How to Think About Automation's Impact on Hospitality
By Jordan Hollander
Last updated January 26, 2022
6 min read
Automation is everywhere: you've probably seen it on marketing brochures and been pitched on it by eager sales reps. And, if you're like other professionals that spend 40% of their time on administrative tasks, you recognize the value of having more time to grow the business rather than run the business.
Even so, it's easy to get carried away with buzzy trends like automation, chatbots and artificial intelligence. We start automating things simply for automation’s sake -- or because we think we should or have been told by others that we should.
Instead, we really should step back to think carefully about what should be automated and what shouldn't. Then, we can analyze the utility, probability and time it takes to automate those tasks. It’s surprising to find that sometimes it’s more costly and inefficient to automate than to simply do the task manually! Other times, we’re amazed at how long it took us to automate a tedious task!
To deepen your understanding on making automation work for your hotel, here's how to think about automation and its impact on hospitality. From here on out, you'll know exactly when and where automation makes sense for your hotel -- and when it's just useless marketing fluff.
Automation refers to anything (a technology, process or procedure) that exists to reduce or eliminate inputs (human or otherwise) while maintaining (or improving) outputs; the technology, process or procedure operates independently and requires little additional intervention.
In its broadest sense, automation performs tasks that used to be done by people. However, as artificial intelligence technology advances, automation also refers to autonomous decision-making to do things that humans were never able to, such as analyzing massive data sets and continuously improving forecasts, recommendations, and actions.
Types of Work: Routine vs. Non-routine & Cognitive vs. Manual
There are four types of work: routine or non-routine and cognitive or manual. As we’ll see, jobs blend across both, so work can be routine cognitive, routine manual, non-routine cognitive or non-routine manual.
Routine vs. non-routine
The first work division is between routine and non-routine tasks. Routine tasks are ones that are repetitive and stay the same, while non-routine tasks vary according to a job’s specific requirements.
1. Examples of routine tasks in hospitality:
Refilling salt shakers
Printing comment cards
Ordering blank key cards
2. Non-routine tasks include:
Personalizing a welcome basket for a VIP
Fielding a guest complaint
Site selection for a new hotel
Securing a local partnership
Designing a table plan for a wedding
Due to the unique nature of non-routine tasks, they are less likely to be automated than routine tasks. Although this is changing quickly. As automation reaches further into the workplace and artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, even non-routine tasks are increasingly automated.
Cognitive vs. manual
The other way to divide work is between cognitive and manual tasks. Cognitive tasks are those that rely mostly on our brains; they’re mental. Manual tasks are those we do with our bodies; they’re physical. Both need some level of training to do well, although manual tasks can generally be accomplished by any able-bodied person whereas cognitive tasks require some measure of further education.
3. Cognitive tasks in hospitality include:
Forecasting demand and setting rates
Creating a pre-opening strategy
Conducting performance reviews
Doing the night audit
4. Examples of manual tasks in hospitality:
Cleaning the shower
Vacuuming the lobby
Replacing the sheets
Repairing the HVAC
Creating a key card
So which of these two types of tasks are more likely to be automated? In this case, cognitive tasks are much easier to automate than manual ones. That's because the manual tasks require an intimate understanding of physical space, with each task requiring a specific set of actions that are hard to replicate with a single machine.
Also, manual tasks usually require hardware to automate whereas many cognitive tasks can be automated with software. For example, it's incredibly difficult to train a robot to change sheets -- although it's much more realistic to use a robot for a manual task with easily defined parameters, such as vacuuming the carpet.
Trends in Types of Work
The Industrial Revolution was built on routine tasks, with each worker designated to complete a single task, over and over again. Many of those jobs were eventually taken over by robots programmed to accomplish a single task at speeds and precision far beyond a human's ability.
Alongside the drastic reduction in factory workers, “nonroutine cognitive” jobs became the dominant type of work. At the same time, there was a steady rise in non-routine manual work, or jobs that were physical but not repetitive. In essence, automation has dramatically reduced the number of routine jobs, leaving mostly mindless jobs that pay little and intellectually-intense jobs that pay a lot.
Why does this matter? For one, the future of work has a big impact on how hotels will operate in the future. It's also about setting the scene for the transformative impact that AI-driven automation will have on the remaining two types of work: the non-routine cognitive and non-routine manual. As computers surpass humans in capabilities, even those tasks are at risk of automation.
Case in Point: Google’s DeepMind AI
Artificial intelligence is the final frontier of work. We’re training machines to do all of the types of work humans have traditionally done, which means that we will soon see machines doing both the non-routine cognitive and the non-routine manual work. These machines will be driven by what's called deep neural networks, which are basically virtual brains that give machines the ability to learn on their own, without training from humans. They just constantly learn and continuously improve...and yes, that means eventually becoming smarter than humans!
Case in point: A computer overcame the consensus view that it would take 10 years to beat a human in Go, a famously complex game that's even harder than chess. There are so many different board positions in Go that Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings had to reach across parallel universes to explain the possibilities:
“There are about 10¹?? board positions in Go, and only 10?? atoms in the universe. That means that if there were as many parallel universes as there are atoms in our universe (!), then the total number of atoms in all those universes combined would be close to the possibilities on a single Go board.”
So how long did it take for the computer to defeat the human? Google's DeepMind artificial intelligence team built AlphaGo, which managed to defeat the world's best Go player, winning by 5 games to zero after a short period of training. The unexpected defeat marks the cusp of exponential technological change, where computers outpace humans in handling non-routing cognitive and manual work.
Computer performance will soon surpass humans.
Work is changing far faster than many realize: over the next 20 years, nearly half of jobs in America could be automated. This will likely be accelerated by the intense pressures on hospitality during the Covid-19 crisis; as hotels either close temporarily or manage with barebones staff, automation becomes a critical survival tool. Doing more with less is essential in a downturn, as well as when business eventually begins to pick up but isn’t yet able to support full staffing levels.Hotels must begin to seriously leverage automation and understand where and how to use it effectively.
Automation is Key to a Thriving Hospitality Industry
The benefits of automation for hotels are many: increased productivity, lower costs, a better experience for both staff and guests, more accurate forecasts and more precise pricing decisions. Automation means hotels will run far leaner operations and do more with less. Here's how:
Revenue management: It's only in recent years that Revenue management has been democratized. Previously, only the largest brands could afford full-time revenue managers to optimize strategy. Today, independent hotels previously don’t need full-time revenue managers, as they can leverage the data-driven decision-making of revenue management software, such as Infor EzRMS, that automates many of the laborious and administrative pieces of revenue management while also working 24/7 to translate the latest property and market data into optimal rates and availability.
Housekeeping: Traditionally, housekeepers have relied on clipboards and paper to manage room assignments and prioritize work. This meant the department wasn't as responsive to real-time changes in guest flows. Thanks to automation, housekeeping software adjusts work assignments according to the latest business needs. It's seamless and requires no intervention, which allows the business to optimize itself as each shift unfolds. With the average hotel room clean costing between $10 and $16 this can dramatically improve efficiency and thus profitability.
Guest messaging: Hotels that want to communicate easily and quickly with guests must consider how to engage on mobile. One way to meet guests on their preferred channels is to automate communications via business texting. These texts not only put important information in the hands of guests (and boost satisfaction), but also provide upselling and other revenue- generating opportunities. For instance, guests messaging platforms can be customized to respond to specific triggers, such as personalizing a check-out survey or sending a mid-stay message. Your property (and its guest) benefit greatly from communication consistently applied.
Upselling: Training the front desk to “make the ask” is a great way to build a sales culture that gets more upsells. Another tactic is to deploy automated upselling that drives more revenue opportunities throughout the guest journey. Automation eliminates the failpoint of forgetting to send a campaign or neglecting to manually upload the latest guest data from the PMS into the email marketing software. It's all about consistency and efficiency, so you’ll capture more revenue and grow your property’s total revenue per available room. Personalization is also at play here, as upselling software uses your data to dynamically create segments and match them with the most relevant offers. That means higher conversions -- and more revenue.
Automation, when thoughtfully applied to a hotel operation, can unlock more revenue, increase guest satisfaction, boost staff productivity and happiness, and generally make an operation run more smoothly and profitably. As you look ahead to the future of work, automation can keep your property competitive and able to respond to the dynamic needs of these quite turbulent times.