It’s called The Singularity—the point at which Artificial Intelligence (AI) is indecipherable from human intelligence, essentially meaning that we as humans can’t tell the difference between our friends and our robots. Some scientists believe this will happen within the next 50 years or sooner. Others believe signs of it are visible already, including in guest engagement technology.
The human mind instantly races to disturbing scenarios resembling the likes of The Terminator and other science-fiction stories. While the “evil” intention of AI may never actually manifest, this does highlight a rapidly evolving trend: replacing human interaction with technology. AI and machine learning (ML, a close cousin and precursor to AI), have effectively become marketing buzzwords used to attract new customers and investors. A wave of companies have perpetuated the problem by creating a sort of “pseudo-AI”, which are more like advanced analytics rather than real AI, which is a system that can think and make decisions for itself when fed more data.
Cost savings, operational efficiencies, and removal of human error are the primary push behind this shift toward guest engagement technology, and one could certainly argue that these are all benefits. But the question remains, does implementing these tools come at a cost? In the hospitality industry, the answer is, “yes.” While replacing humans with tech may achieve those goals, in some cases, it is counterproductive to the ultimate aim of hotels—the continuing improvement of the guest experience.
Hotels apply AI and automation technology in many forms: SMS concierges, guest communication, in-room kiosks and phones, booking engines, housekeeping requests, and more. These technologies are extremely valuable in operational processes like energy saving, staffing, and internal communication. But when it is guest-facing, hotels must walk a thin line to ensure they don’t overwhelm the guest with too many buttons.
Technology tends to remove human interaction from the equation, which diminishes a brand’s ability to ‘wow’ the guest in the moment. While hotels are using AI to learn more about and better serve the guest, they are actually disengaging the guest in subtle and insidious ways. In some cases, too much tech can be overkill. Guests don’t want to fill out countless surveys, download an app, remember to text a robot, or take extra steps to perform a task easily completable by a person. They just want to feel as if someone on the other side is listening to what they say.
"Technology needs to be the facilitator or conduit to fostering a human-to-human connection."
Guests draw memorable experiences from several different areas: the design of their hotel room, the view from their window, the meal at an on-property restaurant, etc. All of these experiences were created by human beings, not robots. Travelers are much more likely to recall a pleasant experience with a hotel staff member than they will texting with a chatbot. This type of digital interaction is often disingenuous and unlikely to leave a positive lasting impression on a guest. However, when a digital experience is negative, it can leave a lasting impression—but not a good one. If a chatbot or digital concierge answers a question incorrectly or just flat out doesn’t work like it’s supposed to, that, too, becomes memorable, but not in the same context as a positive experience with a frontline team member.
In today’s world, social media has created a false sense of connection. Modern travelers crave speed and thrive on convenience. Society has forgotten how to interact face-to-face, which creates a sweet spot for hospitality brands to go above and beyond in an effort to impress guests. By using technology to facilitate a human-to-human engagement, hotels can set themselves apart. When hotels surprise and delight guests offline following some type of digital engagement, it increases positive online mentions by a factor of 23.5 times ("The ROI of a Positive Guest Experience", Cornell Hospitality Research Summit 2017). Hoteliers may miss out on some cost savings when removing automation and AI, but would make up for it by bringing back authenticity and improving guest experience, which has an immeasurable effect.
Technology needs to be the facilitator or conduit to fostering a human-to-human connection. Allowing travelers to provide feedback, communicate, or plan using an unobtrusive guest engagement technology is the solution to providing a seamless process, creating the ultimate team effort between human and machine. If hospitality brands want to leave a lasting impression on a traveler, they need to create incremental opportunities to engage with a guest in person. The Singularity can wait.
Originally published on Lodging Magazine