Biometric systems are becoming a more mundane part of our everyday lives. We use for example our fingerprints and facial recognition systems to unlock our devices, to make mobile payments and to pass the border control routines at airports. These technologies are developing all the time, making them more accurate and simpler to use, pervading to a growing extent of the services and systems we use. One of the fields that could benefit from the opportunities that biometric systems create, is the tourism industry and its different sub-fields. In tourism, technologies like this are already widely in use in some areas, and during recent years, partly because of the pandemic situation that forced the companies in this field to develop themselves further, the adoption of contactless services has been increasing rapidly (Ivasciuc, 2020).
Although biometric technology has a huge potential to make businesses better and create more satisfying service experiences for the customers, there are still some concerns and suspicion amongst the customers towards these solutions. (Pai et al. 2018) These doubts can prevent the greater scale implementation of these technologies, regardless of the convenience and possibilities they create. Biometric systems can refer to a variety of technologies that examine human characteristics to verify the user. (Jain et al. 2011). This blog post focuses mainly on the usage of facial recognition technology (FRS) in the tourism industry.
According to Mills et al. (2010), biometric technology creates advantages for the tourism and hospitality field in the areas of safety, customer convenience and operational efficiency. An increased level of convenience can lead to greater customer satisfaction when customers do not have to carry their key cards or loyalty cards and wait in massive lines of people. Biometric solutions, or in this case, facial recognition systems, could also lead to an increase in sales and revenue when payments are being made easier for the client. And even though FRS creates advantages in customer satisfaction and safety, perhaps the most critical benefits are related to operational efficiency, since tourism businesses and services usually must handle large volumes of people for example at airports. (Mills et al., 2010)
Facial recognition systems are already widely in use in the aviation industry, where passengers usually must undergo a repeated set of identification processes and check-ins at airports. Travel documents are usually presented to a variety of authorities such as the immigration department or customs, and of course to the airlines themselves. Since this process is very time-consuming and frustrating for the passengers, automation via FRS is an efficient tool to make air travelling more comfortable. At airports, FRS solutions are already a popular solution for example in border-control formalities. (Samala et al. 2020)
To make the airport experience even more convenient, some airports started to offer a fully automated airport experience. For example, at the beginning of 2021, Delta airlines launched the first domestic digital identity test in the U.S which makes the contactless airport experience possible. Customers can now use facial recognition as an identification verification in every service touchpoint with their mobile application. Traditional ID verification is not needed at any point of the travel. (Delta-news hub, 2021; Parker, 2021) The growing numbers of tourists are forcing the aviation industry to increase its performance with more efficient contactless solutions, and of course, the development has also been pushed by the Covid-19 pandemic. (Ivasciuc, 2020).
Facial recognition in the hospitality industry
One other field within tourism that would gain benefits from the FRS is the hospitality industry. As Pai et al. (2018) demonstrate with their findings, as users start to trust biometrical systems such as FRS, they will eventually become more satisfied with hotels using this technology. FRS is still at an early adoption stage in the hospitality industry, which means that the early adopting companies could gain a competitive advantage. (Pai et al. 2018)
Even though there are some existing examples of hotels implementing FRS in their services, especially in the Asian countries, automated hotel services that utilize FRS are not widespread regardless of the possibilities that they create. Automated FRS services have been launched for example in China, in two of the Marriott-chain hotels. At these facilities, it is possible for the client to execute the whole check-in process simply with an ID and facial data. (Marriott international, 2018). A more recent example comes from Vietnam, where a pioneering Vinpearl-resort chain launched the use of FRS in its hotel facilities in Nha Trang (Vinpearl, 2021).
What are the advantages of FRS for hotels?
As Wang (2018) presents, at Marriott hotels, an intelligent check-in system reduces the check-in time from three minutes to one minute which is a remarkable advantage compared to more traditional hotel services (Wang, 2018). According to Morosan (2020) FRS is a promising technology for the hospitality industry since it makes it possible for hotels to optimize consumer tasks such as authentication and payments and increase security in the facility. FRS brings major possibilities to enhance both security and service quality. (Morosan, 2020) Intelligent property management systems could use integrated FRS to identify familiar guests already when they are approaching the service desk to offer a more personalized experience (Hertzfeld, 2018).
Utilizing FRS would be a major step for businesses operating in the hospitality field toward a more seamless and satisfying customer experience. According to Morosan (2020), it is the legacy process of guest authentication that creates the most critical service bottlenecks in the hospitality industry. These bottlenecks are very frustrating for both the guests and the workers, especially during peak hours. Even though solutions such as self-check-in kiosks or mobile check-in systems have already been deployed by some hotels to answer this problem, service bottlenecks seem to still be an inevitable part of hotel services. Self-check-in solutions create a possibility of security risks, which may be one of the reasons why many hotels prefer to operate on traditional patterns. (Morosan, 2020) However, FRS differs from other self-check-in solutions with its ability to create automated services accurately and also safely (NEC Corporation, 2018).
In the hotel service ecosystem, guests are identified in many service touchpoints, such as in the check-in situation, payments and when accessing different facilities such as the guest’s room, gym or spa area. As Morosan (2020) describes “a repeated need for guest authentication is one of the idiosyncrasies of the hospitality industry”. Typically, guests use keys or key cards to access different areas of the facility, but often these keys end up being lost or damaged, which creates frustrating, unnecessary situations for the guests during their stay. With FRS, it would be possible to create a key that is rather hard to lose, the customers own face.
FRS brings possibilities to create more personalized service encounters and ultimately, it could even be used as a tool to understand the guests’ feelings more deeply as AI is increasingly becoming better at recognizing human emotions. The so-called emotion recognition technology (ERT) aims to detect emotions from facial expressions and is a growing multi-billion industry. (Hagerty & Albert, 2021). This could also be used as a tool in the hospitality industry, where the staff’s ability to recognize customers’ feelings play a critical role. As Koc & Boz (2019) argue, as the emotion/facial recognition abilities of the staff improve, it is likely that also the interactions between the customers and the employees improve too. According to them, improving staff’s ability to recognize customer feelings drives the development in service encounters. (Koc & Boz, 2019).
For example, far-fetched and simplified, if the check-out kiosk that is utilizing ERT technology recognizes that a significant number of guests leave the facility showing more stress signals than when arriving, it might be an indicator that there is something terribly wrong with the service provided. This kind of data is something that the service employees could never be able to collect and examine during their hurries. Of course, applying these kinds of solutions collides with privacy issues very quickly and sounds more like a dystopian future in some people’s ears than service development.
What does research tell about customer attitudes towards FRS?
Applying facial recognition technology raises concerns in people’s minds, which may be one of the factors putting breaks into this development in the tourism industry. (Morosan, 2019) For example, in Russia, privacy issues were quickly brought up when Moscow launched its new FRS based payment option in the city’s metro system. (The Guardian magazine, 15.10.2021).
Privacy issues have also been brought up by Xu et al. (2020). They argue in their study on FRS usage in hotel check-in services, that perceived privacy has an even bigger impact on customers’ trust than security. Their research demonstrates that perceived privacy, security and trust in the system significantly affect the acceptance of FRS in hotel services amongst the guests (Xu et al., 2020).
Pai et al. (2018) studied the Chinese tourist’s perceived trust and intentions to use biometric technology in Macau. Their study also revealed that privacy and security concerns were the main sources creating distrust of biometric use in hospitality. (Pai et al. 2018). There are also concerns regarding the accuracy of these systems and their equality. For example, research done by Buolamwini & Gebru (2018) demonstrates this by pointing out algorithmic fairness, as FRS technology examined in their research was more capable of recognizing white males than females with a darker tone of skin. (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018)
However, some studies indicate that privacy seems not to be that big of a deal in preventing the adoption of FRS, especially among young people. Norfolk & O’regan (2020) studied biometric technologies in the music festival context using an extended technology acceptance model. They found that as opposed to security and convenience, privacy, accuracy, and reliability did not have a significant impact on the acceptance of biometrics in a music festival setting. Their findings argue against the very common view that privacy, accuracy, and reliability are the most critical factors impacting the usage of biometrics. For young festival-goers, it seemed to be more about the actual usefulness of the technology than fears of lost privacy and security. (Norfolk & O’regan, 2020)
Cifti et al. (2021) studied the customer acceptancy of FRS in fast-food restaurants, which is another industry heavily pushing automated encounters to provide quicker service. Their findings support the notion that the impact of perceived privacy on the willingness to adapt FRS is not that significant. As Cifti et al. conclude, the differences regarding the issue of privacy might vary depending on the nationality of the user, culture type or hospitality service level. (Cifti et al. 2021)
Examining the existing research and cases of the adaption of FRS in the tourism industry, it seems an opportunity for many businesses in this field. FRS solutions have already spread into a variety of service encounters, that must handle large volumes of people and verify their personal details. FRS makes these encounters more fluent for the traveller as well as creates efficiency for the service provider.
As research points out, adopting FRS raises concerns amongst some people. Is my data safe and how is it used? That’s a question many people are asking when given an opportunity to use biometrical identification for the first time in a business setting. This is what companies adopting FRS should put emphasis on to create pleasant encounters between the customers and the technology. Overall, adopting FRS would develop tourist business’s security, efficiency and convenience, but only if the critical points that are preventing the usefulness and the trustworthiness of the system in the customers’ eyes are addressed and dealt with properly.
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