The travel industry should prepare for the age of robots delivering more services, if the results of Travelzoo research are anything to go by.
The global travel media commerce firm commissioned independent research from Norstat Group to coincide with the annual ITB trade show in Berlin this week.
Overall, the survey of 6,000 travellers found a high level of acceptance of robots, although there were regional differences and a more accepting attitude for certain tasks.
British travellers were found to be divided, while Chinese and Brazilians were the most optimistic about the benefits of robots while Germans and French remained suspicious.
Overall 80% of respondents globally expected robots to play a big part in their lives before 2020, with three quarters believing they will make their lives significantly better.
Richard Singer, Travelzoo’s European president who will present the findings in a keynote address at ITB alongside Toshiba, said:
“The vast majority of people we surveyed worldwide expect robots to play a big part in their lives by 2020,” said Singer.
“What surprised us is travellers are quite comfortable with robots and realise they can play a positive role in the delivery of their holiday.
“People believe robots will improve their experience because they will be better than humans. What many people do not realise is how they are being deployed already.”
Singer said there are examples, like Royal Caribbean’s robotic bartender on its latest ships and the Japanese Henn na Hotel, that have gained a lot of attention.
He said some use of robots can be seen to be “quite gimmicky”, but behind the scenes robots and artificial intelligence is already playing a significant part in the holiday sector.
Tour operators and retailers are expected to make more use of robotics and artificial intelligence to improve Customer Relationship Management.
“Robots or artificial intelligence can perhaps create much deeper relationships with real time data, more so than humans can,” added Singer.
“We are still in the realm today of this being quite gimmicky, something you might win wards for, but it’s going to become much more involved in how data is gathered.”
Singer added: “The companies that blend machine with more skilled people with the most data and business knowledge will be the ones that will success in the future.”
Among British respondents in the Travelzoo study, 50% said they found them frightening, and almost two thirds expressed concern about handing over day-to-day travel responsibilities to machines.
British consumers expressed a preference for being greeted by a human receptionist in a hotel, with 86% preferring a human over a robot in this role.
Opinion shifted, however, if the robot receptionist were able to handle questions more accurately and process more information with 52% saying they would choose a robot over a human.
Nearly three quarters of UK respondents also believe robots have better memories than humans, can process data faster and are better at learning multiple languages.
Learning a language is one thing, but understanding cultural nuances, irony and humour is quite another, and robots were not seen to be strong in this area.
British respondents were the most concerned about robots and the subtle understanding of language.
Just over three quarters (78%) of respondents doubted a robot’s ability to understand informal language such as slang, idiomatic phrases, irony and humour.
Professor Stephen Page of Bournemouth University, a leading global authority on travel and tourism, said:
“Robots represent a major innovation to the tourism sector, and their potential impact and use offers many new avenues to enhance and develop the visitor experience of travel and hospitality.
“Understanding how consumers will embrace and interact with this new technology will be critical to their adoption and dissemination in an industry that is one of the market leaders in the use of technology.”
Other key findings from the research:
UK respondents clearly want a robot to look like a robot, and not too lifelike. This ensures clear separation between robots and real people:
· Nearly 6 out of 10 UK respondents (59%) would prefer a robot to look like a machine, and not have human qualities
· In contrast, over three quarters (76%) of Chinese respondents would rather the robot look like a human. Spanish respondents were split 50/50
Robots in the travel industry
UK travellers seem fairly happy with robots being used within the travel industry, as long as a human is accompanying them. They don’t want robots to replace human contact:
· 61% of UK travellers would be comfortable with robots being used in the travel industry.
· Travellers from Germany (63%) and France (53%) are the least comfortable with robots
· Travellers from China (92%) came out as the most comfortable with robots being used in travel, followed by Brazil (73%) and the US (71%)
· 50% of UK respondents would accept the use of a robot as a hotel receptionist if it was accompanied by a human, and almost one third (31%) would accept the robot even if it was unaccompanied
· Speaking to a real person when booking a holiday is important to UK travellers – they are the second-least likely to agree that they would welcome the use of a robot when taking holiday bookings over the phone (49%). Germans were the least in favour of booking via a robot – 56% did not like the idea
· One third of UK respondents wouldn’t accept the use of a robot as a waiter under any circumstance (33%)
· British respondents were the most averse to robots being used in nurseries or kids’ clubs in resorts, with 55% saying they wouldn’t accept this