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HSMAI | You can have High-Tech AND High-Touch

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April 11, 2022
Kelly McGuire

Hoteliers have struggled philosophically with the balance between human-driven service and technology-driven efficiency. While many have resisted replacing humans entirely, between pandemic related restrictions and staffing shortages, hotels have been forced into adopting increasing amounts of contactless technology and automation.  

As we stand on the brink of recovery (hopefully!), should these trends continue? Will that vision of a robot-only hotel become a reality? Some have already begun to mourn the end of human-delivered service interactions. 

However, human versus machine should never be an either-or proposition. Clever applications of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will ensure your guest-facing staff can focus on delivering excellent service while machines streamline processes on the back end. You can have the best of both worlds: high-tech driving efficiency that enables high-touch human interactions.

Call centers and reservation agents have always been a prime target for efficiency technology, with most efforts directed at reducing the amount of time agents spend on calls. However, voice channels frequently produce the highest revenue per transaction, as expert agents guide consumers through the sales process. This is especially true at the luxury end, where transaction values are high, service options are complex and “white glove” service is both highly valued and very much expected by the guests.    

Guest-facing employees must perform many manual and repetitive tasks in order to support guest interactions. These can include maneuvering in and out of multiple systems to check rates and availability, verify promotion details, reserve space and look up guest profile information. Agents are frequently responsible for responding to requests that are emailed, texted, and yes, sometimes even still, faxed. This manual, repetitive work takes them away from guest interactions and can lead to burnout or fatigue, which impacts performance when they return to guest facing activities. 

Automation Can Help

Any manual, repetitive process can be a candidate for automation. This broad category of capabilities can take many forms, from complicated technology solutions like call routing or self-check in kiosks to the simple macro driven automation of spreadsheets or reporting. Although delivering equivalent value, technology solutions can be expensive to acquire and disruptive to implement. Given the complexity of the hospitality ecosystem, existing internal legacy technology and third-party integrations can also limit the potential to fully automate with a technology solution.   

With robotic process automation (RPA), bots replicate the human actions in a process, accessing systems through the front end and replicating “hands on keyboards” activities in the process. This technology wraps around existing infrastructure, so nothing is disrupted. This means it can be implemented relatively quickly and can work around internal or external constraints. As far as other technology systems in the process are concerned, bots look no different than people.  

Even better, infusing artificial intelligence into RPA means the solution will replicate not just routine human actions (logging in and out of systems, copying and pasting data, filling in fields), but will also replicate routine human judgement such as reading and responding to emails, interpreting images or listening to calls.  

Further, RPA solutions are, by necessity, customized to your specific environment. Even the most common processes are executed just a little bit differently from one company to another. This means you’re in control of how the automation is deployed and can control which tasks are handled by the bots and which by the humans. 

The hospitality industry has seen the emergence of chat-bots facilitating guest requests. Similar intelligence could be applied to read emailed reservation requests, research rates and availability and craft a response to the guest. AI-enabled bots can transfer bookings into selling systems, update and tag content on OTAs, and read and translate RFP information or sales contracts from the original pdf into relevant tracking systems like SFDC. You can use them to automate entire workflows requiring little, if any, human attention.  

The Art of Service Meets the Science of Automation

This emerging technology represents a huge opportunity for hospitality companies to improve team efficiency and reduce hiring needs in this highly competitive environment. However, removing humans from every process could reduce the “magic” of the service experience. 

This is where the potential of bots and artificial intelligence meets the art of service process design. Just because you can automate nearly everything, doesn’t mean you should. For some hotels, removing humans from the process will streamline the guest experience, lower phone wait times, shorten front desk lines, and answer routine queries faster. This could be a huge benefit to guests with uncomplicated needs – people who just want a place to sleep. 

In other situations, removing humans completely will reduce guest satisfaction and likely have a negative impact on revenue and employee engagement. Remember, no one books a vacation because of the system-querying abilities displayed while they’re on hold listening to terrible music. They book because one human sparked excitement in another to visit a new place and create new memories! 


The trick is to find the right balance of interaction and automation for your desired service experience. Remember, unlike traditional technology solutions, the bespoke nature of automation solutions puts you in control of the balance between humans and machines.

Deploying automation in your organization will require 


research and planning. These steps can help you get started:

1. Educate yourself on automation options. Do a bit of research on RPA and other automation techniques so you understand their potential. You’ll likely become the internal advocate for the approach, educating colleagues as well. The possibilities are practically endless, so be sure to review many use cases to truly gauge the potential.

2. Pick a partner. If you’re doing something more complicated than recording a macro, you’ll likely need to bring in someone with a specialized skill set. Find a partner that has both automation and hospitality industry experience  – one who can help you design the process and code the solution. 

3. Put yourself in the guests’  —  and employees’ — shoes. Once you see the potential, it’s tempting to dive right in and automate everything! However, the process analysis required to implement any automation presents a huge opportunity to reevaluate and improve existing systems.  Document your guest journey and the employee interactions that comprise it. Look for areas of friction that impact guests, employees or both. Find repetitive tasks that take away guest-facing time. Look for manual, “hands on keyboard” work. Then think about how you would ideally like these processes to work. What should the guest and employee interaction look like? Once you figure this out, you can see where automation opportunities fit smoothly into the journey. 

4. Prioritize automation opportunities. Finally, fast-track those opportunities that will have the biggest impact on the organization. Note that you will need to define “impact” as it applies to your business. It could be those tasks that save the most people-time, increase the amount of guest interaction time, speed up delivery  or reduce errors. You can measure opportunities in terms of head count reduction or increases in conversions, revenue per transaction and guest satisfaction – there are many options. Make sure you know what’s right for you.

Imagine a guest service department where time is entirely (or mostly) spent speaking to guests! Gone are the days of endlessly querying systems, looking for missing information and copying and pasting data. Let the robots handle the repetitive, boring necessities of the job (the stuff we hate) and let humans focus on interacting with one another (the stuff we love).


Kelly McGuire is the managing principal, hospitality division; Tucker Sholtes is a decision analytics consultant and Paresh Bhandari is an associate principal with ZS Associates.

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