Should Hotels Utilise Technology Even Where It Makes Staff Redundant?

Filed Under: Hotels

Hotels, especially those that market themselves to millennials (who are apparently the next big revenue stream for major hotels), love adopting new technology.

There are some technology advancements that undoubtedly improve the guests experience.

For example, in Hong Kong many hotels provide guests with free smart phones to use during their stay, which gives them unlimited internet data while exploring the city, which is hugely valuable when you need directions, or want to know a good restaurant option on the go.

These haven’t been the standard Samsung or iPhones I’ve been used to, but I quickly worked out they also work as a simple mobile hot spot for your personal smart phone. ; )

Some technology in hotels for me (as more of a Gen Y, than a millennial — is there a difference?), is needlessly complicated, and frustrating to work out how to use (or just turn off) given I’m only staying at the hotel for a short time.

For example, I may unplug any alarm clocks/clock radios in the room to ensure the alarm set by the previous guest does not unexpectedly go off at 5am.

These days I would never, ever set a hotel alarm clock, or ask for a wake up call for an early flight — there’s just too much risk it won’t work properly, and I would not be able to fall asleep worrying about.

The alarm on my smart phone hasn’t failed me yet.

Cable television is another technology feature of a hotel room that I rarely use, because I simply cannot be bothered trying to work out how to use it. Other than BBC World News, I can never seem to find a channel in English when I’m in a non-English speaking country and can’t be bothered scrolling through endless channels and ads I don’t even understand, just to find something I want to watch.

Netflix on my laptop suits me just fine.

So I guess you could say I love adopting technology in my ‘home’ life, but am less enthusiastic about it while traveling, especially somewhere I am only staying for one night.

Voice Recognition Virtual Assistants

Some of you may have one of those speakers in your house that will listen to voice commands, and follow tasks you give it. Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are two of the most popular types.

They’re handy if you want to know the weather outside as you are getting dressed in the morning, or want to hear a particular song while you’re say, entertaining or cooking a meal.

Amazon have been making a big push for hotels to install their Alexa speakers in their hotel rooms. On paper it’s a perfect fit — you have guests who may not be familiar with the hotel or the local area and it would be much faster for them to simply call out ‘Hey Alexa, what floor is the hotel pool on?’ or ‘Hey Alexa, where’s the nearest drug store?’ rather than thumbing through those guest information books many hotels give, or calling reception or concierge to ask.

But these devices, when placed in hotel rooms, are designed to provide much of the information the hotel concierge (and for some questions a reception desk), has traditionally provided. While I don’t normally ask a hotel concierge for suggestions like good local restaurants (as in larger cities I’m always cynical they may have a vested interest in recommending a certain place), they do provide a great service for the wide range of requests guests throw at them.

One of my favourite movies about hotels is the 1993 film ‘The Concierge’ starring Michael J Fox (which I’ve only now realised was originally called ‘For Love Or Money’). If you ever want to see (a fictionalised version of) the obscure requests a concierge of a major five star hotel has to fulfill (and the kickbacks they can receive for doing so), I recommend watching this movie.

Anyway, back to Alexa.

Amazon has been testing using special ‘Alexa for Hospitality’ devices in certain hotel rooms, including the Time Hotel in Nyack, New York and the Wynn in Las Vegas.

Amazon has said of the trial:

Customers tell us they love how easy it is to get information, enjoy entertainment, and control connected devices by simply asking Alexa, and we want to offer those experiences everywhere customers want them. Alexa for Hospitality makes your hotel stay a little more like being at home and gives hospitality providers new ways to create memorable stays for their guests.

The problem is that if the technology works properly, it will reduce the requirement for physical staff to provide this information to guests. If front desk staff have less work to do, their hours may be reduced.

Already, thousands of Marriott workers are considering striking to try and convince Marriott not to adopt these devices in their properties.

Which raises the question — should hotels adopt technology where it means staff will be replaced?

Some guests, particularly those older guests who may not adopt technology like millennials do, may always want the human interaction. My parents for example, would never book a hotel that requires checking in via an automated kiosk without any human interaction, because they would get confused and frustrated at its complexity.

For them, that would be technology taking things a step too far. They would rather talk to a real person. They are also unlikely to ever use an Alexa type assistant.

But for millennial focused hotels, marketed towards people who like to order food using an app so they don’t have to speak to anyone, this should be very popular.

If there was a way of using technology to clean hotel rooms rather than physical housekeeping staff, I suspect hotels would adopt this tomorrow. But many guests would not want to see the friendly concierge staff replaced by technology.

Bottom line

Personally, I have a certain threshold for new technology when it comes to hotels. I love for the booking process to be as automated as possible, and would generally use technology to answer many of my questions that might arise during my stay about the property, or the local area.

But for check in I do usually actually prefer to speak to a real person, who I can ask questions to like ensuring the room is a non smoking room, and the possibility of a late check out. I don’t want to be greeted with a kiosk at check in that is not intuitive.

I expect many hotel jobs will eventually be replaced by technology — it seems inevitable. Call centres have been reduced by the advancements of hotels booking websites already and concierge staff may be next thanks to devices like Alexa.

For me Alexa is still a bit of a gimmick and I doubt I would use one if it was in my next hotel room. I also have some reservations about the personal information about me it would collect and then potentially provide to the hotel.

The financial savings for a major corporation will unfortunately always outweigh the staff impact — that is why so many companies have already off-shored their call centres to cheaper countries.

Would you like a virtual assistant in your hotel room if it also means eliminating a traditional human concierge?

  1. Yes. And people that have more kids should pay more taxes not less.

    More people is what is causing all the problems in the world. People with ideologies that make them reproduce like rabbits are evil. That means all religious Christians, moslems, Jews. And of course trump is scum in his own way.

  2. This is the future, like it or not. Old people will die and those born into a technology laced world will expect this. As a millennial, I can’t stand alarm clocks either. The cable TV isn’t terrible if the hotel gives me a paper list of channels. I never use a concierge and rarely read those books they leave you that contain info on the restaurants, pool, gym, etc. I’d love to have an Alexa in my room.

    If jobs are lost because of technology, oh well. Free market capitalism can be brutal sometimes.

  3. James:
    Sometimes the hi-tech offering is more complicated than the more traditional way to do things. Case in point: Many Hilton properties offer a “digital Key” option — unlock your room with your phone. I tried it once and found out that it required multiple taps to open the app, navigate to the “unlock room” screen and then finally unlock the door. Much more effort than waving the card over the lock on the door. Sounded like a neat idea but took much too effort.

  4. @ Neil – that’s what I mean about things like cable TV. Even if it has 300 channels, if I can’t find anything to watch, after five minutes I usually give up!!

  5. I am not a millennial and I prefer technology options. I used to work for a company that made ATMs, self-service kiosks, etc. I liked to say I was helping make it possible for me never to have to interact with a human being ever again! 🙂 But seriously, technology is always changing which causes businesses and life itself to evolve. In the process, some jobs are eliminated – think switchboard operators. That is just the nature of innovation. As you note, some people will not want this technology, and, so long as this sub market is large enough, that will be an incentive to limit technology roll-outs, keep other options, etc. But once markets reach a tipping point where those wanting “legacy options” dwindle to where it is cost-prohibitive to serve this demand, those options pass into yesteryear.

    Finally, to @Debit, I do not think you know what evil is. You seem like a very angry and hateful person which is far worse than the majority of people you condemn.

  6. Technology for technology’s sake is what makes most of these ‘innovations’ annoying. The digital key doesn’t make my life better or easier, just more complicated.

    Ditto with the obnoxious ‘digital concierge’ that some hotels employ. I first experienced it at the Cromwell in Las Vegas a couple years ago. Five times a day my phone was blowing up asking if I needed anything, how was my stay, etc. Tell you what: if I need something I’ll pick up the phone in my room and ask you directly.

  7. @Christian,

    No doubt. Those “Handy” phones at hotels in Hong Kong are one thing, an Alexa or Google device listening 24×7? No thanks, I’ll find another hotel.

  8. Ok, James, you’ve made me laugh. Honestly.

    Some of your Millennial readers, I suppose, will have to look this one up, but I have to ask you whether you’ve become some sort of Luddite.

    I mean, really, and while we’re at it, why don’t we just go ahead and sabotage every power loom we can find so that all the world’s textiles have to be knitted by hand? Then there would be more jobs for everyone! A shirt might then cost a zillion dollars, but who cares? After all, and give or take Napoleon, the world was a better place in 1810 or so, right?

    Let’s go ahead and ban word processing, too, and even the Linotype* besides, so that all those out-of-work typesetters can get their old jobs back.

    Maybe you’ve lived in the EU too long. Or at least I’m pretty sure people don’t think like this in Australia anymore — if they ever did.

    *Another word for some folks to look up.

  9. I think automation in hotels would be fine for certain cases. I think checking in via kiosk is fine if it’s faster and easy to get what I want (high-floor room, non-smoking, room with a view, etc.). It’s even better if the kiosk would eliminate any shenanigans hotel play to hide upgrades and whatnot – no more claiming that there aren’t any suites available for an elite upgrade when there clearly are suites available.

    And, being able to order room service via an app or touchscreen would be great. However, I don’t know that Alexa would fix most of the reasons I call the front desk. I usually don’t call for basic information – I’ll call if there’s a problem that needs to be fixed – e.g. the air conditioning is broken, the guests next door are too loud, etc. Alexa can’t solve these problems – it requires a human.

  10. @James: as a technological and economical optimist, I find your concern, well, slightly off-base.

    Let’s say that the new technologies reduce the amount of human work by 10%. This means the hotel can reduce its staff size by 10%. This means either we get 8% off or the staff get 8% wage increase (yay!); obviously 2% goes to the greedy shareholder ;-).

    It can get even better. Since all/most the mundane tasks (think if you check-in and check-out times are standard, and the whole hotel is non-smoking) are handled by machine, that means the staffs will have energy to deal with real issues (or just some weird demands). On one hand, it can give meaning to their work (let’s face it, doing mundane and routine work is REAL fun, right?) and extra attention to you the customers.

    I remember once in Dubai airport, I saw the cart being collected. If you are in the US, you have seen this in Costco or Walmart: a single person directing a mechanical pusher which moves many many empty carts. Not so in Dubai. The scene involved 5 or 10 men manually pushing the same amount of carts. I mean, you can say that the mechanical pusher reduce the staff size. However, it (that pusher) also gives the one person with living wages. You as consumer will NOT pay 10 times more just to hire people to collect the carts, so these men were paid peanuts. You can bet that the staff with the mechanical pusher is assured of a full belly each night, appropriate clothes, and family at least won’t starve; I wouldn’t place the same bet on these other manual cart collectors.

    Same thing here. Sure, fewer people will work at this particular hotel. However, they will get living wages for meaningful work (see above about mundane vs true customer service). The hotel can, as part of transition, give humane and dignified severance packages, allow excessive personels to get retrained for other jobs or maybe to start a cute cafe next door. You pay less, for better service, and the staffs have living wages.

    And what’s wrong with that?

  11. What happens when those devices fail and there’s no human staff around to check people in and solve issues? I’m not a fan. And I don’t find cable or satellite TV a challenge, even in foreign countries.

    I am a “regular” at several hotels that I’ve used for years. I like catching up with staff and they always take good care of me. The check in kiosk, probably not!

    I like technology for in room coffee machines, security keys and cameras, automatic check out and climate control. As for Alexa, she needs to stay at home…

  12. I wouldn’t book to stay in an hotel room with Alex. Has the world gone mad? Who would want a third-party-supplied microphone (or camera) in a bedroom? Super creepy.

  13. You did miss one likely development though which isn’t contentious. Room service can obviously be delivered by drones and surely will be in the fairly near future.

  14. Alexa sounds great for this, until you think about that one asshat that will set an alarm for 2am every Sunday morning.

  15. @Traveler – You May not know this, but these devices have off buttons and plugs. It takes at most two seconds to address your worries.

  16. @Magice: I love your enthusiasm and rosy outlook on how these trickle-down economics would work. But it’s pretty safe to assume any money saved from reducing “human capital” will neither go to the remaining employees nor lower rates. Would be nice if it did, but it won’t. I think a healthy combination of people and machines is the right way to go. You’ll generally always need a human backup – at least for the near future.

  17. Yet another critical comment about older people by this arrogant young man. I am in my 70s, have forty years of experience with computers. I also check luggage, mainly because I go on lengthy vacations. This habit has also been criticized by James. I can change planes, go to the bathroom unaided and work hotel alarms clocks, hotel tvs and trust concierges. There is no hope for me, obviously. Incidentally , I see many young people incapable of checking electronically at airports. I will be in Australia next month. I see if there are more like James, I hope not. I trust his attitudes and prejudices are limited to few Australians. James you appear paranoid about so many issues.

  18. Now you tell people how they should react to your garbage. Are you now going into thought control?

  19. @ Magice

    Unfortunately, the world and specifically business simply doesn’t work like that! Savings / efficiencies are turned directly into profit, not increases in staff wages: you seem to realise that by assuming that hospitality staff should be on minimum wage. This is the sort of stupidity that our right wing government in Australia is trying to peddle through promises of cuts in corporate tax.

  20. @ Jeff Baker

    I’ll punt that @ James typifies the young Australian driven to travel. This is common. And a good thing – life experience, meeting folk from different countries and being immersed in different cultures, promotion of independence and self sufficiency and all of that.

    I’ll further punt that most of such experience has been enjoyed at the backpacker / budget end of the travel spectrum (no disrespect in such).

    But at that age, you don’t appreciate what you don’t know.

    He probably hasn’t thought through that someone of my age, 50ish or your age (for example) has HAD to embrace technology in study, work and home life: gone from a typewriter and searching literature by hand book by book (first degree) to a clunky laptop with black and white screen (second degree) which took 30 minutes to process simple statistical multiple regressions analysis and searching literature by CD-ROM, to a super fast computer with machine learning programs and online library access to millions of articles. Similarly from laying print copy by scalpel and glue and old fashioned four colour printing presses to 45Mb photography files with colour digital print, etc.

    The irony is that he utters prejudice against old folk in one sentence and then admits to being unable to to trust an alarm clock or even use the TV as a self confessed youngster!

    I doubt he has even stayed in a hotel that uses technology to enhance guest experience intelligently (given his remarks about $1000 hotels in another article).

    For example, the Four Seasons Lanai (iPads, lighting systems, motion sensor toilet lids, etc), iPad functionality at the Fullerton Bay Hotel, Singapore, etc.

    And that ultimately is the problem – his inexperience and absence of critical thought is evident, approaching arrogant since he is over confident and unaware of the lack of his life experience. Also may be a disconnect with the OMAAT audience, depending whether they are seeking a younger voice with budget travel experience (no harm in that if that’s the case) or to offer insights for the seasoned frequent traveller eager to maximise their point earn / burn, etc.

    FWIW a competent concierge has enormous value and local contacts to a savvy traveller that would be very hard to replace…a quality hotel will combine technology with personal service with the focus on the customer experience.

    Hopefully you’ll enjoy Australia – it’s people are diverse and generally welcoming.

  21. Thank you for your mature and meaningful comment. I was beginning to feel that there was something morally unacceptable about being able to pay for business class tickets, checking luggage and being able to use the latest technology at my age. I am, incidentally, with my wife, beginning our trip by fling non-stop from London to Perth. We are checking luggage. I have been to Australia many times and found the people very kind and helpful.

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