[ The concerns of hotel workers come at a time when jobs once
reserved for people are increasingly being replaced by machines and
mobile phone apps. It’s no longer just factory workers being
replaced by robots — or even cashiers and clerks.]
[https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE LABOR 

 WILL KIOSKS AND ROBOTS REPLACE HOTEL WORKERS?  
[https://portside.org/node/18529] 

 

 Stewart Yerton 
 October 2, 2018
Honolulu Civil Beat 

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 _ The concerns of hotel workers come at a time when jobs once
reserved for people are increasingly being replaced by machines and
mobile phone apps. It’s no longer just factory workers being
replaced by robots — or even cashiers and clerks. _ 

 , 

 

When Boram Shin’s bosses at the Sheraton Waikiki sent her to a
special training session, it wasn’t exactly reassuring. Marriott
International had just acquired Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which
manages the Sheraton, and the training focused on how to use a new
mobile check-in app.

The fear for Shin is that one day she and her colleagues in Hawaii and
elsewhere could be replaced by an app and a kiosk, just as grocery
cashiers and airline ticket clerks are increasingly being replaced.

It’s unlikely that front desk clerks will go the way of
old-fashioned elevator operators, but the fear of the unknown has
workers like Shin anxious.

“We don’t know how it’s going to come,” says Shin. “But it
could really impact the workforce.”

Boram Shin, a front desk clerk at the Sheraton Waikiki and member of
Unite Here Local 5, has some anxiety about how automation will affect
employment at local hotels.

Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

Shin is one of approximately 2,700 workers who have walked off the job
at several of the state’s iconic hotels. Members of Unite Here
Local 5, [https://www.unitehere5.org/] the hotel union, are on strike
at the Royal Hawaiian, Westin Moana Surfrider, Sheraton Waikiki,
Sheraton Princess Kaiulani and Sheraton Maui, which are owned
by Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts
[https://www.kyoyahotelsandresorts.com/] and operate under various
Marriott brands.

Workers remain on the job at the Waikiki Beach Marriott, although they
have voted to strike and could walk off at any time.

Local 5’s contract expired in June, and about 50 items are at issue
as the parties discuss a new one, union officials have said
[https://www.civilbeat.org/2018/09/thousands-poised-to-strike-at-some-of-waikikis-biggest-hotels/].
One of the big issues involves automation.

Paola Rodelas, a spokeswoman for Local 5, said the union doesn’t
oppose technology, but it wants a place at the table as hotel
management plans how to adopt labor-saving tools.

“This is not the first time in human history that technology has
changed things,” she said. But she added, “We don’t want
announcements like, ‘We’re going to replace 1,000 front desk
workers.'”

The concerns come at a time when jobs once reserved for people are
increasingly being replaced by machines and mobile phone apps. It’s
no longer just factory workers being replaced by robots — or even
cashiers and clerks.

Robots already are staffing front desks at hotels
[https://www.expedia.com/Chiba-Hotels-Robot-Hotel-By-Henn-Na-Hotel-Maihama-Tokyo-Bay.h17811444.Hotel-Information?regionId=11702&langid=1033&semcid=US.UB.GOOGLE.PT-c-EN.HOTEL&semdtl=a1625600556.b127830482108.r1.g1dsa-287861008464.i145059415152.d1270] and mixing
fancy cocktails [http://thetipsyrobot.com/]. The reality
of driverless taxis
[https://www.nbcnews.com/business/autos/driverless-taxi-rides-are-headed-your-way-year-n849371] is
looming. And even the idea of fancy food made by machines
— specifically 3D printers
[https://www.cnn.com/2014/11/06/tech/innovation/foodini-machine-print-food/index.html] — is
no longer the stuff of science fiction. While none of this has caused
a mass displacement of jobs, worker advocates like Local 5 are
worried.

And with good reason. A 2016 report by the consulting firm McKinsey &
Co. [https://www.mckinsey.com/] determined that hospitality jobs,
which often involve routine physical tasks performed in controlled
indoor environments, are especially vulnerable to being replaced by
machines.

Industry experts say increasing automation in the hotel industry is
inevitable.

Caleb Hartsfield/Civil Beat

“Since predictable physical activities figure prominently in sectors
such as manufacturing, food service and accommodations, and retailing,
these are the most susceptible to automation based on technical
considerations alone,” the report said
[https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/where-machines-could-replace-humans-and-where-they-cant-yet].

“This is not just a problem for the hotel industry in Hawaii,”
says Robert Cole [https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertkcole/], a
Dallas-based lodging and leisure travel business analyst. “This is
everywhere.”

Technology generally helps corporations do things faster, cheaper and
better, says Cole.

And that can serve both customers, who want “the best experience at
the lowest price,” and hotel owners who want “maximum revenue at
the lowest cost,” he said.

Unfortunately for workers, this can mean needing just four people for
tasks that it once took five to do.

“Technology is generally hostile to human employment,” he said.

Dara Young, a spokeswoman for Marriott, did not return calls for
comment.

Some Prefer Faceless Kiosks To Real Workers

One of the realities facing the industry is that travelers often
don’t want to deal with a clerk for simple administrative tasks,
like checking in or out, said John Russell, a hospitality industry
consultant based in Destin, Florida.

A former, long-time senior executive with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.
(which is now owned by Marriott), Russell said the industry has
changed since the old days when Ritz-Carlton coined its motto
[http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/about/gold-standards]: “We are Ladies
and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.“

Russell said it’s too soon to adopt a motto like, “We are
automatons serving disinterested boors,” but he said there are
people who prefer interacting with faceless kiosks over real people.

“You have to recognize that if a customer doesn’t want to deal
with a live person, you have to offer that option,” he said.

[Striking hotel workers chant slogans and march on the sidewalk
fronting the Moana Hotel along Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki.]
[https://d1l18ops95qbzp.cloudfront.net/wp-content/2018/10/11142048/Moana-Hotel-Strike-Waikiki5.jpg]

Marriott is rolling out mobile check-in at all of its former Starwood
properties, which include the Moana Surfrider in Waikiki, where
workers are on strike.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

To be sure, some more dramatic uses of automation in the hospitality
business are novelties, like the dinosaur front desk clerks
[https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/16/japans-robot-hotel-a-dinosaur-at-reception-a-machine-for-room-service] at
Japan’s Henn-na Hotel or the bartending machines at the Tipsy Robot
bar in Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood Casino and Resort.

Novelty definitely was part of the bar’s appeal, says Paula Yoo
[https://paulayoo.com/about/], a novelist and television writer and
producer from Los Angeles who went to the Tipsy Robot during an annual
trip to Las Vegas with her husband. Still, while the robots made good
subjects for jokes about the “Terminator” movies, they were no
substitute for human bartenders, Yoo said.

“You have to recognize that if a customer doesn’t want to deal
with a live person, you have to offer that option.” — John
Russell, hotel industry consultant

And she said they were a sobering reminder of the damage robots did to
auto worker jobs in Detroit, where Yoo once worked as a newspaper
reporter.

Losing lower-level hospitality jobs means losing jobs that are often
stepping-stones for people just starting out, she said. Plus,
replacing people with kiosks means an increasing lack of human
interaction.

It’s not a healthy trend, said Yoo, who has written for shows like
“The West Wing [https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0200276/]” and
“Supergirl
[https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4016454/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1].”

“We’re at a tipping point, and it’s going to be interesting to
see where we go now,” she said.

Marriott, which is now the nation’s largest hotel company, is moving
ahead aggressively. In its annual report to shareholders for 2017, the
company reported that it had reached “millions of guests through our
mobile guest services — check-in, check-out, service requests,
mobile key, and more — across our hotel portfoli

No People, No Personality

The mobile check-in that Honolulu’s Shin trained for is being rolled
out at all former Starwood hotels, Marriott reported. And the company
said it had also greatly expanded its mobile key system, which allows
guests to use their mobile phones to unlock their rooms. Marriott is
also implementing a system that lets guests use their phones to order
room-service meals, rather than having to call an operator.

Such features could theoretically let guests stay at a hotel without
ever talking to a front desk clerk, food staff or bellman, said Cole.
An app also could do a lot of functions of a concierge, like offering
restaurant recommendations, he said.

“The down side from the staffing perspective is those employees
don’t need to be doing those tasks anymore,” Cole said. “The key
question is, what happens to that employee? Can they be retrained to
do something else?”

Local 5 is asking the same types of questions.

“It’s just a lot of question marks in terms of automation,” Shin
said.

Despite the trends, it seems unlikely that hotel workers will be
replaced completely by apps and kiosks. Many customers still want
personal service from a real person, said Cole. And management often
is willing to provide it. As an example, Cole pointed to the Pierre
Hotel
[https://taj.tajhotels.com/en-in/the-pierre-new-york/gallery/] in New
York, where he once worked.

The hotel kept live elevator operators on staff and had an old-school
concierge who knew how to get tables at the most popular restaurants
and snag front-row seats to sold-out Broadway shows.

There will always be guests willing to pay for such services and
hoteliers willing to provide it, he said.

Finally, there’s the issue of a guest’s experience and the
hotel’s ambience. The thought of a hotel lobby devoid of staff
overseen by kiosks, androids and disembodied voices emanating from
Alexa speakers is probably just too weird for most people, Russell
said.

Without people, a hotel has no personality, he said.

“The personality of the hotel is the personality of the staff,” he
said.

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