With experts predicting that it won't be till 2024 that air travel returns to pre-Covid-19 numbers, businesses in the travel sector, especially hotels, are taking a long-term view to business sustainability.
In their preparations for a digital future, hotels have begun to embrace technological innovation to equip staff with in-demand skills that will give them a competitive edge and boost their employability when travel regains momentum.
But contrary to popular belief, digital transformation is less about the technology than it is about the people. Through effective training and upskilling, employees' talents can be developed accordingly and paired with the right technology to drive transformation.
The adoption of automation and AI has helped hoteliers work more efficiently and has given productivity a much-needed boost.
When humans and technology work hand-in-hand
The technologies at work in a hotel go beyond robots that are able to greet guests or dust corridors. More often than not, it is humming behind the scenes to support hotel staff in their service interactions.
Debunking the common perception that technology replaces the human touch, Mr Joseph Ling, CEO of Vouch SG, believes that the use of technology can enhance the guest experience.
With Vouch SG's digital concierge, a guest can make requests or book hotel facilities from their mobile device without needing to speak to a telephone operator. This works especially well for straightforward requests such as the replenishment of towels or bottled water, as it frees staff up to attend to guests needing assistance or to handle more urgent or complex situations like lost luggage.
Mr Ling explains: "Hotels are realising that service can be delivered on various levels, and that the value of the service is in meaningful interactions with guests. One of our clients was able to free up staff to engage guests in conversation and to make use of the time they had to personalise gift cards."
Creating a seamless guest experience
Sprawling 15.5 hectares of land with a built-up area of 581,400 sq m, Marina Bay Sands has been held up as the quintessential model in striking a skillful balance between manpower and technology. The integrated resort has invested in technology - including that which is invisible to the guest - to ensure the seamless running of more than 2,500 rooms in the integrated resort.
Mr Pek Chin Siong, vice-president of Hotel Operations, says: "Technology which improves service interactions with guests are referred to as 'front-stage' as they can be seen and experienced by the guest - such as our virtual queue management system. While 'back-stage' technology (an example being our housekeeping system) isn't visible, it is equally important as it supports 'front-stage' technology."
Marina Bay Sands is the first hotel in Singapore to make use of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software to automate high-volume and repeatable tasks across multiple systems.
He says: "RPA has been invaluable in providing real-time updates on room inventory, which is done by capturing the number of keys dropped into RFID-enabled check-out boxes across our three hotel towers. The technology offers real-time visibility on which rooms are vacant so our housekeeping department can move straight to these rooms to clean and prepare them for the next guest arrival."
"In addition," he adds, "we no longer need to manually update room prices and availability for third-party websites, because RPA is capable of extracting the most up-to-date information from our system and feed that to partner sites."
Future-proofing jobs by upskilling employees
Hotel jobs in a post-pandemic economy are going to look different. To help workers adapt to the inevitable changes, the industry is investing in staff training and redesigning jobs to be more valuable and productive.
Mr Ling says: "A hotel phone operator handles an average of 50 calls a day, while a live chat function allows an operator to handle 250 conversations a day. When paired with an online booking system, a hotel can add even more value by helping guests perform other requests such as making a reservation at the hotel restaurant in the same conversation."
In a similar spirit of growth, its workforce's personal development and training are a strong focus at Marina Bay Sands, notes Mr Pek.
"Training is the cornerstone of a hotel's success. A career in a hotel today looks different to when I first started in this industry over 20 years ago," he says.
"There are plenty of opportunities for staff to be cross-trained in a variety of functions. A receptionist could move into food and beverage operations, or a reservations staff into sales. This mobility between front- and back-end operations opens up a multitude of career paths not just within the hotel, but in the hospitality industry and even beyond."
Digital innovation - a part of every hotel's future
For the contemporary traveller, a hotel experience today is less defined by silk bedsheets and pillow menus, and more by the people who make them feel special.
You might remember a staff who went out of her way to make you feel comfortable in your hotel room, or a manager whose service recovery left a favourable impression on you.
How does technology play a part in imparting that sense of human connection and community?
Mr Ling offers a clue. "Hotels know guest satisfaction comes from understanding the guest and personalising the service and experience. But getting a 360-degree view of the customer is challenging because information is entered manually, and unlike machines, humans make errors.
"Now, technology can do that job for the hotel employee, and where guest consent has been explicitly given, hotels are able to note guest preferences across their journey and assemble these nuggets into a profile. With these insights, hotels can better anticipate needs and make a lasting impression on their guests."
Digital innovation is altering the future of the hotel industry and shaping an exciting transformation of hotel jobs, with long-term benefits.
From equipping hotels to be more attuned to guest needs to enhancing career opportunities for staff, there is no doubt that technology will touch the guest experience in more ways than one, and drive the sustained success of the hotel industry.
Brought to you by Singapore Tourism Board, in partnership with Singapore Hotel Association