Use of technology the way forward for hotel sector: Iswaran

Robots that can deliver room service and roll 160 napkins in an hour might just provide some of the answers to the labour-starved hotel sector's problems.

The number of hotel rooms in Singapore is expected to grow by about 13,300 by 2020. But that rate is likely to outstrip growth in the workforce.

Hence the use of technology is the way forward for the hotel industry, Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran said yesterday, as he launched the latest Industry Transformation Map (ITM) for hotels. It is aimed at helping the 400 hotels here adopt manpower-lean business models, innovate, internationalise and grow the workforce.

From 2005 to last year, total room revenue grew 2.6 times - from $1.2 billion to $3.2 billion - while revenue per available room nearly doubled.

Achieving the same growth as in the past will be "increasingly difficult" unless the industry transforms, Mr Iswaran warned.

And robots are one way hotels are preparing for the future.

At Marina Bay Sands (MBS), a new employee - a robotic arm - is set to feature from next year. It will lend a hand to the hotel's human employees whose job is to roll 3,500 napkins each day and slot utensils into them for use during events such as weddings.

The robotic arm, which can roll 160 napkins in an hour, will be able to do the work of seven full-time employees, who can then be redeployed to do higher-value jobs such as interacting with guests, said MBS senior vice-president for hotel operations Ian Wilson.

The use of radio-frequency identification chips in linen, uniforms and even decorative items in hotel rooms is another way technology can help the sector.

An innovation already in use in more than 10 hotels here, the chips allow workers to track the items without having to manually count them, which can lead to average man-hour savings of up to 60 per cent.

But innovation is only part of the solution. In an industry powered by a 33,000-strong workforce, the emphasis will still be on human capital.

This is why a three-year campaign to raise awareness about hotel jobs and careers will begin in the first quarter of next year, said Mr Iswaran. It is part of the ITM's aim to tackle challenges such as rising customer expectations, an ageing workforce and Singaporeans' lack of interest in a career in hospitality.

Grants - through which the Government will fund up to 70 per cent of the cost - will be given out to hotels that make changes to boost productivity.

The Singapore Tourism Board and trade agency IE Singapore will also work closely with hoteliers to help them enter new markets and raise awareness of their brands. For example, serviced residence owner-operator The Ascott has partnered IE Singapore to look at expansion opportunities in China and Britain.

As hotels go international, there will also be opportunities for retail, food service and food manufacturing firms to expand their businesses, said Mr Iswaran.

He also noted that the outlook for global travel continues to be positive, as the expanding Asia-Pacific middle class drives demand.

In the first half of this year, Singapore received 8.2 million visitors, up 13 per cent from the same period last year. They spent $11.6 billion, a 12 per cent increase.

Mr Albert Teo, president of the Singapore Hotel Association, said the road map is timely and hopes the focus on technology will draw younger people to the industry. "I think this will be the game changer for millennials to change their mindset. It is not a boring industry, but an exciting, cutting-edge one."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2016, with the headline 'Use of technology the way forward for hotel sector: Iswaran'. Subscribe