Hotels of the future

Staff uniforms being loaded onto conveyor belts in Marina Bay Sands' wardrobe room. Some 160,000 uniforms, which can be tracked with sewn-in radio frequency identification tags, are identified and collected by staff in half a minute, with just a swip
Staff uniforms being loaded onto conveyor belts in Marina Bay Sands' wardrobe room. Some 160,000 uniforms, which can be tracked with sewn-in radio frequency identification tags, are identified and collected by staff in half a minute, with just a swipe of their staff passes.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Hospitality sector tapping robots to ease workloads and streamline processes, amid looming foreign worker curbs

Beating the rest of the service industry in Singapore, the accommodation and food service sector notched up productivity gains of 2 per cent last year.

And with looming cuts to the service sector's foreign worker employment quotas, the hospitality industry may have to step up its technology adoption.

Under Singapore's latest Budget, the share of foreign workers that a firm can employ will be lowered from 40 per cent to 38 per cent next year, and cut again to 35 per cent in 2021.

"That's going to cause us a lot of hardship," said Ms Chan Yit Foon, senior vice-president of human resources at Marina Bay Sands (MBS), referring to the quota cuts. "So, for that, the productivity factor is almost a need."

Some hotels have leaned on technology to ease workloads and streamline processes in recent years.

Park Avenue Rochester, which is owned by United Engineers Limited, introduced a robotic linen-delivery assistant in 2017 that can move trolleys of clean and dirty linen in loads of up to 100kg at a time.

The robot deliveries are estimated to save 9.3 man-hours daily, or the workload of more than three full-time workers.

Similarly, Pan Pacific Singapore, under UOL's Pan Pacific Hotels Group, rolled out two autonomous delivery robots this year to transport linen to the housekeeping stores. Last year, it introduced a luggage management system that uses QR code chits to trace guest bags.

"The slip is scanned electronically, and the luggage tag that corresponds to that slip will light up and beep, allowing the hotel associate to easily locate the bag," said Pan Pacific Singapore general manager Kurt Wehinger, noting that retrieval time was cut from three minutes to less than one - with improved accuracy and security.

Also, Pan Pacific Hotels' Parkroyal on Kitchener Road will have radio-frequency identification luggage tagging by early next year, after a refurbishment.

Meanwhile, Millennium Hotels and Resorts has rolled out half a dozen service delivery robots, which are dubbed "Aura", at five of its six Singapore properties since 2017. While Aura was originally used to take amenities to guest rooms, M Hotel Singapore last month deployed the robot to also patrol twice a day while taking live surveillance footage.

The hotel estimated that Aura's double-duty features have saved the security team 111 man-hours, as guards can monitor live feeds instead of walking the beat themselves. The time saved lets security staff learn new skills, and helps with the manpower crunch during high hotel occupancy periods or unexpected staff absences, according to M Hotel.

Earlier this year, the Government, unions and employers jointly launched a hotel job redesign scheme to optimise manpower and boost productivity amid a tight labour market.

Mr Tan Hock Soon, general secretary of the Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union, said in a statement at the time that "the industry is at the cusp of change and is embracing technology to make work easier and better".

Along those lines, MBS has said it will unveil autonomous vacuum cleaners, or "maidbots", by the year end, allowing housekeepers to multitask while cleaning rooms.

Besides technology, the sector could also stand to make better use of staff resources, Ms Chan suggested, as she pointed to the hotel's "cross-deployment" of staff across multiple roles.

"You take advantage of their eight-hour work day," she said. For instance, housekeeping teams can be rotated to work in MBS restaurants at lunch, after morning check-outs.

"They change out and then they move - so they learn different things," Ms Chan said of her staff. "(Otherwise) you're not optimising, also, the peaks and troughs of the work day."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2019, with the headline 'Hotels of the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe