5. Humanizing Travel With Automation (Bring It On!)
Airbnb, home sharing, work/live buildings, hostels and micro-hotels are grabbing the headlines as disruptors. However, they are not disruptors at all. Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) was launched in 1995. In Asia, the Middle East and Europe, apartment hotels have long been an alternative to hotel chains. In fact, most of these “alternative accommodations” are what Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen calls incremental, or sustaining innovations that are launched in response to customer demands and do not alter an industry structure. It’s not surprising that many of these sustaining innovations are already being co-opted by chains such as Accor, Marriott and others.
Something more fundamental is happening that is potentially transformational – a different kind of disruption that is global and far-reaching. Automation is coming to the hospitality industry and its test labs are in kitchens, food delivery and hotel operations.
Alibaba has successfully piloted hotel robots in Hangzhou, China and is expanding the “Flyzoo” platform with new automated properties. Alibaba is seeking to license the technology, not to create a revolutionary brand like the Tesla of hotels. It appears that the platform could also be integrated into the new Chinese “social credit system,” enabling hotels to know whether they are receiving a well-mannered customer who will play the rules or not.
That such an innovation would come from Hangzhou is not surprising to anyone who has managed a hospitality business in China. Training and supervision remain big challenges in Chinese hospitality, which is regarded as one of the least desirable industries from a career standpoint. In 2017, a third-party testing organization Lanmei Test released a report claiming that a number of five-star hotels in Beijing, including the W, the Intercontinental, the Hilton, the JW Marriott, and the Shangri-La, were not changing bed linens completely or cleaning toilet seats and bathtubs after clients had checked out. Studies and government health inspections continue to prove that in addition to low wages, hotel staff in China are often incentivized to do “slapdash work.”