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You Don't Know What You've Got 'Til It's Gone

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June 10, 2022
Michael Schubach

Anniversaries are being observed!  Hospitality Upgrade is 30 years old, HITEC is turning 50, and Rich Siegel is older than both of them, individually or combined.  Retrospectives are in order, so as I myself totter into antiquity, allow me to lend a bit of personal perspective. 

My career in hospitality began in the era of “electro-mechanicals,” most notably, those delivered by the National Cash Register Company of Dayton, Ohio. I was always a sucker for a good electro-mechanical: in the sixth grade, I talked my father into closing my savings account, built from a short lifetime of birthday and Christmas money, and invested all $600 of it in NCR stock. Six years later that stock paid for my first year at college. 

I joined the labor force in the mid-1970s, where the grand masters of the marketplace were the NCR 4200 behind the front desk and the NCR Class 5 cash registers in the restaurants and bars. Although reservation systems like HOLIDEX were already in widespread use, only the biggest houses were computerized behind the front desk, which was still a very rare, very expensive process. The rush for on-property systems took hold with a vengeance in the 1980s, with the introduction of affordable ‘mini-computer’ solutions. Since those heady days, the hospitality market has been surfing the same technological tidal wave that’s swept the rest of the modern world. Our new mantra was “smaller, faster and more powerful leads us to more, better, and cheaper.” 

As I look back at the hundreds of installations that I’ve done or overseen, no project ever resulted in significant staff reductions. It’s not like computerization hadn’t eliminated lots of jobs: manufacturing robotics had taken its fair share of humans off the assembly line, and ATMs had made most bank tellers a thing of the past. And it’s not like hopeful hoteliers weren’t interested in labor savings – it just wasn’t meant to be… there or then.  The level of computerized sophistication we delivered to early adopters resulted in greater organization, fewer errors and omissions, a more efficient arrival, and a more balanced departure. We weren’t about less staff; we were about less waste and silliness.  

But the 21st Century has other ideas. Getting the job done accurately? Check.  (Well, mostly check.) Getting the job done more imaginatively? Sure, why not?  The rise of practical magic, or Artificial Intelligence as we muggles like to call it, means that we can see patterns and make connections that were invisible without advanced courses in wizardry. The benefits that will accrue to both guests and hoteliers remain to be properly harvested, but that’s definitely in the offing. There’s only one mountain left to climb: getting the job done without any people whatsoever.  

The response I would give to this inevitability is not ‘why not?’ but rather ‘why?’ And the obvious answer to my question is what makes this an inevitable outcome: because we can.  We’ve reached a level of electronic sophistication where there isn’t much that can’t be done faster and cheaper by the non-human crowd, so why not smash that final barrier?  In the absence of a compelling reason to refrain, we will persevere and triumph, but will we be better off for having done so?

I’m not so sure.

We are, at our core, social animals. What makes travel such a marvel of discovery flows in large part from the human interaction with those who help us through our journey. Inventing an economic reason for not having front line service personnel threatens not only those who provide, but also those who consume. Labor costs can come down, but it could force us to forego what often works so well and that we most humanly crave.  

Yes, there is a generation younger than I am that prefers a new paradigm, a crowd that seems to lean into its own virtual reality. To me, that’s not the road less traveled, it’s the self-checkout lane at the supermarket. That generation’s tendency toward self-sufficiency might result from having never experienced truly stylish service. That’s an indulgence that hasn’t completely disappeared but is in the process of evaporating. The magic of travel has nothing to do with renting a bed and a pillow – those are just commodities. What separates a good experience from a great one are the service providers who can make the experience worth remembering.

I leave you with this sideways thought: long ago, for reasons that are still beyond my clear understanding, I acquired a bachelor’s degree in an unusual field. My staff advisor and mentor was Professor C. Warren Hollister, Ph.D., a true gentleman and scholar who was every bit as comfortable in the 25th century as he was in the 20th. During my freshman year at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Dr. Hollister was my instructor, the history department chairman, and the founder of a new cross-departmental undergraduate major called Medieval Cultural Studies. The program’s courses were drawn from the history, literature, art and music departments, all selected to give students an immersive experience in a different time and a far-away place. My interest in medieval Europe has never waned, and over the succeeding decades I have seen Dr. Hollister cited and quoted frequently as one of the world’s great experts on the Middle Ages.

Have you noticed that we tend to see our post-modern selves as the best and brightest humans that the world has ever produced?  We have every advantage of being civilization’s most current occupants, making us so much more sophisticated than those poor illiterate, pathetic creatures of the past. But Dr. Hollister once opined that medieval culture had invented everything it needed for its time: great art and architecture, great literature and a great sense of themselves and their destiny. The Middle Ages didn’t invent psychologists because they didn’t need them – they had priestly confessors to provide the aid, comfort, and reassurance that their human condition required. If they had needed them, they would have been there. 

My point? If Dr. Hollister was right and if humans have always been able to invent what they need for their time, then the interesting question is what need is being fulfilled in our time through the invention of human replacements? Is this scientific curiosity, inventive bravado, or the simple economics of saving a buck? If we’re going to reengineer human civilization as we know it, I hope our justifications are much better than that.  And since I’m already hoping, I’d also like to hope that we are smart enough to learn the history lesson about electro-mechanical interaction that we’ve already been taught by today’s automated telephone attendants: any system that expects to offer exceptional service must always offer an option for direct human contact to satisfy exceptional human needs.

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Michael Schubach is Chief Information Officer for Millennium Technology Group / Rosen Hotels & Resorts of Orlando, Florida, proud hosts of many of this year’s HITEC attendees.  You can reach him at mschubach@mtg-fl.com.

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