AI enters hotels and restaurants: where will all the workers go?

With artificial intelligence entering the conversation about seemingly every possible industry, hospitality is not an exception. Will millions of people lose their jobs? Cybernews asked an industry insider.

The way we use technology is, of course, a choice. For example, industries and their leaders can choose whether they hold their labor force to be a precious resource, or an irritating cost.

It would seem that the hospitality industry has made its choice and jumped on the AI bandwagon. Robot waiters are now serving customers in their thousands.

It’s “undergoing a dramatic transition as a result of emerging AI,” a press release dropped into my inbox reads, and hotels and restaurants “have emerged as pioneers in implementing cutting-edge technologies to improve client experiences in the rapidly changing world of technology.”

What does it mean – for the human workers first and foremost? It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that implementing more AI tools in the hotels and restaurants will mean less jobs for the very real men and women – often underpaid anyway, right?

Employment levels in the hospitality industry in the US have still not yet reached pre-pandemic levels, the American Hotel & Lodging Association said this summer. Of course, AI could be an answer, but couldn’t the labor shortages be more easily solved if business owners simply paid their workers more?

To learn more, I had a chat with Kaysilyn Lawson, president of KLHG, a hospitality consulting company.

With more than 15 years of experience in the hospitality industry under her belt, Lawson is excited about the AI revolution and says that thanks to more automation, the industry will be able to provide people with better, less strenuous jobs.

The use of AI in the hospitality industry – it’s a brand new thing, and it’s still on the horizon, right? Explain how it works.

Definitely, it’s a new thing on the horizon. At this stage, what most people see is not necessarily robots, right? There are robots in some properties. I was in Berlin a couple of months ago and at check-in at the airport hotel, there was a robot that had trays of still or sparkling water.

So as you arrived, you could grab a glass, which was a nice touch, right? Otherwise you'd have to ask someone, they would have to go and get it. And so the robot really just roamed the lobby. It was a wonderful little touch for checking because most likely, especially if you're staying at the airport, you probably just got off of a long flight.

There were also iPads where you could just check in so that you didn't have to stand in line if you didn't want to speak to someone about something specific.

We're seeing AI in those scenarios. We're seeing them in the dining rooms or even room service a lot more where actual robots might deliver your food. We’re getting there, especially post-COVID when hotels were trying to figure out not only staffing but also how to keep the guests and staff safe.

A robot serving food in a smart restaurant. Image by Shutterstock.

Robots were a great tool to deliver room service to someone's room versus having someone walk it up. We're seeing that happening a lot more, as well as luggage delivery.

Typically, you check in, you get to the front desk, or you get to the front of the hotel and there's a bellman who takes your luggage, and then eventually they would carry it up.

What we're finding is that utilizing robots for luggage delivery means that the guest doesn't have to wait quite as long. You don't need to wait for the bellman to get to all the different rooms – you simply load your things on a luggage robot, and they zip it up right away.

You might also see a robot roaming around the dining room. It's not one with a face, it's not going to be a human-like robot. It's really just a cart on wheels. But the technology is such that it can bring you water again, or it might be cleaning the dining room so you can put a dirty plate on it. Or, you might have a dessert robot that comes over and shows you the selection.

There’s also what you don't see in AI – in hospitality, it helps in booking your reservation or the marketing tools that we might utilize. Getting guest feedback is a very big one – before, we would ask you to fill out a form, and now it's all done online, and it's interactive where the technology's actually reading what you're saying and responding to you.

Only if you have an issue will it say that you can request to speak with someone directly but most of these reports or issues that guests are reporting, you can do through AI.

And then on the internal side, we utilize it for simply being able to do pricing on hotel rooms. AI can do scanning the internet for what availability looks like and how we should be reacting to what the trends are around the city that you might be in, or even just the time of year that it might be being able to dynamically price your hotel room so that you are competitive and you're not just blindly saying: “Well, this is what we're charging.”

It's obviously saving time for the consumer, for the guests of a hotel or a restaurant. It's also pretty interesting as it's interactive and new – but it's also saving money for companies, isn't it? In many cases, AI is making money for them because they are saving cash, aren’t they?

Absolutely. Time is the biggest one. It's not as though technology is replacing having humans – we're still utilizing our staff to monitor the technology but, for example, with guest feedback, the time it would take one of us to read through all of those reviews and actually gather the data and come up with responses – AI is doing that in a matter of seconds and minutes.

So we're saving time and really able to react better and provide a better guest experience. Our teams can focus on the guest instead of committing to all sorts of paperwork that is being processed now.

Employment in the hospitality industry across the United States has still not reached pre-pandemic heights. Obviously, technology is helping to solve the issue but one could probably discuss why people aren’t coming back – maybe they want more money and it’s not being offered?

Yes and no. The challenge that we faced in the US and also across the world was that post-COVID, a lot of workers just no longer wanted to be in this industry. And yes, money is a factor, but it's really also one of the only industries – outside of the medical field – where you're interacting with other humans all the time.

So the risk level that most of our employees saw made them reconsider what industry they wanted to be in. As hospitality has been coming back, most of those workers haven’t. Even in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Miami a lot of those workers have left. They're no longer even in the same city. They've moved out to other areas where hospitality isn't as big.

"We talk about the employment rates, but we also don't necessarily have the levels of occupancy that would have demanded the jobs that we had before,"

Kaysilyn Lawson.

AI is also helping in recruitment a lot. We can utilize websites such as Monster Jobs and scan them in moments – back in the day, you would just have to put up an ad and hope that people saw it.

Right now, we’re using AI to be able to scan across the Internet and across different cities to see if there are people who are looking for jobs in a different city and whether they’re open to relocating. We use AI on a lot of platforms, not just your typical job sites, but also Facebook, Instagram.

The other part of the issue is that hotel occupancy isn't necessarily back to where it was. We talk about the employment rates, but we also don't necessarily have the levels of occupancy that would have demanded the jobs that we had before. There's a combination of so many things happening in the industry.

Let's say 50 people are working in a restaurant but the owners then decide to use AI and only need 30. Those 20 people who were still there just a minute ago are suddenly unemployed and struggling to make ends meet, aren’t they? Is there a way to retrain people in the sense that they could do other types of work in the same restaurants or hotels when AI is integrated?

We are a long way away from 20 jobs being replaced, mostly because the infrastructure that you would need in order for a robot to be able to maneuver through any restaurant or hotel – it's just not there. You really have to build from the ground up to be able to launch something like that.

We are actually already retraining staff who might be replaced to manage the robots. At the end of the day, the robots – as much as they're super smart – are tools. There still needs to be some supervision.

For example, with the bellman, one might think: “Oh, well then doesn't that take the job away?” No, because workers are now in an office managing those robots that are going up and down, monitoring where they're going, and making sure that they're doing what they need to be doing.

Retraining is already happening, even in the dining room when these robots are floating around. There is a supervisor there who is managing that. It’s important to make sure that there are no glitches, that the interactions are happening the way that we need them to.

There was an interesting article about how the packing and manufacturing industry is trying to launch robots to lift boxes in warehouses. Of course, a lot of unions are up in arms saying, well, you're taking jobs away.

Actually, the industry is giving better jobs to the people who have been doing this strenuous, back-bending work. Now, you can use a robot to do that, and the person who would have been lifting those boxes is sitting in an office and managing a fleet of robots.

The worker is now much safer and learning new skills. If the person decides to leave that industry, she can now go manage a fleet of robots anywhere. We're far away from having too many robots in the dining room.

Which would be the region of the world where these tech advances are the most prevalent? I would bet a hundred bucks on Asia – would I win?

Yes, it's Asia. Asia and Europe. Those regions have always been a lot more open to what we would say is progress. Those regions have shown in every industry that they're very open to not only changing things, but researching and constantly developing and pushing the envelope.

The way you interact over there is far more driven by technology than it is here in the US. There are so many hotels where you may not even see a person. If you're not really going to the bar or somewhere, you might actually never interact with another human. And your stay is perfectly fine – you're able to check in and get your room key, which is not even physical most times.

It’s a wave of the future, and we're seeing it more so in Asia so far. But eventually the rest of us will catch up. Based on certain laws, you might not be able to utilize some of these tools yet in certain areas. It’s very unlikely you're going to see what’s happening in Berlin – robots roaming around freely – in the US or Canada anytime soon, at least not in some cities. You might be able to see it in California, but you probably won't see it in Florida.

I remember a few years ago I even said to myself that I'd prefer to just have someone check me in and make sure everything's okay. Now I'm so much more open to technology. I see the line, I see the person, but I also see the kiosk. And you know what? I just got off of a long flight, there’s a big day ahead of me, I don't want to have to talk to anyone. Let me just go to the kiosk. We're all slowly opening up and adapting to these changes.

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