Comment: Artificial intelligence will change the future of the hospitality industry

We should think ten years ahead

Opinion, Comment & analysis

Recent weeks have seen perhaps the biggest upheaval of social media platforms since, well, the invention of social media. Facebook’s data privacy scandal really only scratched the surface, but it did sharpen social media users’ awareness of how much data social networks are collecting and what they are doing with the data.

It’s easy to say that large-scale data collection is evil and that social networks should find alternative ways to engage users and advertisers, but I fear that we have somehow passed the point of no return here. Hardly anybody wants to go back to a time “before the Internet”, yet few people fully realise that the Internet in its many shapes and forms purely runs on data and how much our daily lives are now data-driven.

Now, then, seems an odd time to talk about artificial intelligence, which solely relies on data and machines learning to interpret data. The thing is that, Facebook and other privacy scandals aside, the wheel isn’t turning backwards and our industry, traditionally slow to adapt new technologies, had better get ready for some fairly substantial changes.

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I’m not going to suggest that you all run out and get the latest chatbots, customer service robots, data analysis engines, or other AI-powered gadgets slowly appearing in hotels around the world — instead, I’d like to suggest that in your next ExCom or GMs meeting, you spend some time discussing the impact AI will have on your hotels, regardless of whether you’re planning to join the bandwagon or not. No man’s an island, you see, and very few hotels will be left untouched by the progress AI technology is making. Put yourself in your guests’ shoes and try and think five or ten years ahead.

It’s fair to say, I think, that in 2023 travellers arriving in Dubai will have a very different arrival experience than right now. They’ll spend less time in airport queues thanks to advances in facial recognition and “smart gates” and they’ll probably take an autonomous vehicle to reach your hotel. “So what?” I hear some of you mumble. So this: Guests will reach your hotel faster or, if your social media and online location listings are a mess, not at all.

Having smoothly passed through immigrations and customs, hopped into a self-driving taxi, they’ll alight outside your hotel and will expect their rooms to be ready. After all, they’ll have checked in already from the comfort of the air-conditioned and Wi-Fi-enabled taxi. All the space you’re currently allocating to taxi and limousine stands, valet parking, and guest parking? No longer needed. Self-driving cars don’t hang around, they’ll appear when you need them and, once they’ve done their job, go to wherever it is that they can hang out without disturbing anybody (imagine a gigantic autonomous vehicles parking space somewhere in the desert just behind Dubailand). Don’t plan to convert your valet parking area into a water feature just yet, so!

Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum tested the first flying taxi in December last year and envisages that such “volocopters” will hit Dubai’s skies within the next five years. Does your hotel have a volocopter landing area? Laugh at me, if you want to, but you’ll think of me in the summer of 2023 when, on the hottest day of the year, you find yourself outside your hotel trying desperately to sort out a volocopter jam.

Connie and Edward aren’t just random names, but the monikers that Hilton’s and Edwardian Hotels’ concierge robots go by which are, you guessed it, powered by AI technology. That’s your concierge desk gone then. Can you see how your hotel lobby will look a little different five years down the line?

At the recent Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, LG’s ‘Kloh-ee’ robots were in charge of cleaning the event’s main press centre. That’s your public area attendants gone. The same robots can deliver items to a guest’s room and even serve room service meals. Guests will place orders via Amazon Echo or Google Alexa-style intelligent speakers. That’s your room service waiters and housekeeping runners gone.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that, five or more years down the line, hotels in Dubai will be very different from what they are now. Spaces will be designed and used differently and competitiveness and cost savings will be determined by how prepared you are for the AI revolution. You might only see the impact in a couple of years, but your preparations have to start now.

If you’re like me, i.e. old and grumpy, you might not relish in this vision of the future of our industry, but spend some time with your children or grandchildren and you’ll see how tomorrow’s travellers are likely to interact with hotels.

My eight-year-old son has no issues talking to tablets, screens, or machines, and evaluates hotels based on their smartness rather than the size of the rooms or the extensiveness of the restaurant menu. Oh, and waterslides. He’ll always score hotels with waterslides highly. That has nothing to with artificial intelligence, of course, but simply an eight-year-old’s fascination with waterslides which, I predict, will remain a defining characteristic of eight-year-olds even after robots have taken over hotels.

About the Author:  Martin Kubler is the founder of Iconsulthotels and the CEO of sps:affinity. Iconsulthotels is now sps:hotels — a leading hotel management consultancy that provides its clients forward-looking business strategies, keeping them ahead of the market. Email: hello@spsaffinity.com.

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