Hospitality technology: how efficient is too efficient?

A comprehensive guide on how to balance efficiency and automation in the hospitality industry.

Putting power into the hands of customers through automation is a growing trend across several industries. Self-service kiosks have been steadily popping up in restaurants for years now, while artificial intelligence has been integrated in hotels to handle the high volume of customer service inquiries.

While it’s no surprise to see automation across other industries – bank services were automated with ATMs, gas pumps have been primarily self-serve for years, and self-checkout kiosks are available at most grocery stores – hospitality has traditionally relied on the “human” element of an experience. Whether it’s a server taking a customer’s food order or a front desk clerk helping a guest to check in, businesses in the hospitality space connect and build relationships with customers through interpersonal interactions.

However, with the increasing adoption of hospitality-focused technologies that deliver the simple, self-sufficient and streamlined experiences customers desire, businesses must walk the fine line of providing efficiency without losing too much of the human touch.

In an industry where the strength of customer relationships and service can make or break a brand, there’s a tug-of-war between pushing automation, but also letting customers know humans are still there to help. It begs the question – how efficient is too efficient?

The automation transformation

From digital booking platforms and artificial intelligence to mobile apps and online ordering, it’s easy to see the increased usage of automation across the hospitality space.

Today, Chili’s already has 45,000 Ziosk tabletop tabletsinstalled across 823 restaurants. Within the next few years, customers will be able to find touch-screen kiosks in every Panera Bread location.

With tech-savvy customers looking for more digital and streamlined processes everywhere they go, it only makes sense that restaurants would begin moving toward automation.

These kiosks can reduce the pain points that come with ordering and payments for both restaurants and consumers. Additionally, many restaurants are opting for integrated POS systems, such as tablets or mobile apps, that allow customers to pay at their leisure and reduce the friction associated with the final check.

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The hotel sector is no different. Hilton recently introduced a digital check-in and room selection feature that allows Hilton Honors members to pick a preferred room the day before their stay.

Guests are able to use their smartphone as a digital room key, allowing them to bypass the front desk completely. In many cases, hotel guests can interact with artificial intelligence-generated platforms throughout the booking process and avoid talking to human beings altogether. And though automated messaging services are often associated with social platforms like Facebook and WeChat, they are increasingly being picked up by hotel chains like Hyatt and Starwood.

According to Oracle Hospitality, almost two-thirds of US guests found it “very or extremely important” for hotels to invest in technology that enhances their experience. Further, 94% of business travellers and 80% of recreational travellers said they valued the ability to communicate with hotel staff via their smartphone.

Automated and predictive communication platforms not only allow hotels to quickly and proactively engage with guests, the technology also helps cater to customer service needs 24/7.

One study from The Social Habit found 32% of consumers expect a response from a business via social media channels within 30 minutes – and 57 percent of those respondents expect the same response time on weeknights and weekends. In many cases, artificial intelligence can help hospitality businesses to interact with customers and address potential problems at all times of the day or night.

The efficiency crossroads

While automation in hospitality is increasing in popularity, that doesn’t mean it’s a one-size-fits-all solution to addressing inefficiencies. In fact, there are some situations where automation has only brought on more concerns.

A recent McKinsey analysis of 800 occupations found that within accommodation and food service jobs, 73 percent of their tasks – the highest percentage – could be completed using current technology. Politicians, economists and employees themselves continue to express worries about robots replacing human jobs.
However, it doesn’t just stop at job retention.

Many customers believe there’s a time and a place for technology, and still expect exceptional customer service offerings despite the advancing technologies made available to them.

Research from an OpenTable study found 68% of diners believe automation in restaurants is a bad thing, agreeing that it takes away from the restaurant and hospitality experience.

Adding fuel to the fire, the Gartner Software Advice studyrevealed only 4% of customers want a kiosk or tablet at a fine dining restaurant, indicating they value a human-centered experience in the formal dining room. On the other hand, the same study found 41% of customers prefer this technology in casual restaurants – like Chili’s or Panera – highlighting automated services are a better fit for a more relaxed setting.

While there’s no slowing down the push towards efficiency through automation, there are ways to strike the balance between authenticity and automation. Those who can utilise technology to drive efficient operations – without losing the human touch guests expect in their hospitality experience – are sure to maintain an unmatched competitive advantage.