Automation vs. Matey Smiles: Striking a Balance in the Contactless Era


Contactless technology has been a lifeline for the hospitality industry. After COVID-19 hit, various forms of tech helped businesses meet the changing needs of guests – from handling safety, hygiene and security procedures to providing completely contactless experiences. It was one of the major reasons why the hospitality industry was able to bounce back as it did. But despite settling back into business-as-usual, contactless service remains as an option in most venues. 

Think about the last time you checked into a hotel or visited a restaurant. The chances are you probably encountered automation of some kind. It could have been virtual check-in or in-app ordering. Automation is now commonplace across all sub-sectors of the industry. But does hospitality have a one-way ticket to a fully automated future? Or will businesses continue to prioritise face-to-face interactions over contactless convenience? 

To find out, we recently commissioned large-scale research into the UK hospitality industry. We asked hospitality workers – IT decision makers (ITDMs) and frontline workers – for their views on various hospitality trends, including contactless technology. 

Of the 300 workers surveyed, only 14% believe that contactless customer experience will be the ‘next big thing’ to impact the industry. In general, then, hospitality workers appear unconvinced – but many are enthusiastic about the possibilities automation could afford their sub-sector of the industry. 

To more-closely examine opinions across the industry, let’s look at some of the biggest automation opportunities in each hospitality sub-sector – accommodation, gyms and food and drink. 

Getting comfortable with contactless

Contactless service is already a mainstay of the hotel industry. Self-check-in, smart rooms and digital keys are helping to improve efficiency and reduce interactions in accommodations of all kinds – from major hotel chains to boutique holiday homes. But will face-to-face service become a thing of the past in accommodation? Our ITDMs seem to think so. 74% say that the sub-sector will be the first to become fully automated – and it’s easy to imagine why. 

Hotel guests don’t want to wait around in the lobby to collect their keys, but they may still want to be welcomed by a ‘friendly’ face – even if it isn’t a human one. Robots are likely to start appearing as digital concierges, welcoming guests, answering questions and performing basic tasks, such as fetching extra towels or replacing forgotten toothbrushes. 

Robots are more efficient than their human counterparts, so it’s no surprise that senior workers responded in favour of them. However, only 12% of front-facing employees agree – but as those in line to be replaced by robots, their hesitance is understandable. 

The end of happy hour?

Restaurant technology has really taken off in recent years. In-app ordering and automated inventory management have helped establishments drive efficiency and recoup money lost during the pandemic. 

Contactless technology is convenient for businesses and patrons alike, but we’re not expecting to see a fully robotic workforce just yet. The next big thing expected to transform the food-and-drink industry is responsive menus. 

Okay, having menus that change throughout the day isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Most fast-food establishments shift from a breakfast menu to their all-day offering. And many bistros, cafes and restaurants have seasonal specials that are updated weekly or even daily according to the availability of local produce. 

This type of flexibility requires a lot of planning and people-power. Responsive menus, however, are entirely automated. Menu changes can be made by an AI in real time to cater to the needs of the restaurant, improving efficiency and reducing waste. 

For example, during busy periods, the AI could switch to a simplified menu or recommend dishes that are quicker to prepare. It could lower prices on surplus dishes that need to be sold by the end of the day or generate offers when the venue is quiet to increase average spends. This dynamic pricing approach is already used by airlines – where the typical after-work ‘happy hour’ doesn’t apply – to cater to changing demand and maximise efficiencies. Many restaurants already collect real-time inventory data, so responsive menus could be commonplace sooner than you think. 

Working out in the virtual world

When gyms across the country shut down due to COVID-19, health and fitness tech helped many people stay sane at home. Globaldata shows that 52.2% of UK consumers have completed home workouts since March 2020. And, according to an ongoing study by YouGov, 29% of UK adults currently own and use a wearable fitness device – a proportion that’s increased by 10% in just four years. 

Fitness tech designed for home or personal use is increasing exponentially. But when it comes to brick-and-mortar gym premises, the practical applications aren’t as obvious. Only 9% of our survey respondents expect to see gyms benefit from contactless technology, and the majority of hospitality workers still struggle to imagine how such a physical activity – often involving large equipment – could be intuitively digitised. 

To imagine the gyms of tomorrow, we need to venture beyond the physical constraints of the real world and delve into the virtual realm.

VR is already proving popular with fitness fans who can simply slip on a VR headset to work out in reality-defying environments – from immersive boxing rings to Martian landscapes. The metaverse allows users to work out anywhere, track their progress and join a growing community of virtual members, helping to keep them stay active and engaged. 

Most people don’t have enough space to safely complete virtual workouts at home, presenting an opportunity for gyms to host sessions at their physical premises. Of course, this will place dramatically increased pressure on their network infrastructure, so gyms will need super-fast, super-reliable connectivity to carry the weight of these digital demands. 

Exceptional connectivity = exceptional service.

Hospitality businesses are finding a balance between contactless and face-to-face service. But to make sure they exceed expectations, businesses need to make sure their contactless tech delivers the same high standards as its human counterparts. A failed payment or poor in-app experience could be just as damaging to your reputation as a rude staff member, so you need a strong, scalable network capable of consistently handling contactless tech and sensitive customer data.

With TalkTalk Business, you’ll have the next-level connectivity and rock-solid resilience you need to provide exceptional contactless experiences.

Our ultra-reliable, high-bandwidth network enables you to handle the large amounts of data generated by contactless technology – such as in-app transactions or virtual gym sessions. You’ll have reliable connectivity at your fingertips, so you can deliver the seamless experiences your customers expect – now, and in the future. 

As the hospitality industry becomes increasingly contactless, TalkTalk Business is your competitive edge. 

Learn more about the evolution of the contactless era, read our exclusive whitepaper: The Future of Hospitality: AI, Data and People-Power

About the research

In September 2022, we commissioned a survey by Vanson Bourne of 300 senior IT decision-makers and frontline employees in business sizes ranging from 1,000-2,999 employees to those with 5,000 or more.

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