“If you don’t have an AI strategy, you’re going to die in the world that’s coming,” said Devin Wenig, eBay CEO. His words don’t apply to retail shopping alone.
Artificial intelligence can be a scary concept if we consider famous Hollywood blockbusters like A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and I, Robot (2004) that suggest that AI machines (robots) can become self-aware and develop human-like feelings. But this is not what most people fear when it comes to AI: a basic human need – job security – is what drives most of the nay-sayers. Many folks are afraid that robots will take over their jobs, and their fears may be well-founded. It’s already happening with porter robots and receptionist robots in hotels. Granted, there’s not enough adoption of AI-powered robots in hotels to consider them a threat just yet. But things will change rapidly – because the technology is here and is ready to take center stage.
The idea of machines replacing humans is not new. The very term “robot” was coined by Karel Čapek, who introduced it in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in the early 1920s – although intelligent man-made creatures appear as early as the Bible and the Greek legends of the Olympian Gods and Goddesses. With Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics introduced in 1942, the machines took over science fiction fantasy, and they finally emerged in real life, being now successfully used in many industries.
Andrew Burgess, who wrote “The Executive Guide to Artificial Intelligence: How to identify and implement applications for AI in your organization,” notes that AI is still naïve and has a lot to learn. Yet, he notes, they are already powerful tools to simplify many routines in our lives.
On the other hand, Forrester Research accurately predicted in 2016 that 2017 would become the year of the customer insight revolution due to artificial intelligence (AI) and big data technology. They also warned that “insights-driven businesses will steal $1.2 trillion per annum from their less-informed peers by 2020.” In the third quarter of 2016, another company, Tractica, predicted that “the revenue generated from the direct and indirect application of AI software is estimated to grow from $643.7 million in 2016 to $36.8 billion by 2025.”
As interesting as predations may be, did AI entities make their way into hotels and hospitality? While not only embodied in robots, AI is already embraced by hospitality businesses all over the world and here are some of the most relevant examples.
AI chatbots and how hotels can benefit from them
ChatBotlr, an AI-powered chatbot by Aloft Hotels, enables guests to request basic hotel services straight from their smartphones. The company reported 2 in 3 guests using the bot to request services, information about the hotel, to connect with the front desk team, and even to listen to the brand’s #AloftLive playlist. Aloft Hotels are part of Marriott International, and the ChatBotlr is one of the chatbots used by the group to communicate timely and effectively with guests. Marriott Rewards chatbots are available on Facebook Messenger and Slack, and the company announced that will also have them available for WeChat, and Google Assistant.
In Japan, Holiday Inn hotels are using the artificial intelligence chatbot concierge Bebot. This AI-power entity can give users restaurant recommendations, it can make dining reservations, it can provide directions to restaurants and attractions, answer questions about Japanese culture, give guests information about their hotel, handle requests to hotel staff, and much more.
The Edwardian Hotels in London have Eduard, a specially-designed chatbot that acts as a virtual host and integrates with the hotel’s PMS. Eduard is not quite AI, as it uses an NLU (Natural Language Understanding) interface, but it can understand 900 interactions – quite powerful for its purpose. And keep in mind that most of the chatbots today do not use AI.
There are many other examples to demonstrate how AI chatbots are used by hotels to improve the guest experience. For hotels with less financial power, the idea of creating and employing AI technology can be overwhelming. But the tools to enable them to compete are already available at very persuasive fees. exClone is such a tool.
While chatbots can improve the customer experience with messaging and quick access to information, AI-powered robots will take things a step further.
AI robots are already welcoming guests in hotels
In 2016, Hilton Worldwide and IBM announced the first Watson-enabled robot concierge in the hospitality industry and they placed it at the Hilton McLean in Virginia. Connie, as they named the cute entity, was designed to “assist with visitor requests, personalize the guest experience and empower travelers with more information to help them plan their trips.”
Henn na Hotel in Japan welcomed guests with robots as early as 2015 – and it’s no surprise that they pioneered the trend since the country is a world leader in robotics. Today, Henn na prides itself in being the world-first hotel staffed by robots: they have multi-lingual robots that will help you check in or check out, a robot in charge of the luggage, face recognition for guests who don’t want to worry about carrying keys around, and other surprises.
Singapore joined in, and they now have robots in hotels too: Jeno at Hotel Jen Orchardgateway and Jena at Hotel Jen Tanglin Singapore. Jeno and Jena are Relay robots that deliver guests room service – either food and refreshments, fresh towels, or laundry.
Savioke's Relay robots are used by many other hotels around the world, including Renaissance Las Vegas Hotel, which named theirs “Elvis” and “Priscilla.” In Chicago, Hotel EMC2 called its Relay robots, “Leo” and “Cleo.” And similar machines were adopted by more than 70 hotels around the world. Next time you order room service, you may meet one of them.
Finally, earlier in January 2018, at the CES tech show in Las Vegas, LG revealed the CLOi (pronounced KLOH-ee) collection of robots designed for hospitality: the Serving Robot to deliver meals and drinks, the Porter Robot in charge of luggage, and the Shopping Cart Robot to improve the shopping experience at premium supermarkets.
“CLOi is LG’s brand designed to deliver both emotional interaction and innovative convenience to customers utilizing AI technology,” LG mentioned in a press statement.
While not a mainstream trend, the use of AI-powered robots can bring a refreshing change in the hospitality sector and guests, seem to enjoy the idea. In a presentation for the ITB Berlin 2016, Richard Singer – President - Travelzoo Europe – stated that “acceptance of robots in the travel industry is positive, but some countries will adopt more quickly than others…” In his notes, Chinese travelers were the most accepting, while German travelers the most reticent to the idea. Interestingly, most travelers were also comfortable to be greeted by a robot at the reception as long as it was supported by a human receptionist.
These are small steps with tangible results – every use of an AI-powered robot in a hotel is proof that this technology will shape the future.
With these facts in mind, it is important to understand which other uses are possible for AI in hospitality.
And instead of a conclusion, let me mention the obvious: right now, hotels opt for the most cost-effective AI-powered tech and robots. We have very-life-like robotic entities available on the market, but their cost is unfathomable for hospitality. It would make more sense to build more rooms than to get robots like these to man the front desk or other tasks in a hotel. But Henn na Hotel already has a humanoid clerk besides its quirky robot-dinosaurs, and who knows what Japan has planned for the near future?
In the meanwhile, AI is used for data gathering, image recognition and analytics, omnichannel, and all kinds of applications. It powers a variety of existing platforms, including the newly launched NetBase next generation AI, which is highly useful to measure the impact of images on Instagram and other visual channels. This is an example of how AI can be used in social media marketing and online public relations by hotels and other businesses.
Since 2016, the Leading Hotels of the World have partnered with WayBlazer to deliver destination discovery to guests through AI. Their system uses Cognitive Discovery Tool software powered by IBM Watson to offer tailored recommendations based on travelers’ specific needs: pet-friendly hotels, fine dining, wedding and honeymoon picks, golfing, beach destinations, and so on.
Ending things with the most obvious note: even Google is already using AI to deliver a wealth of results to its users, and the company will likely move to AI-first from its mobile-first stance as soon as they have enough clout to do so. Google AI is already here.