Can AI be hospitable?

Kate Larrabee and Evan Gettinger

What does it mean to be hospitable? “The friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers” is the standard definition according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but there’s a deeper element to hospitality that’s more fundamental. Is it about delight? Or belonging? Or maybe it is the ability to relate on an emotional level? As Artificial Intelligence (AI) makes its way into the hospitality industry, brands must evolve their customer experiences in ways that amplify rather than compromise the core tenets of hospitality.

Are hotels as hospitable as they can be?

Guests have unique preferences. Hotel staff strive to anticipate what guests want before they ask for it. However, learning their idiosyncrasies takes a blend of superb listening skills and human intuition. As hospitality brands begin to integrate AI into their customer experiences, it becomes easier to gain information about hotel guests and personalize their experiences. While AI-empowered service may come to life differently in different contexts, a blend of human intuition and artificial intelligence is creating a new era of hospitality and personalized service in the hotel industry.

One benefit of AI is the extension of a service beyond what a single staff member can provide. For hospitality, instead of AI, maybe we should be thinking about IA, “intelligent assistance.” Intelligent assistance is a more appropriate shorthand for a technology that doesn’t replace human workers, but empowers them to do more.

How AI is changing the way people engage with hospitality brands

Hotels that have incorporated AI into their customer experience today are still niche, but the number of those that are is growing. Chatbots and virtual concierges powered by AI are becoming a viable customer service channel. New AI-enabled interfaces can handle basic requests like room service orders, fresh towels from housekeeping, and can schedule wake-up calls. They also remove wait times to talk with the front desk or hotel staff—guests can place requests directly through the bot and voice assistant.

However, not every hotel has the capabilities to design its own in-house, AI-powered system. Instead, many hospitality brands will need to partner with technology companies. Marriott is currently sorting out the development of voice-controlled hotel rooms and a potential future collaboration with either Alexa or Siri. The partnership would effectively transform rooms into mini versions of smart homes. Guests that already have digital assistants could potentially select to have the service delivered by their AI assistant of choice: Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google, or others. The expectation might become, “Wherever I go, I want my assistant to be there.”

Partnering with other providers and connecting to the IoT opens up new doors for hospitality. It will eventually result in a sort of “ambient intelligence”: An invisible, always-on interface that is attuned to people’s behaviors and physiological states. This will enable brands to customize and correct experiences in real-time, rather than adjusting reactively to negative feedback, increasing the chance that guests will leave happy.

Hotels will need to figure out their relationships with new technology partners and determine who owns and accesses the data, and who gets credit for an AI-enhanced experience.

AI will amplify what it means to be hospitable

AI has the potential to enhance the hospitality experience at both ends of the price spectrum, from value to luxury. For value offerings, it can facilitate a customizable self-service experience, complete with greater convenience and safety—guests won’t feel they are compromising features. For luxury offerings, it can support the staff’s ability to deliver deeper and more personalized guest experiences that amplify the feeling of being uniquely understood and elevating the bespoke quality that makes luxury so appealing.

Ultimately, people’s experience of hospitality is shaped more by how it makes them feel (welcomed, delighted, understood), than the delivery mechanism itself (AI powered chatbots or facial recognition capabilities). The most successful applications of AI in the hospitality space won’t focus on making customer experiences feel more modern or futuristic, but amplifying the original intent of a hotel to be more hospitable.

Associate Strategist
Associate Director, Strategy