Tourism companies commit to hospitality as AI, technology grows

Regent Street, Christchurch, mid-summer, 2020.

Archive photo.
Photo: 123rf

Tourism operators say they don’t want new technology to jeopardize the manaakitanga they offer visitors.

The industry has faced a rapid increase in new technology that offers opportunities as well as challenges. And companies don’t want to risk being left behind.

Some have begun to embrace robotic room service, virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

But for smaller operators, it can be a scary step into the unknown.

George hotel manager Simon Ruri said person-to-person contact was what the industry was built on.

“There’s a concern that we might lose some of that. There’s definitely room to integrate that, but I think what we stand strong on is our hospitality — both importing and exporting it.

“So I think it’s pretty scary in terms of what it means for us going forward.”

But new technology brought with it an exciting and possibly generational shift, Ruri said.

He said there were opportunities to use artificial intelligence without affecting manaakitanga.

There were some big decisions to make and research was essential before buying in, he said.

“Even if it’s a big investment, are you investing in it for the future or are you investing in it now and what does that look like?

“Because we have to be careful what we’re looking for now versus what the future looks like or could look like, so I think that’s the hardest part.”

Tongariro National Trout Center chief executive Bevin Severinsen said it was about how the tourism industry adapted and managed the new technology.

“If you go back 30-40 years, when the banks were talking about phasing out checkbooks and moving to cards, which you stick into a machine on the sidewalk and punch in a secret number, and then suddenly you have access to your bank account.

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“I remember the rhetoric at the time was like ‘what a crazy idea. How can this technology even take off?’

Companies like his have plenty of questions about new technology, as he found out at a recent tourism summit.

“A lot of it is about the idea of ​​how do you manage that? How do we make sure it doesn’t take over our business? How do we maintain that face-to-face contact with our customer base?”

Severinsen noted that there was less engagement with similar photos of children and families catching rainbow trout on social media.

Since then, it has tinkered with AI-generated posts and images to drum up interest.

“You get new engagement from people that you haven’t seen on your social media before, and it’s the images that kind of stir something in their minds.”

Technology can also help bring iwi history, environmental knowledge and customs to life, he said.

Julie Wolbers runs the Ribbonwood Retreat, a bed and breakfast in Franz Josef, and said she would never lose touch with her business.

“What sets us apart, though, is when a guest leaves us saying they arrived as strangers and left as friends. So we don’t – well, we don’t think AI can really take that away from us.”

She uses artificial intelligence to help with emails and marketing, and she’s been thinking about how else it could make a difference to her business.

“It helps me with syntax, spelling and these are tasks that I would rather not spend time on.”

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Rebecca Ingram said technology could help businesses spend more time on the important things – like customers – by taking over tasks.

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“The way I see tourism companies using it now – and I expect it to continue – is to enable their people to do what they do best, so AI can support them with some of the things that is a little less sexy or interesting behind the scenes.”

Tourism businesses said change was coming, but it didn’t have to come at the expense of their hospitality.

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