Machine Learning Will Transform Hospitality - But Should It?

It has the potential to revolutionize the industry, but we shouldn't rush to it yet


The hospitality industry has long used AI in its background operations, with machine learning algorithms applied to pricing mechanisms, recommendation engines on websites, and a variety of other ways where automation of tasks can cut costs and drive revenue. For example, when customers visit Expedia they are now presented with forms that use Natural Language Programming (NLP) to ask them questions about the specifics of their trip so that it is more like a conversation. In terms of AI being used in customer-facing roles though, adoption had so far been relatively limited.

However, adoption of AI in hotels is rapidly increasing in popularity. At the Hilton McLean in Virginia, USA, for one, Hilton has partnered with IBM to introduce ‘Connie’, a Watson-enabled robot concierge that has learned to cater to guests’ needs for information about the hotel and its surroundings.

Jonathan Wilson, vice-president of product innovation and brand services at Hilton, notes that: ‘We’re continuing to test and perfect Connie based on guest and hotel operator feedback, which enables us to explore new ways smart technology can enhance our guests’ travels. We’re at the forefront of using cognitive reasoning in hospitality – this is just the beginning of what’s possible. Future meetings at Hilton properties can be smarter and more productive because of Connie’s ability to quickly sort through massive amounts of online data to field on-the-spot research and data requests.’

This is just the start. In a recent survey conducted by Hospitality Technology, 22% of hoteliers said that robots have real potential in this industry. The temptation for companies to automate absolutely everything is very real. However, when you stay at a hotel, there is a level of expectation as to the degree of customer service you get during your stay that few expect in other industries. AI removes the human element from the equation, which isn’t to say that you don’t still get the same service, you just don’t get the human touch that normally comes with it.

There is also the issue of safety around using such AI-driven robots in customer facing roles. Google’s recent paper examining the likely issues that will arise from AI technology, ‘Concrete Problems in AI Safety,’ noting among them the fairly basic ‘Avoiding Negative Side Effects’. This asked how tech companies could ensure that AI system not disturb its environment in negative ways while pursuing its goals, for example a cleaning robot knocking over a vase because it can clean faster by doing so. This problem may seem petty, but if it were to happen in a hotel it could proof fatal to public trust.

Machine learning presents a tremendous opportunity to hoteliers, but they should not rush to introduce it in a customer facing capacity. It is still early days for AI, and people are not yet really comfortable around the technology. For every person who finds it exciting and praises it for removing the awkwardness around tipping, there is someone who thinks it’s downright weird. For now, augmenting their services with AI and training staff to use it is the best option. 

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