AI & Hospitality – Learning to blend high tech and high touch

The topic of artificial intelligence (AI) has been somewhat controversial, with some extremists fearing that its use will lead to the kind of post-apocalyptic world like that imagined in the “Terminator” movies, with the machines rising up to destroy mankind.

While AI has not reached the same level of fanaticism as it has in the general public, there have been differing opinions as to what place it has in what is considered a “people” business.

Hotel Business spoke to a number of companies active in the industry and they all agreed that AI has its place in hospitality, but that there are areas where it is a perfect fit and others where they will limit its use.

One thing that is for sure is that it is here to stay.

Ira Vouk Industry consultant/author, “Hospitality 2.0”

“I don’t think it really matters how we feel about it—we can’t stop it,” said Ira Vouk, industry consultant and author of the book “Hospitality 2.0.” “You can try to deny it or resist it. If you do, then you are not going to be up to speed on the recent developments and the new technologies, and you are not going to learn the skill that is required to be competitive.”

AI has been in our lives for many years, especially in hospitality, where it has been used in revenue management systems.

“The reason we’re only talking about it so widely right now is simply because of ChatGPT, which came out in the last few years,” the author said. “It is the first platform that became a very user-friendly, open-source platform that anyone could use. That is why the awareness levels of AI spiked so tremendously, but it has been around for 30 years.”

How much AI is adopted by the industry will vary on a case-by-case basis.

“We are a big industry, and every business has its needs and goals,” said Sam Trotter, director, digital marketing, The Indigo Road Hospitality Group. “I think that we’ll see different businesses leaning into it at different levels. For hotels, culture is our business model. We are looking to create human connections with people. That is hospitality to us. We are not looking to reduce those opportunities; we are looking to increase them.”

For Jason Reader, COO, Remington Hospitality, AI can be a double-edged sword.

“I think AI can both help and hinder hotels,” he said. “When you think about AI and how it can help, you think about things that aren’t guest-facing, I think there is some promise there. Where I get nervous is when AI tries to take over the interaction piece of hospitality because we are still a people business.”

Appellation is using AI to create profiles of its guests to send them personalized offers.

People still want that engagement when they travel. “If you take away that people piece, you commoditize it too much because that’s what makes hotels different,” he added. “What underscores the personality of a hotel is the staff service.”

But, while it is better to have that human touchpoint, Reader admits there are times when AI can improve customer service.

“Let’s say you have had a long day and there are 10 people standing in the check-in line, and you are one of those people who don’t need that interaction at that exact moment because you just want to get your key and go to your room,” he said. “If there was a robot or kiosk that could check you in, that would be extremely helpful.”

Human connections will not be replaced, if Trotter has anything to do with it.

“We don’t want to use it to replace those human connections,” he said. “I see an opportunity where you can have that AI chatbot talk to a guest throughout their stay, or the guest could call in and talk with an AI operator. That is not something we are looking to do. We are very people-centered, and we are going to continue to be.”

Vouk believes that the misconception has been that high tech and high touch don’t work together very well, but they can complement each other. When she was a front desk agent at a hotel 20 years ago, when Google Maps was not yet a thing, she would constantly get calls asking for directions to the hotel.

“I had to answer the phone at least 20 times a day explaining to people how to get to the property,” she said. “It would take me away from what I was doing. I had pick up the phone or put that person on hold until I was done dealing with the guest at the front desk. That would happen every day for a year. Then, Google Maps came out, and no one calls a hotel anymore for directions.”

Data analysis
AI has been—and can be—a valuable tool for data analysis, allowing a hotel to get to know its customers better and improve their bottom line.

Mark Fancourt, chief information officer, Appellation, whose company’s tech package—aptly named Appellation Insights (AI)—is using artificial intelligence, said that companies have been keeping data on their guests and operations for a long time, but have not had the ability to use it to its maximum potential. AI allows for that data to be mined for extremely useful operational information for the hotelier.

“It is able to start looking through that information in ways that we traditionally have not been able to look at it and find patterns, aggregates and outliers, and provide summaries of information,” he said.

Remington Hospitality has been using a business intelligence platform since 2021 called REMi to analyze the data that it collects.

“Hotel people tend to look at things a certain way,” said Reader. “Data engineers look at it in another. I try to tell everyone not to look at the data the way we do. Just look at it and let the data tell you what you think we need to do.”

The company is looking at the gathered data, which is constantly updated by a seven-person team, on a variety of its properties and guests.

“We started analyzing guest needs at airport hotels versus resorts versus suburban,” he said. “It creates reports that will guess guest preferences based on the type of traveler they are, including factors like if they are traveling by themselves or with people, and what type of hotel they are staying at. We’re starting to use a little bit of that to help specialize our service in terms of what those offerings are. It is not an exact science yet. The more data you get, the better you are able to predict that. It is not foolproof.”

He said that REMi was able to analyze sales when he noticed that they were down at the grab-n-go Corner Pantry at some of its properties.

“I asked the data-analytics team to run a few comparisons, like what the top locations are and what the top items they are selling are,” said Reader. “We found that the areas that had more water options, meaning premium waters, had a higher capture because people are willing to pay for that. Obviously, the price is higher on those things, but people are willing to pay. As a result of that whole exercise, we’re now really looking at what our offerings are and the areas that are not doing as well, and answering that.”

While REMi will provide data it is asked to analyze, it will also track data and make recommendations.
“It will let us know that certain items are top-selling and recommend them for hotels that are not carrying them,” he said.

Martin Chevalley, CEO/founder of hospitality technology company InnSpire, pointed to AI collection of data as an extremely important tool.

“When you use AI to analyze the vast amounts of data you are getting, you’ll see patterns,” he said. “For example, it will pick up that there are a lot of complaints about the WiFi on the fourth floor and send a notification that something should be done to make a permanent fix.”

Some of that data analysis includes tracking reviews on Tripadvisor and other review sites. One of the features of the company’s InnSpire.ONE AI platform takes that data and produce charts that indicate what items are bringing scores up or down. The system takes those factors and creates a 10-point scale to help visualize the results.

Time savings
With artificial intelligence’s ability to analyze data much faster than a human can, it will save time allowing employees to do more of the guest-facing activities that provide for a better stay for guests.

Reader said his company recently took over operations for a hotel and the previous management firm was producing reports on Excel spreadsheets. “It took the GM and director of sales and hour to an hour-and-a-half to produce the report,” he said. “That is 70-80 hours a year, or two weeks of work. The BI platform produces it automatically, plus it is more visually appealing.”

With the time they have back, “the director of sales is now selling and adding more business, and the GM is now in the lobby talking to guests,” said Reader. “The AI has allowed him to do that because that administrative task is taken away.”

With AI doing the more mundane tasks, which are often the bane of an employee’s existence, it increases job satisfaction. While integrating a chatbot may decrease the number of employees needed, it frees up time for those who remain.

“Their job becomes more fun, more creative, because instead of answering the same questions on a daily basis, which is very boring, the AI is doing it,” said Vouk. “Roles transform, they become more creative, more strategic and more fun and that increase employee and customer satisfaction.”

For Innspire’s Chevalley, the goal for AI—and his company—is to enhance guest experience with the help of automation.

“Instead of having humans do very repetitive, very simple tasks, like typing the name of a someone into a system that is already there, they have more time to interact.”

He continued, “Our goal is to move people from behind the desk to in front of the desk so that they can greet you when you arrive. So many things can be automated, such as check-in, preferences and getting your key. Using our system or others, you can check in while still at home, scan your passport or your face and finds your reservation.”

The InnSpire.ONE system, after analyzing guest reviews, will draft responses to every single one, and in the language of the reviewer.

“As a GM or hotel manager, wherever you are, you come in in the morning and you are presented with these drafted responses in Japanese or German or whatever language,” said Chevalley. “All they have to do is press ‘English,’ make changes to perhaps make it more personal, change it back to the original language and post it. Imagine the time savings of all that.”

Increased personalization
With all of the data it is able to analyze, AI can create a personal profile for each guest.

“The major use-case is how we optimize this type of capability to better understand each guest as a human being and as an individual, and how we then take what we understand about that guest and match that with products and services that we have to offer,” said Fancourt. “That is the major opportunity on the customer-facing side of things. I don’t think it can be understated what a shift that is.”

Chevalley also sees AI working to make the guests’ stay better by offering them “hyper-personalization,” adding, “Where AI is amazing is puling many sources of data together in real time, instantaneously, combining those sources and putting out an output to create that personalization. It won’t just be, ‘It’s 7 a.m., would you like a coffee?,’ but it will actually be based on your preferences of what you have done before. The more loyal you are to something, then the better data that service will have about you. It’s a win-win if you want to give up your data, but some won’t.”

Indigo Road’s Trotter said that the company has used AI to plan itineraries for local activities for its guests.

“Every guest is different,” he said. “They are looking for different things. You can give it very specific guidelines for things to do near the hotel for a half-day trip and it will give you an itinerary.”

While providing that personalization, it also saves time for the staff.

“That cuts down on the time between getting the question and giving a response,” he said. “You can give a better customer experience with an AI helping you out because it has access to that information. It is a great way to come up with really quick itineraries for customer experiences based on what your customer is telling you.”

But, he said, a human must look over everything before it gets to a guest “because there are things a human knows that AI doesn’t, like a place might be busy at this time of year, or something like that.”

While AI can provide for more personalization, it will not take over for the ‘people’ aspect of the business. “What we don’t want to do it let technology take over and remove the human piece,” said Fancourt.

Bumps in the road
While some areas of AI are already bringing benefits to hotels, some are still a work in progress.
Remington’s Reader said his company has beta-tested AI in guest chat and reactions to guest reviews, but it didn’t go as planned.

“We had a guest who wasn’t happy with their room-service order,” he said. “They said something along the lines of, ‘Oh yeah, the food was great. I love my soup ice-cold.’ To a human, it was clearly meant to be sarcastic, but the AI answered, ‘Great! I am glad you enjoyed it!”

He said he is a reluctant to pursue this type of interaction, adding, “That is where I would wave my flag a little bit and say, ‘How far do we go with this? That, to me, is very much guest service. That is where I am a still a little hesitant to go too far down the road.”

InnSpire’s Chevalley said that there has been some backlash with some AI content because it lacks the human touch.

“Some parts of AI output that we are seeing is so clean, crisp and perfect that it loses the human touch,” he said. “We’re all seeing these perfectly written ChatGPT texts that a little bit too good.”

To help combat these types of problems, companies are working to make things better.

Chevalley said that InnSpire is training its AI to recognize tone of voice and the personality traits of the brand or hotel that it is working with.

“We are also using all of the information that is within the CRM, various databases, hotel guides, hotel website and the wider internet, but we box it off to sources that we want, and even Tripadvisor,” he added.

Dave Hoekstra, product evangelist, Calabrio, is working with companies to improve the responses that chatbots give to consumers through quality control.

“We provide analytics on what people are asking for, whether that chatbot is actually delivering the experience it set out to do and then helping the organization train the chatbot in that overall process,” he said.

He said that training the AI to do what we want it to do is extremely important.

“I liken it to giving a five-year-old a credit card and telling them to order food at a restaurant,” he said. “They would probably come back with 10 Cokes and an order of French fries. We have to train the child how to do this and there is a constant back and forth. The training and development process of AI is really the key of making it work.”

Marketing and content creation
Bob Ghafouri, managing director/head, A&mplify, Alvarez & Marsal’s AI digital agency, said that there are many attributes to AI, including content creation.

“If I wanted to create content for a social media post, it could create that content for me,” he said. “I could edit it and post it. Before AI, if I wanted to have an image associated with that, I had to go to an image library. With AI, I could generate that image and post it. It allows you to do work in different elements of the business at a much faster pace.”

Trotter said he uses AI like ChatGPT to create some marketing messages.

“You can feed it different words that we like or don’t like, as well as information about the hotel, and then tell it to create content in the ‘brand’s voice,’” he said. “It’ll create some copy for you. It is very fast. You still need a human to look over it, but it will save time and energy.”

While the use of AI is on the rise, its potential only continues to grow. “We are all going to have to watch and react,” he said. “I think those who embrace it are going to be the winners in all this. But, for us, we still believe in hospitality and have humans interact with humans.”

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