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It’s Not Your Father’s Robot!

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October 22, 2022
Mark Haley
Mark Hoare

Q&A with citizenM

Recently, Mark Haley and Mark Hoare had an opportunity to visit with Mike Rawson, CIO of citizenM Hotels to chat about his experiences with Robotic Process Automation, or RPA. The Robotic Process Automation doesn't involve anything on wheels, no flashing lights, and is not named Rosey, Tobor or HAL 9000. Although there is one named Rube! RPA simply involves software with specialized tools to extract information from an information system, do something useful with it and either put it back or into a different system. Sometimes they work by screen-scraping, sometimes by API. RPA is a useful business process automation strategy to automate boring and repetitive tasks such as re-keying invoices from one system to another.

Mark Haley & Mark Hoare (Prism): Mike, thanks for joining us today. Tell us how you came to begin using RPA at citizenM?

Mike Rawson: Well, it was a pretty easy decision. I had worked with RPA before. Before joining citizenM in 2019, I worked at Heineken. I knew that RPA was successful because we had used it in finance there. I knew it was ready to go, mature, usable, good range of use cases, ROI. In short, a very usable bit of kit.
Prism: How did you go about introducing RPA into the business?

Mike: I knew the technology was useful, and I had used the UIPath toolkit before, so I didn’t need to search around for a platform. The important thing to do was to find some painful parts of the business. So, we brought it in as a Proof of Concept and attempted to show results in three or four weeks to solve problems. We did that, and after the first one, immediately came up with eight or 10 more applications. Today, we have 42 bots running at citizenM. The usage is getting broader and broader, and it is matured out as far as I am concerned.

Prism: 42 bots, Mike? What are some of them?

Mike: There are all sorts. A mature one is automatically detecting IT problems in guest rooms and the bot opens a ticket for someone to do something about it. Another one manages the process of guest no-shows with or without balances. For a human to do it is dry as dirt, but the bot doesn’t mind it at all. Credit card processing for OTAs is one, managing and properly routing incoming guest emails is another.

Prism: What departments within citizenM are demanding more and more RPA applications?
Mike: Demand management and finance are at the top of the list, for sure. Operations, IT and societyM come next.

Prism: There has to be a catch. What maybe doesn’t work so well?

Mike: That is certainly true, nothing is perfect. Some applications don't lend themselves to RPA, if, for example, the UI isn't a good candidate for screen scraping for whatever. Bots have maybe a 30-40% resolution rate when interpreting free text using AI. So, the failures throw an exception. But the human is now handling 6 out of 10 issues instead of 10 out of 10, so we count that as a win.

Another aspect that doesn’t work well is if the bot does part of the process and we need humans to do something around it. They forget that the bot is running. And you don’t set it and forget it: These things need to be managed and monitored. If an application the bot is using has a version update or even a configuration change, then the bot might require an adjustment, especially if it is screen scraping.

On the plus side, an early step in developing a bot is a POC. In that process, we capture many otherwise undocumented steps to the business process we are trying to automate. Filming a video of a human doing the process is a useful best practice.

Another positive to point out, during lockdowns under COVID, the RPA automation of repetitious tasks was very helpful. Even under lockdowns our people had a lot to do, and RPA makes the human much more effective and doing higher-value work instead of something the bots can do.
Prism: OK, what comes next?
Mike: At this point, we need to resource up. We have a healthy backlog of bots to build. That is getting faster because by design, from day one, we have built the bots using reusable building blocks, modules if you will, that can be built once for one bot and reused infinitely in others. The growth and demand is such that we have actually spun this capability out into a new business, Aphy, purpose-built to develop and maintain bots for the hotel industry.
Prism: Most informative, Mike! Thanks for your time and we can’t wait to see what comes out of the citizenM IT machine next!


Mark G. Haley, CHTP+ and Mark B. Hoare are partners with Prism Hospitality Consulting, a Boston-area consulting boutique serving the global hospitality industry at the intersection of technology and marketing. Please visit http://prismhospitalityconsulting.com for more information.

Where Do I Get RPA?

citizenM has commercialized its internally developed expertise in building RPA bots. This infant company is called Aphy (https://www.aphy.com/), named after the Greek goddess of simplicity. Also in the space is RPA-As-A-Service. Led by hospitality tech serial entrepreneur Stephen Burke, Robosize Me was at HITEC 2022, winning the E20X Judge’s Choice Award in the prestigious pitch competition. Robosize Me brands their bots “Rube”, in honor of the immortal Rube Goldberg. Both Robosize Me and Aphy use the UiPath (https://www.uipath.com/) toolkit to build their bots. Other leaders in RPA arena as toolmakers include Microsoft, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism. (To clarify, Blue Prism has no connection to Prism Hospitality Consulting.)

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