Researcher Spotlight Stephen Rodwell on Robots in the Hotel Industry

Stephen Rodwell

Stephen Rodwell, a passionate Learning Facilitator and PhD Candidate has chosen to investigate the emergence of robots in the hotel industry.

Robots and hotels? It all seems a bit ‘sci-fi’ but hotels across the globe have already begun to utilise such technologies. Seeing a gap in research into robotics in context of hotels and “robotic service”, one of our own Learning Facilitators has decided to dig deeper.

Stephen Rodwell, a passionate Learning Facilitator and PhD Candidate at Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School (BMIHMS), Torrens University Australia has chosen to investigate the emergence of robots in the hotel industry, how they are being utilised and the role these technological advances play in the future of the industry.

We explore this fascinating topic further in a special Q&A with Stephen below.

Tell us a bit about your academic and professional background.

I worked in the hospitality and tourism industry for seventeen years, starting as a bar back and working up to a general manager of nightclubs, hotels, and bars. About ten years ago, I completed an MBA and entered higher education and, since then, I have continued to really enjoy the challenge of engaging with students and exploring the best strategies and leadership characteristics needed to run successful businesses.

Why did you choose to pursue your PhD with BMIHMS at Torrens University Australia?

I felt that BMIHMS at Torrens University was the perfect institution to pursue my PhD with, as I knew first-hand the deep well of professionalism and expertise that would be there to support me through the journey. BMIHMS at Torrens University and specifically, my supervisory team have far exceeded any expectations I had, being there to help me in a way that has been invaluable.

Tell us about your research on the introduction of robots in hotels. Why did you choose to investigate further on this topic and why is it important?

I have always had an interest in emerging technology and had read numerous books and studies on how artificial intelligence and robotics could impact society. From my experience within the hospitality and tourism sector, I knew that the biggest challenge to the acceptance of this new technology would be its ability to provide the kind of service that customers expect from staff. Hotel guests are used to staff delivering the warm, professional and capable services that these robots would need to replicate.

I reviewed the literature at the time and found that there was very little research into what customers liked and disliked about robotic service and how that service compared with human service. This left me really interested in finding out the answers to these questions. It is this curiosity and strong desire to know that formed the foundation for my PhD research.

So far what have you learnt about the interface between customers and robots?

I have been surprised by how willing and excited the hotel customers I interviewed have been about the introduction of service robots, and the general optimism there has been around the value this technology will provide in the future. Already, many have experienced very positive service robotics interactions, and even in some circumstances, would already prefer to be served by a robot over a human staff member. Here in Australia, we haven’t seen much introduction yet of this type of technology, but it is increasingly common across Asia, where this adoption is driving rapid advancements in the capabilities of the technology.

Do you believe that robots can deliver the kinds of services humans currently provide?

In some circumstances, yes, they can. For example, room service robots can deliver items to guest’s rooms in an efficient and friendly fashion, where the guest doesn’t feel the social pressure to put on a public face. Food service robots can make the perfect omelet every time in the hotel breakfast buffet, simply taking the inputted request and delivering it to the customer’s plate seamlessly. For the majority of tasks, humans are still far better than robots at providing great service to guests, but the technology just keeps getting better and better.

What changes do you think the introduction of robots will bring to the ways we deliver service in the future?

I think first we will see the robots replace the manual-labour based roles of lifting and delivering items for guests. Then we will see what are called co-bots (short for collaborative robots) partnering with human service providers to do the physical aspect of service encounters, leaving the humans free to socially interact. This is quite an exciting prospect as it will leave hotel staff free to really develop rapport with customers. For example, the robot porter transports the luggage to the room as the human staff member talks to the guest about the local history, the facilities available, the exciting events that are taking place at that time, etc. There may be a point where robots have the ability to do almost anything. However, this would not only require a massive shift in the hotel sector, but the truth is that nothing in the foreseeable future can replace the warmth in service that comes from quality, skilled employees.

What impact will your research have on the hospitality industry? Is it purely an economic decision to introduce robots to hotel services?

My research will add a deeper understanding of the perceptions that hotel guests have of hotel-based robotic service, what they like, don’t like, what they would change if they could, where they see the technology going in the future, what hotel environments they feel service robotics is an appropriate fit for and other insights. The model that has been constructed from my research, can be used to further explore, and add to as the technology advances and customers become more used to these interactions.

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