Is Wall-E the answer to the hospitality industries problems?

Wall-E in a restaurant

It may seem a bit like a Hollywood movie but robots are becoming a part of the hospitality experience across the globe. The rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics mean it is becoming increasingly likely you will encounter a robot when you next enter a hotel or restaurant. But is this disruptive technology a gimmick or could it help address some of the labour shortages in UK hospitality?

What’s the issue?

The hospitality industry is one of the most labour-intensive sectors in the UK. Before the pandemic, it employed over 2 million people and generated £59.3 billion for the economy every year [1]. Despite this, there are significant staff shortages in UK hospitality post-pandemic. Many hospitality businesses reporting they cannot find the right people to fill vacancies. This is not unique to the UK, in North America and Japan the industry is facing similar challenges.

Can robots do the job?

Automation of repetitive tasks by robots is common in manufacturing, where robots can increase safety and increase the efficiency of fabrication. Moving the technology to a more human-facing role is a big step, but it is seen by some to be a possible solution to staff shortages. Even before the pandemic robots were being trialed in hospitality across the globe, with the first robot hotel being opened, the Henn na Hotel, in Nagasaki, Japan in 2015 [2].

Robots can be used to help address these staff shortages. They can fill roles such as waiting on tables, cleaning rooms, preparing food and drinks and providing entertainment for guests. One example of a service robot is Lucki, an AI-powered robot that is being used around the world. Around 30,000 are working as supermarket promo robots and food delivery robots in restaurants like McDonald’s [3]. However, there are some disadvantages associated with their use. There is a high cost involved in purchasing robots which is often prohibitive for small businesses. They can be difficult to maintain and can be difficult to program.

The customer experience

As robots become more integrated into this industry, it’s important to understand what these changes will mean for customers. Some people may be wary of interacting with robots because they are unfamiliar with them or don’t know how they work. For example, if a robot is malfunctioning or not working properly, customers may not understand what to do or may be unsure how they can safely get help. The Henn na Hotel is a great example of how these issues can manifest. The Insider reports that the hotel is “firing” half of its robot workforce after complaints by customers, to reduce costs and reduce the workload on staff [4].

Are robots the future?

Survey data suggests that most customers are uncomfortable interacting with robots [5]. So, it is probably a long way off, until robots can help address the labour shortage in the UK. The few early adopters have had valuable insights; in some areas, robots can reduce the workload of human staff and increase efficiency. These roles are mostly non-customer facing [2]. The combination of the lack of concrete real-world evidence of robots’ ability to replace customer-facing staff and the cost and maintenance of the robots means it will be a little while before we can fill labour shortages with robots.

Although robots themselves may not be the panacea the technology that powers them, AI, is becoming widely used across the business world. Maybe, this is where the future lies – reducing workload by increasing efficiencies using AI. Check out our AI course for more on this.

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[1] Hutton, G., Foley, N., Irvine, S., 2022, House of Commons, Research Briefing, Hospitality industry and Covid-19



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