Here’s the hard truth: the labor shortages that hotels are confronting were not necessarily caused by the pandemic so much as accelerated, meaning the staffing problems for many properties are going to persist for many years to come.
There are a lot of geopolitical and demographic forces supporting this thesis, but for hotels it translates into wages continuing to tick up, finding (and keeping!) good managers becoming increasingly hard, and automation becoming all the more mandatory in order to fulfill the service promise.
From the title, part of our job as strategic advisors is to not only help independent properties and small groups evaluate the new systems or platforms that best fit into their existing tech stacks in order to ramp up automation, but to think one level higher in terms of embedding an automation mindset into the culture at the managerial and executive levels.
Team Augmentation Through Automation
There is still a lot of stigma against the word ‘automation’ as hoteliers feel it means sacrificing service due to the removal of ‘high touch’ interactions between guest and staff. The opposite is in fact true; with further and further automation, hotels enable more of these high-touch encounters because their teams are liberated from the minutia of repetitive, interruptive tasks.
Nowhere demonstrates the need for a mindset shift better than the advent of ‘Conversational Artificial Intelligence’. In a nutshell, this technology replaces the IVR (interactive voice recording) and supplements your reservation teams with a near-perfect AI-driven voice for guests to converse with.
It’s important to note here, based on what was previously stated relates to having an automation mindset, the word ‘supplement’. The conversational AI offloads the repetitive, basic guest inquiries like, “What time is the pool open?” so that the live agents deliver better quality service when they are patched through to the guests – shorter wait times and more time to develop rapport with the customer in order to increase call satisfaction or generate more revenue sold per call.
Solving for Call Abandonment
We saw this in action during our latest demo with John Smallwood, CEO of Travel Outlook, which has just debuted Annette™, a virtual assistant harnessing the power of conversational AI. Besides what this tech can do for labor savings and building revenues, what Smallwood also emphasized is the voice bot’s ability to protect brands against call abandonment while always providing information to guests that is precise and 100% correct.
The reason call abandonment is such a critical issue right now is that, coming out of the pandemic, we now live in an increasingly attention-deprived world. People have so many options vying for their eyes and ears that if you don’t engage them right away they are gone. This pertains to the cacophony of travel search (shopper’s paralysis) driving the resurgence of trusted travel advisors; it gives credence to the rise of chatbots; and for voice it means that guests have zero patience for holding on the line.
So, as guests are now exceedingly harried, from a service perspective, conversational AI solves this challenge on two fronts. First, prospective guests aren’t hit by a convoluted IVR or kept waiting; they are immediately put through to an uncannily human-sounding voice that fully understands them. Second, for guests already in-house, voice bots can help facilitate any calls down to the front desk. Nowadays, it’s all about speed and simplification, and that’s what we saw in Annette and this principle should underline all other forms of automation that hotels pursue.
The Big Picture for the Voice Channel
The world has moved on to texting and everyone’s on social media, so why does voice matter? Well, the baby boomer generation still prefers the voice channel when booking hotel rooms. And based on a statistic from the United States showing they control 50% of the nation’s total wealth, it’s a fair bet to assume that other advanced economies have similar behavioral patterns. Namely, the boomers prefer voice, so you have to follow the money. This for us makes any automation that can maintain service standards for this channel while solving the staffing problems a top priority.
The next thing of note from our demo with Annette was how it understood slang, colloquialisms, multiple dialogue threads, muffled voices, foreign languages, and difficult-to-understand accents. All of this helps make the call far more time-efficient with guests because the AI can understand them when a live agent asks the guest to repeat or clarify.
Working on the ground with hoteliers, one common objection we’ve often encountered when suggesting any form of outsourcing for the intake team or service call operations is that the external partner won’t be able to answer the questions as well as the onsite agents. But put yourself in the guest’s shoes; they value their own time above all else, so most times they don’t care whether they are speaking to a real person or a virtual assistant so long as they get the information they need as quickly as possible.
In this sense, the big picture for voice bots harks back to the centaur model for AI-based workflows. Like the Greek mythological beast, the horse body (conversational AI) does all the grunt duties, freeing up the human head (live agents) to focus on the meaningful work.
Embracing an automation mindset and having a vision of achieving a centaur model in the workplace is thus also one of staff retention. Teams can be easily demotivated by the repetitive, interruptive busywork that AI and robotic process automation (RPA) can now do. That’s not why they decided to become hoteliers; they want to be front and center with guests, and they want to engage in challenging creative work.
Our hope is that you can see from this example why the abovementioned objections towards further automation no longer apply. On the customer side, hospitality needs a myriad of automation tools in order to enable its teams to have high-touch encounters with guests and develop real relationships with them. Then on the internal customer side – that is, your staff as well as your managers – Smallwood concluded our discussion by noting, “Part of the rationale behind the Great Resignation movement has been a disengagement from the work due to the monotony of it. Our conversational AI tools are but one critical piece in the pie to help make employees more productive with their time and more connected to their roles so that ultimately they want to stay with the hotel.”