You don't need to fast forward to the future to see robots taking over. The truth is, they are already here – in the present – in tuxedos and bright uniforms, waiting in hotel lounges, receptions and hallways, ready to serve some 'robot hospitality'. M Social Singapore has its 'bots' Aura and Ausca, Hotel Jen in Singapore also has Jeno and Jena, and Vdara Hotel &, Spa in Las Vegas has Fetch and Jett – the partners-in-crime 'hired' to welcome guests, clean, cook, and provide room service. It's no longer a prediction nor a forecast but a reality. Welcome to Hotel 2.0.
This transformation is no big surprise. The past decade has seen a significant shift in customer preferences and brand loyalties for travel, with big hitters like Airbnb entering the game and majorly disrupting the way hotels operate and guests define value. The hospitality industry knows the pressure is still on to adapt and disrupt before being blindsided again.
If robots are already here, changing the hotel experience, what will hotels of the future look like? Or as millennial travellers like to ask: 'Where to next?'
A new breed
"Digital technologies have shifted the power towards the consumer," says Mariana Marques of AI-powered Chat Booking Assistant company HiJiffy. Increasingly, customers have much higher expectations for their travel experience and the function, services and design of tomorrow's hotels will continually evolve to cope with their changing demands.
The reality is, while startups are transforming the industry, many large hotel chains have stuck with their traditional practices. Deloitte attributes this innovation inertia to an antiquated style of operations, where hotels act in silos and struggle to successfully adapt offerings to a new breed of customer. The recent report recommends that hotels must seek imaginative and out-of-the-box ways to differentiate their offering within the sharing economy.
Hotel business centres: more than just computers and printers
While hotels previously catered for tourists and business travellers, their reach has now ironically expanded to those customers closest to them: locals. The workforce, to be specific.
Gone are the traditional hotel business centres that used to provide a lone desktop computer and printer in a small space to plug in, login and print out travel documents and itineraries. Today's hotels, such as the Rove Hotels in Dubai, are redefining the meaning of business centres by opening their lounges and restaurants as coworking spaces for the 'new wave of mobile workers'.
Los Angeles-based Podshare is one such idea on the rise, offering guests or 'podestrians', "access not ownership" through designer dorm-style living to a "social network with a physical address". Zoku Amsterdam successfully mixes long-term and short-stay guests to give patrons the impression of feeling 'home' and grounded with a gritty reality and purpose of place.
The motive behind these designs: to restore the kind of face-to-face engagement that is increasingly optional, but desperately needed, for today's cyber-saturated, digitally-nomadic generation.
Will hotels eventually act as the proverbial 'golf course' for networking by becoming business hubs to serve the community, equipped with the latest 3D printers, VR, and AI technology – and even more?
As hotels evolve from just a 'place to stay' to a haven for both work and leisure, the structures will become more involved in how organisations run business and how people travel and move around. Hotels will truly become a convergence of work, travel and hospitality.
In last year's Radical Innovation Award for the hospitality industry, Aprilli Design Studio was celebrated for its hybrid concept of an Autonomous Travel Suite, a robotic hotel room on wheels: a.k.a. the future of travel. The self-driving vehicle is equipped with sleeping, working and washroom facilities, plus a retractable roof where room service can be dropped off by drones. Parent Units, which the travel suites can dock into, are stationed in various locations to provide the usual hotel amenities such as spas, pools and gyms.
As the design firm says: "Along with future technologies including artificial intelligence, robotics and drones among others, the Autonomous Travel Suite will become your companion, changing your journey into a destination."
Way above and beyond
The idea of hotels providing coworking spaces and travelling solutions isn't a one-way street. On the other end of the spectrum, businesses and organisations, too, can require and call on the services and functions of hotel rooms to facilitate critical work.
Spaceflight company Bigelow Space Operations (BSO) are planning to sell space hotel reservations (yes, you read that right) for space enthusiasts or 'scientists on a budget', by providing up to six people with a private pod to stay in while conducting research in orbit. Russian space agency Roscosmos is also looking at the possibility of building a luxury hotel module for an international space station.
And while a more than six or seven figure ticket will be required to make this 'trip' happen, BSO founder Robert Bigelow reiterates that the purpose of the project is more geared towards science rather than tourism.
High-touch not high-tech
With information and communications technology (ICT) embedding every nook and cranny of future hotel design, the potential for creative collisions will be practically endless. Which begs the question: Won't too much smart technology erode the human touch that hospitality depends on?
Not according to a report by Oracle Hospitality, which links high-tech engagement to today's consumer expectations. The key is to use technology in a way that enhances individual personalisation and paves meaningful moments for its users.
David DiFalco, Renaissance New York Midtown General Manager, shares that the balance between high-tech and high-touch services should be constant. "It doesn't matter how cool your technology is or how nice your design is, if you don't have good people taking care of your guests, they're not going to come back," he says.
Indeed, guests expect to have their practical needs met through some level of digital sophistication. But hotels will have to bend and stretch their technological capacities to meet the contours of a new consumer demand: experiences marked by authenticity, exceptionalism, and unique inspiration.
Where previously they were exclusive establishments for the few, tomorrow's hotels could well become powerful, imaginative solutions for the many in a world marked by increasing complexity and challenge.