Ian Wilson is Senior Vice President of Non-Gaming Operations at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. As a member of the Singapore Hotel Association’s Hotel Innovation Committee, he is demonstrably passionate about the future of technology. In this interview, he shares some of the unique challenges in driving operational innovation at the iconic destination that includes Singapore's largest hotel with 2500+ rooms.
LM: With your global hotel experience, do you find that Asia is quicker to embrace technological innovation at a guest level and at a corporate level?
I do, and I think that there are a number of reasons for that. First, there’s a leap frog opportunity in Asia: a lot of the hotels are new so they have had a chance to install infrastructure which a lot of the hotels in the west (a much more mature market) have not had a chance to do, and it’s much more expensive to retrofit them. Secondly, in Asia, it’s the best of two worlds: you’re getting Western technology and you’re getting Chinese technology so you have two different ecosystems (and the opportunities that exist within each) and I think that makes people more open-minded. Third: there is very large mobile adoption here, people live on their mobile phones. They’re very used to doing transactions that way and I think that helps to propel thinking forwards. Finally, I would say that the Asian mindset is more open to technology, they see these innovations as cool and interesting and they’re very open to trying them. In addition, the government provides a lot of leading thinking in these areas to try and overcome the opportunities or challenges that they have.
LM: How does the team at Marina Bay Sands optimize operational processes to ensure they’re delivering the best possible guest experience?
It really all starts with our culture. We work hard to build service culture which is always focused on providing unforgettable moments for our guests. Something that we really focus on is our values. In our training it’s about continuous improvement and scientific thinking, so building on that foundation we have developed a strong focus on measurement and data which we’ve been working on for years now. The data allows you to measure things more effectively and to understand how things are really working. We strive to measure from a property level all the way to an individual level wherever we can.
"In our training it’s about continuous improvement and scientific thinking, so building on that foundation we have developed a strong focus on measurement and data ..."
You’ve got to try to understand what areas offer you the greatest opportunity to improve the customer satisfaction, and where you’re losing productivity, how you could potentially shift resources to keep people productive more of the time, which actually allows you to pay people more – they become more valuable. It's also about making sure your employees have a win if they become more productive so that they’re embracing it as opposed to pushing against it. Those are elements of the environment we’re trying to create and which have led to our success so far.
LM: Marina Bay Sands use robots to perform tasks like vacuuming and cutlery roll-up so that staff can spend more time with guests, what was the specific goal for staff once having been relieved of tasks that robots could perform?
First off, the tasks that were replaced were generally a portion of someone’s job but not someone’s entire job and so we’re removing the robotic activities of someone’s job to allow them to focus on higher value work. When we speak to robotics there are two different strains: you have conventional robotics, which may move things from place ‘A’ to place ‘B’ or autonomously vacuum an area and then you have Robotic or Intelligent Process Automation. In essence, it functions like a macro between multiple systems and allows you to automate online computer tasks. Both of those look to reduce low value tasks, though they may cut all the way into managerial roles and both allow our employees to focus more time on how to take good care of our guests or how they can add more value to the organization.
"... we’re removing the robotic activities of someone’s job to allow them to focus on higher value work."
The other point is that these innovations allow us to cope more effectively with the tight labor situation – but nobody has lost a position as a result of these innovations. It allows us to perform tasks more effectively, and it’s one way you can get your service level to where it needs to be.
LM: You have mentioned that you are thinking about using Artificial Intelligence to optimize where staff are positioned and how they are best deployed across the complex. Can you explain how this could work?
That falls into the focus on monitoring and understanding customer’s journey in real time. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We use real-time forecasts to understand what the demand levels will be at our front desks, what they are at our guest services and what our current productivity is and all of it falls under something we’re creating right now called the Hotel Operations Centre. Something that’s in the background, which we haven’t done yet, is look at how we can cross-deploy humans to be as effective as possible – to put floating resources into the most impactful area at any point in time.
An area that we’re further along with is our limousine area, where we regularly forecast our demand for limousines and then we use an AI model to provide decision support for our team as to whether we should be calling for more cars or whether we should be sending them away until the next period of time. We do more than 100,000 limo transfers per year but using this we’ve saved about $4 million and we’ve had a +99% availability of cars when people needed them so it’s tremendously impactful as you start to gain some traction with all of this. But it takes some time to build those models and do the work.
LM: Do you think voice technology can improve the in-room experience?
What the voice technology indicates is that it’s just another channel for your guests to communicate with you but I would be reluctant to make it the only channel. Given that the technology is still not flawless – and in a hotel like ours, we have visitors from so many different countries – you have to be able to contend with very high fluency and at least five or six languages. What would be more desirable would be to have fluency in many languages without having to switch your device. Really, where I think devices like Amazon Alexa or Google Home fit in, is that they become part of a larger omnichannel communications strategy so it would be the same foundation which drives your chatbots, which ultimately drives communication through all channels and in future would drive communication through your call center too – but nobody’s there yet.
"We get over 80,000 surveys a year through our internal survey and that’s not including all the social media comments, so how do you gain insight into those open texts?"
LM: What are some of the ways that front-line staff engage guests during their stay and ensure they are having a great experience?
I think a lot of what we do would be traditional hospitality. We do have a large number of repeat visitors, we have a large number of butlers who would take care of those guests, and they understand the guests, have learned what they want, and how they can anticipate their needs and provide some nice surprises for them. We are a large hotel, so sometimes the number of interactions with customers can be limited. We try to focus on training our employees so that when they do have an interaction with a customer, it’s a positive one and we try to create an emotional connection if we possibly can.
We also train them to look for small ways they can provide personal touches that would be meaningful for a customer – so for instance, leaving them a nice note in their room wishing them well. We also have a lot of food and beverage options here, which allows us to spend more time with our customers and to get to know them and to take good care of them.
LM: Delivering personalization at scale is not an easy task, yet expectation for personalized services is increasing. What are some of the ways large hotels can offer a personalized experience?
We do have customer profiles – we use Opera and other CRMs that allow us to understand our customers and organize information so we can look at who our arrivals are and what we can do to take care of them. We’re not at the point where we have AI or a social media profile to augment what we know about a customer or to pop that up: we’re not there yet.
I used to work in a small luxury hotel, where you would Google every single guest that comes in and understand what their preferences are and anything you can learn about them to create a special touch. Our challenge is quite honestly scale at this point, so we really look at, what Jan Carlzon would say, “Moments of Truth”, and how we can do those. For those who are repeat customers, we know them, so we know what they like and we make sure we are very active at trying to get everything in place for them.
"I like to use a quote that I saw on a bumper sticker once in Silicon Valley which simply said “If you stop for lunch, you are lunch.” And I think that’s probably a good motto to live by."
LM: How do you handle the challenge of managing guest expectations, when guests won’t address issues or provide feedback to staff face to face?
I think that many of our guests are very straightforward. You may find that there’s a disconnect but you don’t know what their motivation is after that fact either.
We get over 80,000 surveys a year through our internal survey and that’s not including all the social media comments, so how do you gain insight into those open texts? That’s what we’re working on, how do we glean insight as to where we can make the biggest impact for the customer whether they’ve been explicit or not, based on what we learn about them through data. Then, how do you apply those learnings with limited resources?
I do believe we’re doing things that others in the world are not doing at this point in time and redefining how the business will work and I think the most exciting times are still ahead. I think it’s imperative that every business start to embrace the changes that are coming because they are deep and they are profound and they will come faster than anybody thinks. My view is that we have to outlearn the opposition and we have to be constantly looking at how we can improve. I like to use a quote that I saw on a bumper sticker once in Silicon Valley which simply said “If you stop for lunch, you are lunch.” And I think that’s probably a good motto to live by.