Robots, Artificial Intelligence and Service Automation in the hospitality industry in Japan
Artificial intelligence (A.I) is the concept that machines can be improved to assume some capabilities normally thought to be like human intelligence such as learning, adapting self-correction, etc. (J. Kok, 2009). The prospect of creating intelligent computers has fascinated human kind for as long as computers has been around. For some time now, The A.I. community has been trying to replicate intelligent human behaviour with computer programs. This is as difficult as it sounds because a computer program needs to be able to do many different things in order to be called intelligent. In order for a computer program to be considered A.I. it must conform to the following rules: It has to think & act like humans and it had to think & act rationally (J. Kok, 2009).
Hospitality has been a part of our lives since the beginning of time but since the 21st century, when technology was developing itself, the hospitality industry changed in many different ways. As the industry grew, the supply got bigger than the demand, especially in the hotel industry (G. Lukanova, 2017). The overcapacity of demand makes the competition greater in the hospitality industry which leads to relatively high demands from the customers for basic goods and services. ‘’Therefore, the efforts of the hotel organisations are less focussed on what they offer (because, in most cases, the provided services and goods have similar characteristics for the same types and categories of hotels), and more how they offer it’’ (G. Lukanova, 2014). Nowadays, tourists are looking for offers of which they know they service on their destination is good, that there is enough to do indoors as well as outdoors and the other hospitality such as restaurants and lunchrooms are of high quality all the while having a good value for money. These are some of the reasons why it is from the utter most importance to be innovative in the hospitality industry. The addition of new technologies and innovations in the hospitality industry such as Robots, Artificial Intelligence and Service Automation (RAISA) can lead to an all new and innovative way for the hospitality industry to serve their guests. Using RAISA in the hospitality industry will have many benefits such as continency, improve quality, improve productivity, etc. (K. Berezina, 2017). RAISA is implemented all over the world within the hospitality industry but Japan is te most progressive in this particular subject, they are the most innovative country in the world when it comes to implementing RAISA in the hospitality industry. In tokyo for example, there are allready hotels that are almost enitely operated by RAISA (H. Osawa, 2017).
This blog talks about various RAISA innovations taken in the hospitality industry in Japan. This is done step by step on the basis of the guest cycle (figure 1). The Guest cycle refers to the distinct stages of guest interaction between the hotel and guests. On the basis of the stage of interaction and activities involved, the Guest Cycle is broadly, classified into four main stages based on the activity type. These are: Inquiry & Reservation, Arrival, Stay and Departure’’ (G.M. Blue, 2003)
Inquiry & Reservation
For the hopsitality industry, this is the most important phase. In this phase to potential guest becomes a guest. During this phase the potential customer is gathering information and looking for alternatives. The potential customer is looking at different hotel types, is comparing their diffenent services and ammenities, and is chosing the hotel that the potential customer think suits him best. At this point the potential customer makes the reservation and becomes a customer. This is the most important phase because once the customer has entered the guest cycle from a particular hotel and the hotel meets or exceeds the expectations of the guest, they are higly likely to come back. Therfore, at this point it is from the utter most importance for a hotel to be as visible as possible for the potential customer. Mobile technologies, virtual realities and chatboxes can stimulate customer interaction. For that reason RAISA can be used as a powerful marketing tool (P. Kotler, 2010).
Mobile technologies such as smartphones and tablets are allowing the potential guests to do research on hotels for a particular destination on what is important for them such as ammenities, facilities and services such as a gym, spa, business center,different room types, prices, etc. 20 years ago potential guests had to go to a travel agency who reccomended them some hotels, nowadays they can do their independent research themselves. These technologies made the inquiry & reservation phase from a intangible to a tangible service (S. Ivanov, 2019). Often, the companies that are first coming to the market with these kind of technologies are market leaders. In this case as well. Let’s take Marriott International as an example (current market leader in the hospitality industry).
Marriott International has its own application for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets as well as a website. Through this application potential guests could look at vast variety of hotels within the Starwood group that are located across the globe. Once a hotel was chosen the potential guest could look at the layout of different roomtypes and their prices so that the customer could choose his or hers preferred room. Making a booking went directly via the app. After the booking was made, the guest could let the particular hotel know what his or hers specific personal preferences where such as extra towels in the room, no alcohol in the room, etc. this might sound normal now but this was huge innovation when it started. On top of that it is still helping hotels to engage whith their guests massively (Marriott International, 2000).
Automatic chat bots are also a great innovation within the hospitality industry. Those so calles chatbods can provide answers to questions and respond to certain things said without a human being being involved as shown in Figure 2. This is done with A.I. A customer can ask a question in the chat related to the wanted service, for example, how much tourist tax do I have to pay in Japan. The chatbot will give an answer as It is programmed to do. The biggest advantage for this is that hospitality businesses can be in contact with thousands of potential customers at once. If this all needed to be done by humans, it would take longer to get in contact with their potential customer, which could be critical time in order not to lose them. in 2016 Hilton made another development, they added a digital congiere link in their websites and applications, the potential customers could ask the chat bot what to do and were to eat in the specific erea the potential guests wanted to book in. How more this system was used by the same guests, the more detailed and tailored information it could give to the potential customer. This is because the AI can teach itself (Hilton, 2018).
The second stage of the guest cylce in the hotel industry is the arrival. At this moment the potential guest as turned into a guest. During the arrival the guest is checked in. During the checkin the guest is welcomed, registered and assigned to their room. Back in the day, the check-in process had to be done manually by a front office employee at the specific hotel. Nowadays, guests can check themsleves in on self-serving checkin/out stands which are big touch screens often located in the lobby of the hotel, or they can even check in and out on their own phones. The newest development concerning RAISA is that the guest can open their hotel door with their smartphone.
Ceckin/out stalls are a modern approach to check the guests into their room with the help of using RAISA. By using the check in and out stalls hotels can provide the guests an opportunity to check themselves in potentially avoiding waiting times. This could also eliminate the possible laguage barrier, since countless of launguages can be uploaded on the check in stall. Those stalls are becoming more and more advanced. The Ritz Carlton in Tokyo took it even further. In the check in and out stalls from this hotel you could upgrade your room without seeing a human being but on top of that, the guest could also scan their fingerprint and use it as their room key. At the time of writing, still very few hotels have access to this kind of RAISA technology.
Check in and out stands have even developed to a level that some guests will never see an employee during their entire stay. This often happens in Cubicle hotels (figure 3). This is a image of The Global Hotel Tokyo. Here you can check in via a check in and out stall, the room keycard will be deposited from the machine and it will allow you to open your capsule. Males and females have to sleep on separate floors because unfortunatly rape is a big problem in Tokyo. Furhtermore the floors are considered as dorms and each floor shares their bathrooms. There is no possebility to order food and there is also no restaurant available in the hotel. the chance is highly likely that you will never see a employee of this hotel when you stay there (The Global Hotel Tokyo, 2020).
What is however further in development is the Smartphone room keys. This has been an idea in the the hospitality industry since the smartphone was invented but was only recently widely enrolled over different hotel chains such as Hilton (Hilton, 2018) and Marriott (Marriott, 2019). This because of the safety hazard. The software thar was created for this was very easy to hack and what if someone lost their phone? Could everybody who found the phone just enter the room? After lots of development on the software and phones being more secure with having their own biometrical securities such as fingerprint scan and face scan it could be realized. The only downside is that for most hotel chains the guests have to download a separate app and still have to go to the front office to verify themselves at the first time.
The third phase in the guest cycle is the stay phase. During this phase the hotel will have the most opportunities to leave a good impression with the guest which might restart the guest cycle again. That is the case because the hotel are able to offer a vast variety of products and services, also concerning RAISA. Free high speed wifi and a Smart TV are basically not cutting the cake anymore. If a hotel wants the exceed the expeactions of the guests it has to do signifcantly more in terms of RAISA then just the before mentioned faciltities and services (Margarido, 2015).
A Virtual concierge is one of the newest and innovative concepts there is in the hospitality industry concerning RAISA. In 2016 Hilton intoduced its first hotel with a virtual congierge with AI technology called ‘’Connie’’ at the Conrad Tokyo (Figure 4). Connie can advice guests about local attractions and interesting sites to visit. Connie can also have small talk coversations and is able to speak multiple languages. What makes connie so special is that it can educate itself without a human being interferring. Connie has the ability to fine tune its answers by learning itself from frequent requests. After a brief tryout period, Connie is rolled out across several hotels within Hiltons portfolio, mostly in Asia and North America (Hilton, 2018).
Robot chefs are the newest development in the hospitality industry concerning RAISA. This is still very much in its prototype phase and only a hand full of hotels in Japan have access to these robots (Figure 5). During the prototype phase they are able to make different sorts of pancakes, different sorts of omelettes, grilling but also a various amount of drinks. Due to the many variables that the robots have to consider during cooking (e.g. when grilling a steak, they have analyse how long the steak needs to grill for because it differs per steak) they are not yet available on the market, but this will not take very long.
The Henn-na Hotel Tokyo is the prime example of RAISA innovation within the hospitality industry. It is a high end 4 star hotel in the bay area of Tokyo. It is the first hotel in the world that is entirely automized with the help of robots and artificial intellegence. Front office agents, congierges, porters, in-room assistants, cleaners, chefs are all robots The doors of the hotel open with face recognition so that nobody who does not belong in the hotel can enter. The robots navigate around the hotel using wifi, 3D cameras, sensors, and markings on the floor. The Hotel is located in a theme park, therefore some of the ‘’human’’ robotsare replaced by dinosour robots as shown in figure 6. Vi a this link a small film can be watched about the hotel Starting at 5:39 (The Henn-na Hotel Tokyo, 2020).
The last phase of the guest cycle is the departure phase. During this phase the guest will check out, pay the outstanding payments such as tourist tax or room serivce, mark the room as vacant and leave. The innovations for this phase in the guest cycle are very much the same as in the arrival cycle. Guests will be able the check out at the check in and out stalls, they are able to leave their room card at the machine and if the guest had their phone as a room key, the room key will immideately be deactived after checkout. There is however still an RAISA innovation that can be applied in the hospitality industry.
The travel assistant can arrange everything from collecting the luggage from the rooms to an airport transfer. With the travel assistant the guests can ask for assistance with luggage pickup, arrange their travel to the airport. The travel assistant will tell the guest which means of transport will suit the guest taking various things in consideration such as tracvel time, price, real life traffic data, etc. Once the particular means of transport is choosen the travel assisent robot can book tickets for the train, call a taxi arrange an uber, etc. This is however not a completely new innovation because this often allready is implemented in the virtual congierge robots.
Downside of the upcoming RAISA innovations
There are a lot of advantages and benefits for the guest as well as the hospitality industry concerning the innovation of RAISA. However, there also is a downside. More and more jobs are being deamed unnecessary because the jobs can be replaced with robots. This can lead to a high employment rate. Although due to the fact that the unemployment rate in Japan is still very low at 3% of the total Japanese population (Trading Economics, 2020). I can still cause problems in the future since the human population only will keep increasing and the ammount of jobs will decrease over time due to robotisation. This is allready a serious problem in various countries in the world such as the USA where the unemployment rate currently is 7.9% and rising (Trading Economics, 2020). So the real question is, should we really develop RAISA innovations this far?
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