How would you feel if a robot welcomed you when arriving to a hotel instead of a human? Would you be more pleased of robot’s convenience or the real face-to-face interaction that a human being can offer? Robots in hotel industry can bring so many opportunities yet so many challenges. Nobody knows about the future, so would it be possible that robots will replace human labor in hotel industry?
The impact of robot employees has been gaining attention in recent years. It is not a news flash that technology has been replacing human employees for years, but especially after Covid-19, the conversation around replacing humans in customer service has gotten even louder 4. The development of Artificial Intelligence has given more opportunities for developers to take robots to so called “humane” fields, such as hospitality industry. The concern that are robots really replacing humans has become more and more real.
Many faces of Artificial Intelligence
Diving into the world of robotic employees, we need to understand what Artificial Intelligence actually means and how to use it in hospitality field. AI, short for Artificial Intelligence, has ability to collect and handle enormous amount of data to help gain more knowledge of certain subject. According to Knani, Echchakoui and Ladhari, AI is depending on three different attributes, which are algorithm, processing capacities and data. Algorithm, big data and capacities help solve difficult tasks that need intelligence that can take less time than humans do, which is a great advantage for companies.2
AI has been developing robots to manage human services and has gotten attention from different companies in hospitality field. A really good example is Henn-na Hotel, in Japan, which was opened in 2015, is the first fully automated hotel with only robot employees. Customers have no human employee contact in the whole time they are a guest. The reception area is managed by a female android robot and a dinosaur that help guest with room log in and log out. A customer uses different buttons to get a reaction from the front desk robots. Robots are also in charge of cleaning the rooms, and with a help of Tulie, a guest can use a voice-command to control the TV, lights or rooms temperature. In this scenario, AI has been used to run the entire hotel, without usage of human employees. These sorts of hotels are a niche market in the hospitality world and experts have been trying to develop robots to more and more human-like, which can be done by characterizing robots to do certain tasks and add more social elements to the mix. 3
Robots are coming – are you ready?
Labor shortage, cost-saving and the sanitation policy has increased the number of robot employees in hotel industry. Usage of robot employees are getting more popular in different parts of the world and it lowers the costs and lifts efficiency in work related scenarios.1 Cost-effectiveness in robot employees can be seen in the fast work pace and the fact that employers don’t have to pay them salary, sick leave or bonuses, because, well, they are not human.
Due to Covid-19 pandemic, labor force in hospitality industry has decreased rapidly. When thinking about outside of the efficiency that technology provides to hospitality industry, contactless service and sanitary policies are the ones lifting their heads. Robots can offer no-contact services and can fight against infections which could bring comfort and shut down negative feelings towards hotel industry.4
When talking about AI, we can’t ignore the fact that it can bring negative impact to the mix. Robot employees and other technological features directly affect to hotel employees and it can cause job losses. This can lead to stress, reduced productivity and negative atmosphere among hotel employees and workplace.
Robots also lift questions about privacy and personal data. AI has rapidly grown in recent years and it brings up concerns about ethical issues. Customers share personal information in many settings and collecting and sharing that data would be all in the hands of robots.2 For my own point of view, it would be important to study this subject more in detail and collect customers perceptions on data collection and does it affect customers trust in companies using robots. In this way, we can measure trust and find ways to handle it with more care.
So how do customers feel about robotic employees then? It has been shown that robots spark more sensorial and intellectual experiences than human employees but creates less affective experience4 . This may not come as a surprise, but robots have a hard time replacing communication with a real human employee and it reduces social interactions rapidly, which is why we move on to the next question – is cheaper always better?
The power of a simple smile
With increasing use of robots in the hospitality sector, it naturally decreases the human interaction. This means, that a robot is responsible for the emotional experience that the customer will perceive. Easy right? Not quite. Kim, Kam Fung So & Wirtz has said that one of the ways a human can read emotions from another human is through their facial expressions, it can be an impossible task for robots to create this sort of interaction6.
Robots can express emotions, but they stay rather superficial and it is not enough to give customer a satisfaction. Fuentes-Moraleda, Diaz-Oerez, Orea-Giner, Munoz-Mazon and Villace-Molinero studied the customer satisfaction between robot and human employees. The study showed that even though customers found robots interesting, they still wanted to rely on human employees instead5 . In this kind of situation, the importance of social presence and interaction enters the picture. With the help of this theory, we will understand more about the importance of communication in different settings and in this case, contact between a customer and hotel employee.
Even though technological features are important in hotel industry and I do believe that robots are giving great amounts of opportunities in hotels as said before, experts are still trying to connect technologies with communication, which explains the need for socialization. Social presence has an effect on customer experience: good, authentic face-to-face experience can be the reason a customer comes back to that certain hotel7 .
Fast decision-making, problem solving and showing empathy comes more naturally to humans and that is a valuable asset in hotel industry. Human employees can be a link between customers and technology and can bring them closer together and in that way, increase its acceptance.9 Technology and human employees don’t rule each other out, but we can see them helping each other by using both of their strong suit by making customer service and other parts of hotel services as smooth as possible. Robots bring data collection, fast work phase and contactless option to the hotel world as well as human employees bring emotions, problem solving and warmth to the environment.
Robots and humans – better together?
With understanding the importance of technology, communication and human labor, we must start to see robots replacing different chores, but not jobs. There is still much to be studied, but I believe we need to look at the big picture and see how much robot usage is affecting customer trust in different scenarios, whether it’s handling data or measuring service quality. Suppressing human interaction creates low communication which can lead to unwanted service8.
Robots are still great with handling huge amount of information and can be used in a cost-effective way, but I don’t see the chance that robots could fully replace human labor any time soon. This is due to the fact that robots cannot make connections or build strong customer relationships nor do they have emotional intelligence that humans have. In hospitality industry – and in customer service in general-, problem-solving is an important skill to require and robots are not the first ones to solve issues that calls for sensitivity and understanding. I do see robot employees being used in other various tasks, that includes for example cleaning, luggage carrying or using them as assistants. Hotel industry is and will be more efficient with the help of robots due data collecting and speed, but I see them more in an assisting role to human employees than replacing them fully. I believe real face-to-face communication is too valuable asset to go to waist.
- Song, H., Wang, Y., Yangm H. & Ma, E. 2022. Robotic employees vs. human employees: Customers’ perceived authenticity at casual dining restaurants. International Journal of Hospitality Management, Vol 106 No. 9. Referenced on 27.10.2022. https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S0278431922001633?token=01F7633DB1DE16A35E947B8648256D8C3299201C46A76DB4AA78B90015BEBC66D3B1A117FF070B2469D79B54BD5F8C16&originRegion=eu-west-1&originCreation=20221026121030
- Knani, M., Echchakoui, S. & Ladhari, R. 2022. Artificial intelligence in tourism and hospitality: Bibliometric analysis and research agenda. International Journal of Hospitality Management, Vol 107 No. 10. Referenced on 27.10.2022. https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S0278431922001797?token=1911CD69B3218590D037275390B968AD012808153CBCC3D629E9F14540CF7FA07934E19BC936A09A465F99F6868E123C&originRegion=eu-west-1&originCreation=20221027122007
- Reis, J., Melao, N., Salvadorinho, J., Soares, B. & Rosete, A. 2020. Service robots in the hospitality industry: The case of Henn-na hotel, Japan. Journal of Technology in Society, Vol 63 No. 11. Referenced on 27.10.2022. https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S0160791X20308290?token=C0D2551AA292530EBD7CEEFEA124ED2129929A7636BAA0FB2656AB1CBA15BEE5533FFC3A151CB92CEBC8291B043A6B0B&originRegion=eu-west-1&originCreation=20221027123614
- Parvez, M., Özturen, A., Cobanoglu, C., Arasli, H. & Eluwole, K. 2022. Employee’s reception of robots and robot-induced unemployement in hospitality industry under COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Hospitality Management, Vol 107 No. 10. Referenced on 28.10.2022. https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S027843192200202X?token=67B4516FD32C8D89A5B5A6551917BA65AC4E4DC8887613C2F52D07C0563C211EFC9B31C1D3517E4920BA2A96A1211831&originRegion=eu-west-1&originCreation=20221027120103
- Fuentes-Moraleda, L., Diaz-Perez, P., Orea-Giner, A., Munoz-Mazon, A. & Villace-Molinero, T. 2020. Interaction between hotel service robots and humans: A hotel-spesific Service Robot Acceptance Model (sRAM). Journal of Tourism Management Perspectives, Vol 36 No. 10. Referenced on 3.11.2022. https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S2211973620301185?token=1C98D48EF847CF713F0D290B1BEBDE725CEE7E00F2D5C3F477FFC238AC2F0B89E4DF9F16C3B09654A248AB2A9DE82D1B&originRegion=eu-west-1&originCreation=20221103102134
- Kim, H., Kam Fung So, K. & Wirtz, J. 2022. Service robots: applying social exchange theory to better understand human-robot interactions. Journal of Tourism Management, Vol 92 No. 10. Referenced on 3.11.2022. https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S0261517722000504?token=B0374897BCB3C983F680EE1138A5CD278874BA52211584E1BC67909E1AD421A9DB43160F7E0EE89BC3354BEB20D621AB&originRegion=eu-west-1&originCreation=20221103104545
- Wu, C., Huang, S. & Yuan, Q. 2022. Seven important theories in information system empirical research: A systematic review and future directions. Journal of Data and Information Management, Vol 6 No. 1. Referenced on 3.11.2022. https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S2543925122001048?token=BE259680C2013901F2C313EADAB015919065DA9BCD1760FE185A1779673831EBA58658BB3B380FC8081061449B88D851&originRegion=eu-west-1&originCreation=20221103104327
- Osawa, H., Ema, A. Hatori, H. & Akiya, N. 2017. What is real risk and benefit on work with robots?: From the analysis of a robot hotel. Referenced on 7.11.2022. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314296083_What_is_Real_Risk_and_Benefit_on_Work_with_Robots_From_the_Analysis_of_a_Robot_Hotel
- Fan, H., Gao, W. & Han, B. 2022. How does (im)balanced acceptance of robots between customers and frontline employees affect hotels’ service quality? Journal of Computers in Human Behavior, Vol 133 No. 8. Referenced on 7.11.2022. https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S0747563222001091?token=F989CC8257598A9E209157427B75D22BEF5E57FCDFA7D5E575FF6B821EBBCFAFA653BD244FD215CF15304D2D32E25FC8&originRegion=eu-west-1&originCreation=20221107145658
- Wang, L., Ho, J., Yeh, S. & Huan, T. 2022. Is robot hotel a future trend? Exploring the incentives, barriers and customers’ purchase intention for robot hotel stays. Journal of Tourism Management Perspectives, Vol 43 No. 7. Referenced on 7.11.2022. https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S2211973622000496?token=89FED05404FE666973AC4E7AD221C2D900A7EDE99855A532EFE0F5875EC60279D5D8055B328EB08FC2E018FF34DD1588&originRegion=eu-west-1&originCreation=20221107160740