IS ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE THE OMOTENASHI OF THE FUTURE?

6 -min. read

Exceptional personal service has always distinguished great hospitality brands from merely good ones. Studies show that customers satisfied with service not only buy more, more often: they also spread the word to their friends. Today social media, virtual assistants and instant messaging make intuitive, quick and seamless personal service more important than ever – the challenge is how to scale it.

Enter artificial intelligence (AI). Smart companies are already experimenting with AI to gather intelligence about their guests; manage their revenue and predictive maintenance; automate their data entry and analysis; and deliver effortless, anticipatory, personal service to their customers.

“The gold standard of great hospitality is the Japanese principle of omotenashi – being intuitive, effortless and flexible – and intuition, empathy and flexibility are uniquely human characteristics”

It’s strange to imagine that this sort of service could possibly be delivered by anything but a well-trained human. After all, the gold standard of great hospitality is the Japanese principle of omotenashi – being intuitive, effortless and flexible – and intuition, empathy and flexibility are uniquely human characteristics. Customers, guests, clients – however you call them – are unpredictable, emotionally nuanced and complex, so they require equally emotionally complex beings to understand them.

Yet, left to our own emotional and cognitive devices, humans in the hospitality and service industries can only do so much. Artificial intelligence helps us become superhumans, enabling us to crunch limitless data in a matter of seconds; combine disparate and complex information sources; and connect the dots in order to recognise patterns in ways previously unheard of.

The end game of using AI in hospitality should not be to remove humans from the equation. The role of AI, argues Danny Meyer – the famous restaurateur behind Union Square Hospitality Group and author of customer-care playbook, Setting the Table – is to “empower human beings who actually have a beating heart and who are caring people to achieve a greater degree of hospitality.”

Wine dinners at Union Square – courtesy of Liz Clayman
AI is used to deliver more seamless, intuitive service at Danny’s Meyer’s restaurant – courtesy of Union Square

Meyer knows what he’s talking about. At his restaurant at New York City’s Union Square, his managers and sommeliers are using AI to deliver more seamless, intuitive service. “A gentle ping could go from the manager to the front desk to tell them that table 62 is ready”, he explains. “Or, when a waiter places an order for a bottle of wine, the sommelier (who’s wearing an Apple watch) gets a ping and can bring that bottle straightaway. Our system can be alerted that table 42 has just paid their bill, and then ping the coat checker to have their coats ready for them at the front door. The bottom line of all this is, can we give back the gift of time?”

Consensus among those working with AI is that its role is to amplify and augment, rather than replace humans. MIT Media Lab’s Director, Joi Ito, believes that “humans are really good at things computers are not” – and vice-versa. Finding, organising and recognising patterns and providing accurate data are AI’s strengths. A clever combination of the two gives hospitality an immense opportunity to provide fast, consistent, seamless and personal service at scale.

Like most technology, AI is most effective when it’s invisible; when guests witness evidence of AI at work, the execution is flawed. That 70 per cent of interactions with Facebook M, the social media platform’s virtual assistant, end in a communication breakdown or a request for human intervention only goes to illustrate the level of risk. But Facebook is not alone in this: Forrester Research claims that most bots currently in use are not ready to deal with the complexities of human conversation, requiring human oversight in order to succeed.

If you’ve ever seen Terminator, you’ll be inclined to agree that putting ourselves entirely in the hands of robots is probably not a good idea. Plus, it’s expensive. In reality, AI conversations only make sense if they feel more, not less, natural (read: human) than scrolling through an FAQ sheet; this requires a combination of humans and technologies such as natural language processing, artificial intelligence and machine learning. When deciding how to invest in AI, a good rule of thumb is to ask whether the technology can provide information or a way of operating that a human cannot.

For example, Yumeko, of Henn-na hotel in Japan, is a human-like robot accompanied by two velociraptor dinosaurs at the check-in counter. Her job is to greet Henbane guests; but while Yumeko may look like a human, she’s missing the human touch and is more likely to attract tech geeks than luxury-seekers. Similarly, Virginia’s Hilton McLean IBM Watson-powered robot, Connie, informs guests on local tourist attractions, makes restaurant recommendations and offers the lowdown on hotel features and amenities; yet once the novelty of interacting with a robot wears off, Hilton will be forced to deal with the actual hospitality value that Connie brings to its guests – questionable, to say the least.

Meanwhile, travel company Thompson is also working with IBM’s Watson on a smart chatbot for its customers’ holiday searches. The plan is to utilise AI to increase loyalty by helping hoteliers learn more about their guests, in order to better serve them and drive repeat visits. Similarly, Dorchester Collection partnered with RicheyTX to develop Metis, an AI platform that, by crunching countless data, helped this hotel chain discover that breakfast is more than a mere expectation for its guests: it’s something they place huge importance on. In response, Dorchester Collection invested more in personalising and augmenting the breakfast experience – proving that good use of AI is seamless, effortless, adaptable and adds value to the human experience.

Alongside voice-activated rooms, Aloft Cupertino is planning to implement smart mirrors, smart carpets and A-powered thermostat systems
Alongside voice-activated rooms, Aloft Cupertino is planning to implement smart mirrors, smart carpets and A-powered thermostat systems

Kayak co-founder Paul English launched travel planning app Lola in 2016, combining a live staff of travel agents with AI-augmented chat functionality. “We’re trying to create superhuman travel consultants who are AI-powered and can handle more trips per hour than a regular travel agent can”, explains English. Lola combines human strengths with machine learning algorithms that teach its AI to give ever more relevant answers in the future.

“We’re trying to create superhuman travel consultants who are AI-powered and can handle more trips per hour than a regular travel agent can”

PAUL ENGLISH, KAYAK AND FOUNDER, LOLA

Along similar lines, personal travel assistant, concierge and bot Mezi, which raised $9 million in 2016, uses AI to comb through a number of search engines for travel information, customising and prioritising suggestions based on past searches, known user preferences, conversational tone and other online habits. Manually entered, the sort of database Mezi uses could only feature a single-digit number of preferences per guest. Automatically entered and managed, the number of preferences is infinite.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel company created its Mystique system exactly to that end: “Whenever we discover or are alerted to a guest’s preferences, we put them into Mystique, and Mystique talks to all the properties within Ritz-Carlton. As a guest, you can go from Ritz-Carlton to Ritz-Carlton around the world and we’ll know – and be able to deliver – what you like”, notes Diana Oreck, Vice President of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. “We use Mystique to increase a guest’s sense of wonder, with little things delivered unexpectedly”, she adds.

Consistency of service and personalisation are examples of AI done right. Seamlessness is another. Marriott’s “Project Jetson” is piloting Siri-activated rooms, where guests can programme everything from the lights to the thermostat and sound system from their smartphone; and Aloft Cupertino is planning to implement smart mirrors, smart carpets and AI-powered thermostat systems. Henn-na hotel in Japan allows guests to open doors using facial recognition software and control lights via verbal cues; the Hyatt Regency Riverfront in Jacksonville, Florida, uses AI to better generate staffing schedules and forecast guests’ needs; while its advantages at the Pan Pacific in San Francisco include highly accurate restaurant, room service and banquet forecasting, as well as the maintenance of appropriate staffing levels.

In hospitality, the human touch makes us feel special and taken care of. We remember times when we were surprised and delighted by thoughtful, empathetic and anticipatory service. We tell others about it. We keep coming back to places where we experienced it. The omotenashi of the future is a combination of AI and humans, each doing what they do best. AI is all about fast, accurate and predictive data. Humans are about the empathetic and intuitive interpersonal contact. Working together, they are able to deliver the best possible service at scale.

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Ana Andjelic
An experienced strategist with a passion for new things, Ana has earned her doctorate degree in sociology and worked at the world's top advertising agencies. She's also a frequently published author, public speaker and writer. She lives in New York City.

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