Given the high costs and manpower shortages experienced in the Singapore hotel sector, automation and hospitality are two words rarely used in the same sentence. Other industries have embraced automation, manufacturing has massively increased its productivity thanks to machines, and Robotics Process Automation (RPA) led by companies such as UiPath promises to replace the repetitive, rules-based tasks present in many financial institutions, yet local hotels seem to be free of such technology, despite the presence of many repetitive, rules-based jobs.
This could be about to change at both the front and back-end of our hotels. On the back-end, hotels employ staff who do a lot of manual, non-routine jobs, such as cleaning tables, cleaning hotel rooms, folding towels and tidying equipment etc. While these tend to be low paid, they are harder to automate than say the routine jobs found on the factory floor or accounting departments.
A few years ago, researchers at the University of Berkeley introduced us to Brett, a robot that could pick up and fold towels, and lay them down neatly on top of each other, taking about 24.5 minutes to fold each towel. While this may seem slow, to the point of ridicule, the fact that a robot is able to detect, scan and manipulate a ‘soft’ object is impressive. Fast forward a few years, and the robot is now able to connect Lego pieces, hang shirts on a hanger and fix a toy.
Most robot testing and successes to date have occurred in highly controlled environments, where there is more predictability. A hotel room, though, is what researchers would call an ‘unstructured 3D environment’, that is traditionally very hard for robots to navigate. What the Berkeley team are doing is developing a robot that can operate in this unstructured, real-life setting, where the environment is constantly changing and the robot needs to perceive and adapt to its surroundings. If robots can learn to do this, then we are one step away from automated housekeeping.
Hotel accounts departments are also ripe for automation. Dozens of employees are hired to process the hundreds of invoices, claims and bills that run through the hotel on a daily basis. This often requires little more than checking the invoice, copy-pasting data, transferring information – rules based, repetitive tasks. Robotics Process Automation (RPA) is software that uses computer systems exactly as a human does – via the user interface (e.g. Windows). Highly accurate, and never making mistakes, RPA does the monotonous tasks that humans simply are not designed to do, and can significantly reduce cost and improve efficiency for (often cash-strapped) hotels.
A good example of this is Pilot Travel Centers LLC, a US-based firm that, back in 2010, employed 80 clerks and salespeople to track and pay for thousands of goods, spending a combined 3,200 hours a week. Today, software does much of the work, and they now employ 10 clerks working a weekly total of 400 hours to pay the same suppliers.
Technology can now detect physical items too. SAP software allows Airline-service crews to scan the number of paper cups they bring into an airplane. Hotels still employ people to conduct inventory checks on a daily basis for everything from the amount of shampoo and soap to cans of tomatoes and bottles of olive oil. Counting and recounting stock takes hours, and is the kind of mundane
Lastly, on the front-of-house end, mobile check in should make life quicker and easier for many a jet-lagged traveller. Some hotels have employed mobile check-in for many years (see France’s Formule 1 Hotels, for example), and larger chains are beginning to improve their mobile check-in infrastructure (such as Starwood Hotels’ SPG Keyless check in). The business and service case behind mobile check-in is a no-brainer. Many of the guests forced to queue up to check-in at the Front Desk would have conducted mobile/online check-in for the flights that they flew in on, and a speedy process from hotel entrance to room would surely result in happier guests. Furthermore, the automation of the check-in process may result in a rethink of the role of the Front Desk, and Front Office staff, with the opportunity for turning this area into revenue generating space.
Hotels have been battling costs – from food and beverage to manpower – for years, and have done an admirable job of keeping them low, maximising revenue while ensuring service levels remain high. However, there is still room for improvement (pun intended!), and technology such as RPA, robots and mobile check-in will continue to develop, opening up more automation opportunities for hotels. Guests may still prefer the human touch, but behind the scenes, there are many areas where robots can play a vital role.