– By Ben Cober, Director of Business Development and Research
“Unwelcoming or unfriendly staff.” When it comes to our Destination research, this is often the top complaint guests have when visiting attractions: poor customer service. It’s an incredibly high bar to obtain: Disney’s cast-member training is world-renown for quality, while Hollywood sets (often) unrealistic expectations for how above and beyond the service industry is capable of going. Staff training – and retraining – unquestionably takes time and money, time and money that could be dedicated directly to guests’ immediate needs. Great staff can absolutely make the difference between a good travel experience and a fantastic one, making guests feel welcome and staging the entire vacation; and it’s essential to economic health to employ as much of the population as possible (and provide excellent benefits)! Just as great staff can make the experience (thank you Hyatt Maui concierge!), poor interactions can detract from an otherwise perfect vacation.
One company is experimenting with an absolute solution to the challenges of staffing:
They’re getting rid of them.
Alibaba’s new 290-room FlyZoo hotel in Hangzhou, China is the largest-scale experiment of artificial intelligence integration the hospitality industry has ever seen. Choosing whether to use an app, keycard, facial recognition, or all three, guests can book their room, floor, order meals, use elevators, access rooms, or use the gym – all without ever interacting with hotel staff. That’s because there are almost none – just housekeeping and kitchen staff remain on site.
These guests are aided by a mobile four-foot robot “Genie,” which can help them check-in/out, guide them to their rooms, serve them breakfast, or even deliver fresh linens. Within these comfortable and stylish rooms, often themed after various countries across the globe, guests barely have to raise a finger; which would be useless, because there are no buttons or switches in the room. Each room comes equipped with a voice-activated “TMall Elf” – Alibaba’s version of the Amazon Echo or Google Dot – which can leverage Baidu and answer any questions guests might have and activate room systems. Interior-designed with Alibaba’s top-selling furniture and art, stylish rooms are a live-in shopping space: using the Flyzoo App, guests can photograph any items they see throughout the hotel, and they’re immediately added to the guests’ digital shopping carts. When their stay is over, guests simply pack up and leave – the Big Data system recognizes they’ve left the premises.
So the big question one might ask is: why?
- First, one solution to a problem could be simply to get rid of the problem. If the biggest pain point for travelers is potentially poor customer service, then one could in theory remove the opportunity for poor customer service. Statistically, with reduced staff numbers, there are fewer potential opportunities for unfavorable interactions (although we would say, “and fewer opportunities for wonderful interactions!”)
- Second, vacation is often a time to remove ourselves from our daily patterns of human interactions. Introverts can be drained by collaboration; leaders are endlessly challenged with human capital issues; and even extroverts need to plug in and reboot once in a while. Many of us have experienced the frustration of our destination stranger neighbors: people chatting or texting during the movie, someone merging in front of us without a turn signal, or the hum of a drone eliminating the serenity of a still mountain lake (this is a true personal experience – it’s called “Lake Serene” for Pete’s sake!). Many travelers may simply be looking for more time to themselves, to reflect in quiet meditation or just read a good book, despite their love of family and friends. Fly Zoo may offer that escape.
- Last but not least, on my PGAV GO! travels throughout China, I became familiar with the sociological concept of mianzi and lian; or as I was taught, “face.” As the New York Times once explained it, “It’s the currency of advancement. It’s like a social bank account – you make someone ‘lose face’ if you make them feel that they’ve given a wrong or silly answer.” Certainly in America, none of us want to be “embarrassed;” but in China, it’s a way of life. Of anywhere I’ve traveled in the world, nowhere have I found more “polite society” than in southeastern China – people are incredibly mindful and respectful of others around them, with gentle and safe conversations and a recognition of personal space (although that “bubble” is quite tiny). Law-abiding, friendly, and helpful, on my brief time in China it felt that everyone was immensely sensitive as to not lose respect or rapport, and not to impart that on anyone else – even if we didn’t speak Mandarin. Similarly to the first point, maybe by reducing the number of staff in a hotel setting, it reduces the number of human interactions, and therefore the statistical chance of an interaction that would cause either party to “lose face.” A robot or AI assistant is not in danger of losing face, although poor performance would reflect negatively on a designer or engineer. However, these mechanical counterparts would surely be programmed not to embarrass the hotel guests.
Today, PGAV, our clients, and their guests deeply values that personal, face-to-face, “Welcome! How may we help you?” upon arrival, to create real, beautiful, human memories while on vacation. However, we’ve been talking for years in the industry regarding how AI will impact the destination field. While there are many potential futures ahead, this one is live now; and as the farthest reaching and deeply-integrated AI and robotic system in a hospitality setting, it will be a fascinating study in the intersection of travelers and their robotic concierges.