INTERVIEW: Ivana Perković on AI Revolution in Hospitality

Published: 19 June 2024

Reading time: 9 minutes

In a recent workshop at the Croatian Chamber of Commerce (HGK), the focus was on the transformative role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the tourism sector. One of the speakers was Ivana Perković, a Senior Hospitality Sales Consultant at Alfatec Group. In an interview for the radio show 'Bed & Breakfast', Ivana discussed the AI-powered solutions the Alfatec team is developing and their impact on the hotel industry.

Host: Many would agree that tourism is an industry where AI has found the best application. Its use was recently discussed at HGK, and one of the speakers was Ivana Perković, Senior Hospitality Sales Consultant. Good afternoon and welcome to the show.

Ivana: Thank you, good afternoon to you too.

Host: To introduce you better, what exactly do you do, what solutions does your company offer, and who are they intended for?

Ivana: As you mentioned, I work as a Senior Hospitality Sales Consultant at Alfatec Group, which provides software solutions for various industries. In recent years, we have focused more on the hotel industry, seeing underutilized potential in different application areas. In addition to sales communication and customer relations, I participate in creating software solutions for the hotel industry in collaboration with our development and business intelligence departments.

Host: When we talk about applications, where and how is artificial intelligence used in hotels?

Ivana: Artificial intelligence is applied in several key areas within the hospitality industry. It is used to improve guest communication and enhance customer experience. AI also plays a significant role in predictive analytics, helping hotels make informed decisions. The primary focus is on improving communication with guests and responding quickly to their inquiries. AI automates responses to questions about accommodation, prices, and availability, leading to more efficient reservation and call center operations. Additionally, AI is used to automate operational processes within hotels, from reservation management to various departments, making the staff's job easier and enhancing the overall guest experience.

Host: Speaking of reservations, when someone visits a hotel's website or app, how much of that communication is handled by artificial intelligence, and how often does a real person respond?

Ivana: Experiences vary, and I think the implementation is not yet as extensive as it could be. Initially, we have virtual assistants in the form of live chats, where a real agent is in the background, mimicking a virtual assistant. But in reality, a real agent is conversing with the guest. However, there are some "challenges" in that you cannot communicate with this assistant 24/7, as the agent behind the live chat is unlikely to be available around the clock. That's where artificial intelligence steps in.

Host: When we think of something at midnight...

Ivana: You'd be surprised how many people search for vacation destinations late at night. After a whole day, they finally find time to plan. A colleague recently told me how he and his wife, when they finally relax in the evening, start researching where to spend their next vacation, which hotel to visit, and which destination to choose. However, they can't get answers to their questions because the reservation and call center hours don't cover those late hours. Although basic information can be found on the hotel's website, it requires more clicks and can become frustrating. In many cases, guests give up because the process is too long, and they need additional information to proceed with the reservation.

Host: There are specific inquiries. To what extent can AI answer more specific questions compared to general ones that it already has in its database?

Ivana: The application of AI tools or chatbots depends primarily on the scope of service you want to provide. Such a system can cover basic, frequently asked questions based on previous inquiries to the reservation center. It can provide basic information about hotel amenities and accommodation, but it can also go a step further. In the future, it will develop to maintain conversations with guests based on their preferences, similar to a live agent. This way, it can get specific information needed to tailor offers or provide information, creating a personalized experience for the guest. Besides providing classic information about hotels, amenities, and services, a chatbot can cover the entire reservation process. It can send an offer tailored to the guest's preferences, make the reservation, record it in the hotel system, and send confirmation to the guest.

Host: That's a big deal, to have a reservation made that way, while someone on the night shift sleeps, and AI does it for us. You have developed some solutions at Alfatec and proposed them to hotels and others who might be interested. What has Alfatec designed, and what do you think is most needed?

Ivana: We focused on this specific topic and developed a platform called Elarion Hospitality. This platform is designed to monitor and manage online guest reviews, which is of great importance in the hospitality industry. 

Hoteliers make great efforts to monitor guest satisfaction, not only after their stay but also during their stay. This is crucial because it allows hoteliers to respond promptly and prevent negative reviews. Elarion Hospitality provides detailed analytics that go beyond basic review tracking and management. The analytics are categorized according to different services the hotel offers, such as accommodation, restaurant, spa, and other amenities. Within each category, the platform provides deeper insights into specific aspects of the service. For example, if room reviews show 50% positive and 50% negative ratings, our tool allows an understanding of what those ratings specifically relate to – the bed, linen, cleanliness, bathroom, or something else. Such detailed analytics enable hoteliers to precisely identify areas that need improvement. 

For example, if guests frequently praise the bed, we know that no changes are needed in that area, but maintaining a high standard is required. On the other hand, if complaints are directed at the linen or the smell in the room, hoteliers can focus their efforts on those areas to improve overall guest satisfaction. 

Elarion Hospitality thus enables hoteliers to efficiently manage reviews and improve their services based on concrete and detailed guest feedback. Regarding AI solutions, besides the review solution mentioned earlier, we also have the Elarion Chatbot solution for guest communication.

Host: So, this is a software tool that your colleagues create and then apply in the hotel, as not everyone has time to read reviews all day.

Ivana: Yes, the system collects and processes a large amount of data. While I was working in a hotel, I was responsible for collecting, processing, and analyzing reviews for reporting purposes. Based on that data, we could draw conclusions and plan activities to address issues. It's a demanding job because information comes from various sources. Although some sources are more important and contain most reviews, it's necessary to review all relevant platforms to get a complete picture.

Host: You're talking about platforms like Google, Facebook, all those platforms?

Ivana: Exactly. All those platforms where guests can leave reviews. You need to log into each one, and review the reviews, and each platform has different rating system and categorization. Alfatec Elarion Hospitality integrates all these sources and provides analytics that give a consistent picture of the hotel's real state.

Host: Ratings and reviews are crucial today. Many choose accommodation and restaurants based on ratings. Now we have hundreds and thousands of reviews creating an aggregate rating.

Ivana: Yes, and it also shows the engagement of the hoteliers. When guests see that someone has read every review and responded to it, it means a lot. There are various styles of responding, but there must always be a professional relationship with the guest, whether the review is positive or negative. Alfatec Elarion Hospitality enables the creation of responses using artificial intelligence. You can easily create a response in the language in which the guest originally wrote in the review.

Host: Even if it's a general response, for example, "We apologize if you had any inconveniences" or "Thank you for this excellent rating."

Ivana: Now we have models that can create predefined response templates, depending on whether the review is positive or negative. AI takes into account the context of the review and sentiment and defines the response accordingly. These are machine learning methods that recognize keywords, context, and sentiment within sentences to respond correctly.

Host: It's incredible how much we've advanced with artificial intelligence and how much more we can expect. How much money can AI save hotels, whether it's about reviews or something else? What is a Chatbot?

Ivana: A chatbot is a program that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to understand conversations in a way similar to humans. It automatically responds based on input it receives from the guest. We are currently working on developing chatbot solutions specifically tailored to the hospitality industry. While there are general chatbots, it's important to train and adapt them to the specifics of the hotel sector. The more information a chatbot gets, the more accurately and efficiently it will respond. Additionally, it uses an online knowledge base to answer questions not covered by internal data.

Host: How does this specifically help employees?

Ivana: A chatbot can handle simple questions and inquiries, freeing up staff for more complex issues that require human intelligence and experience. This leads to better productivity and increased revenue as resources are directed where they are most needed. Here lies the answer to your previous question about the savings ensured by the implementation and use of artificial intelligence in hospitality. This primarily relates to time savings, which subsequently leads to the optimization of human resources.

Host: So, AI can improve employee work rather than replace them. Is that the future?

Ivana: I believe so. The goal is to relieve staff, not replace them. As I concluded recently at an HGK workshop, IT companies can offer technical solutions and expertise, but the experience and knowledge of hotel employees are needed to make those solutions effective.

Host: Speaking of today's fears that robots will replace us, I came across a hotel in Japan - the first hotel in the world where robots mainly work. Guests are greeted by robotic staff, including a dinosaur receptionist. Check-in is automated, and guests use facial recognition technology to check into rooms instead of traditional keys. The rooms are equipped with various robotic equipment. Can you comment on this example?

Ivana: I recently watched a documentary about a hotel where robots perform most of the tasks, and the dinosaur receptionist especially stood out to me. Japan is a world leader in technological innovations, and South Korea also excels in developing advanced technological solutions. Smart rooms with automatic temperature control and similar innovations are already in use or under development. Although properties like that can have their clientele, personally, I prefer classic-style hotels where guests are greeted by smiling staff. The human approach and kindness of the staff are irreplaceable.

Host: I agree, the staff can be a crucial factor for guest retention. To conclude, can you comment on the security of artificial intelligence, especially in the context of biometrics?

Ivana: The introduction of GDPR has brought challenges regarding the retention of guest data, such as their previous visits, food allergies, and preferences. It has been difficult to explain to guests why we keep such information. Regular guests expect us to know their preferences, but GDPR policy requires explicit consent to process this data. When it comes to biometrics, security can be higher, but there will always be questions about how data is used, where it is stored, and who can access it. I believe that, over time, a legal framework will develop to regulate the use of artificial intelligence and biometrics. However, there are currently many unresolved legal issues. All these concerns are justified and need to be carefully considered to ensure user security and trust.

Host: This is a broad topic, and we could discuss it for another 20 minutes, but we have to stop here. Thank you for coming and giving us insight into this topic of artificial intelligence in tourism.

Ivana: Thank you for having me.

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