were needed back when businesses started using BI, RPA developers are now in high demand for automation projects. The problem is that nobody wants to be the sole data scientist or developer for an entire company, and smaller operations do not exactly need to have a large team on payroll. “RPA developers are in serious demand, but they don’t want to join a company and be the only RPA developer, right? So what we decided to do was to basically create this concept of all-inclusive RPA as a service”, Stephen says.
An Ally For Tackling Labor Shortage
In his research, Stephen found that use cases for the adoption of process automation abound, and while a robot isn’t able to fully replace an employee, it can considerably reduce the workload and process times. The robots excel at unrewarding repetitive tasks that staff typically don’t enjoy in the first place, giving them more time to do the quality work they enjoy.
Even before the current global health crisis, it is a known (and sad) fact that certain positions in hospitality can be harder to fill due to low salaries and long or irregular working hours. Group Sales Managers, for example, can take weeks to respond to leads as they may be short-staffed and handling multiple aspects of the job, such as banqueting, or even helping in other departments that need more urgent help. This obviously poses an immense hurdle for businesses, as clients will consider the delayed response as a lack of interest and will move on to competitors. In addition, as if the loss of potential clients wasn’t bad enough, the hotel’s reputation will also suffer. He stresses that it’s not about replacing people, but helping them achieve work-life balance, an elusive concept in the hospitality industry and a contributor to the bad reputation of industry jobs and careers. He also points out how automation can improve hiring, as “it also helps the hotel to get those job hours down to more easily fit somebody’s lifestyle and provide work-life balance to make the job more palatable at that salary level.”
Add the familiar labor shortage in the industry to increasing travel demand post-pandemic and what we are left with is a labor shortage that has reached critical levels and has hotels struggling more than ever to keep up. Citing examples of airlines that had to cancel flights due to lack of staff right as passengers were waiting to board or resorts having to import talent from wherever they could despite language barriers, Stephen ponders that it is not just about having warm hands to carry trays, but staff also has to be qualified and that there needs to be a fit between employees and companies. “This has an even bigger impact in certain segments, such as in luxury hotels,” he adds.
Using RPA And Other Tech To Your Advantage
Technology does not mean “human versus machine” but human supported by machine. In fact, today there are a number of operations that can be improved by utilizing technology, and Stephen suggests taking advantage of them as digitalization is now operationally necessary.
Some solutions can be as simple as having digital brochures instead of local attraction flyers at the concierge desk or using upselling techniques and tools to generate more revenue. Some solutions may take more time, but should not be overlooked. Stephen shares some success stories such as that of Citizen M, who are notorious for their high usage of RPA, and still, frequently discover new use cases that improve their operations. There’s also Lufthansa, which made a heavy investment in a robotic automated backend system to rebook canceled flights that took 2 years to complete, and saw a return on the investment a couple of months after it went live.
Companies looking to start dipping their toes into RPA can begin by identifying a simple but painful use case, engaging a robot, learning from the development of this automation, and analyzing the returns. At the same time that they upgrade their tech stack, they move forward with their digital transformation, and the path gets easier from there.
As a complement to software robots such as Robosize ME, hardware robots can also be considered for certain operations, like Maidbot and other tools. Yet another option is looking at further automation of different functions, such as booking, with the use of technology like Hotel Resbot, which automates personalized replies to room or table reservations for reduced turnaround time and increased revenue. Stephen shares, “I’m a big fan of tools like these, as travelers are more and more interested in solving issues with their stay upfront, and this is an opportunity for hotels to grab all the revenue and improvements they can get.”
Stephen concludes by commenting that incremental investments are indeed necessary, and choosing solutions that will free up funds will also help companies have additional resources to fight wage pressure in these inflationary times. Having a modern tech stack such as the Shiji Enterprise Platform or adding RPA to the hotel’s toolbox are not quick fixes, but these are steps that will take businesses into the future and allow them to avoid legacy systems and their inherent lack of interoperability, which will only harm a business’ reputation, profitability, and attractiveness to employees in the long run.
Stay tuned for our next conversation on the hospitality labor shortage next week.