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Decoding the AI Hype: Why the Core Job of Hotels Remains Unchanged

26 September 2023
At the heart of every hotel, both in the past and present, there has been a promise made to travelers: to provide a safe and comfortable sanctuary away from home. This foundational commitment remains unaltered, even as technology advances, including the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Although AI has great potential for change, it's essential to understand that its purpose in the hotel industry, or any industry, is not to redefine the fundamental meaning but to enhance it. In this post, I will touch upon the world of AI but ultimately focus on the enduring essence of hospitality. I will explore how AI can support the age-old mission of hotels rather than diverting from it.
Understanding the jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) theory is crucial while considering the future role of Artificial Intelligence in the hospitality industry. The JTBD framework reminds us that consumers hire products or services to fulfill specific needs or tasks. In the case of hotels, the primary job has always been to provide travelers with a comfortable and safe place to stay. By basing our understanding on this theory, we ensure that any technological advancement, including AI, is not viewed as an end in itself but as a tool to better cater to the core needs of guests. Understanding the JTBD ensures that we utilize AI to improve the guest experience, staying true to the age-old mission of hospitality instead of being swayed by technology for technology's sake.

The Jobs-to-be-done theory

The Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) theory, developed by Clayton Christensen and others, is a framework that focuses on understanding the fundamental reasons why customers "hire" a product or service. Instead of looking at demographics or psychographics, the JTBD approaches the functional, emotional, and social tasks consumers try to accomplish.
Let's explore how the JTBD framework can be applied using the evolution of listening to music.
  1. The Fundamental Job: At its core, people "hire" music to enjoy melodies, rhythms, and lyrics. The primary job to be done is "I want to be entertained" or "I want to feel a certain emotion."
  2. Early Solutions:
    1. Phonographs and Vinyl Records: In the early 20th century, consumers "hired" phonographs and vinyl records to bring music into their homes. The primary JTBD is still the same but also covers a new need: "I want to listen to music at my convenience."
    2. Radios: As radios became common, people could tune in to stations and listen to various music. The primary JTBD is still the same but now covers a new need: "I want to discover new music without buying every record."
  3. Cassette Tapes and Walkmans: As technology evolved, the cassette tape allowed music to be portable. Sony's Walkman, for example, catered to the JTBD of "I want to listen to my choice of music on the go." The primary JTBD is still the same.
  4. CDs and CD Players: These offered clearer sound quality and durability. The JTBD might be, "I want to listen to music with better audio quality."
  5. MP3 Players: Devices like the iPod changed the game by allowing thousands of songs to be stored on one device. The JTBD was, "I want to have my entire music collection in my pocket."
  6. Streaming Services: Platforms like Spotify and Apple Music offer access to millions of songs for a monthly fee. The JTBD could be, "I want access to a vast music library without having to buy or store each song."
  7. Additional Jobs:
    1. Social Sharing: As people started sharing music playlists or discovering music through friends, a new JTBD emerged: "I want to share and discover music socially."
    2. Mood and Activity-Based Playlists: Services started curating playlists based on moods or activities. This answered the JTBD: "I want music that matches my current mood or activity."
Throughout this evolution, while the basic desire to listen to and enjoy music remained unchanged, the way the job was "hired out" evolved due to technological advancements and consumer preferences shifts. By understanding the primary jobs, such as enjoying music and being entertained, companies could innovate and offer products and services that help consumers get the job done faster and more accurately.
The JTBD framework reminds businesses to focus on the underlying needs and desires of the consumer rather than getting too fixated on the current product solution. This perspective can lead to disruptive innovations as businesses develop new ways to address long-standing jobs.
None of the new technologies have changed the primary JTBD to listen to and enjoy music. AI will not change the primary JTBD, but it might change how music is brought to us and how we want it. With this example, I hope you understand the jobs-to-be-done theory and how it works practically. Now, let's move to the hotel business.

The Job-to-be-done in hotels

Let's unpack the Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) framework in the context of hotels.

The Fundamental Job

At its core, people "hire" hotels for temporary overnight accommodation. The primary job is "To get shelter and a good night's sleep" or "To take care of basic needs, such as water, food, sleep, hygiene, and safety, while away from home."

Secondary Jobs

  • Business Needs: For business travelers, there's a JTBD of "I need a place to work efficiently." This translates to requirements like a desk, reliable Wi-Fi, business centers, meeting rooms, and proximity to key business districts or convention centers.
  • Leisure and Relaxation: Some travelers hire hotels to "escape and relax." This might lead them to prioritize amenities like spas, swimming pools, luxurious bedding, or room service.
  • Exploration: Tourists might have a JTBD of "I want to explore the local attractions." They might look for centrally located hotels, provide tour booking services, or offer local insights and recommendations.
  • Dining: For some, dining is integral to the hotel experience. The JTBD might be, "I want to enjoy local or gourmet cuisine without leaving the hotel." This is addressed by hotels having in-house restaurants, bars, and breakfast services.
  • Fitness: Health-conscious travelers may have the JTBD of "I want to maintain my fitness routine while traveling." This calls for hotel fitness centers, gyms, and even yoga rooms.
  • Family Needs: Families traveling with children have unique requirements. Their JTBD might be, "I need to keep my children entertained and safe." Hence, family-friendly hotels might offer amenities like kid's clubs, babysitting services, and family rooms.

Tertiary or Emotional Jobs

  • Social Status and Experience: Luxury hotels cater to the JTBD of "I want to be pampered and experience luxury" or "I want to elevate my social status." This encompasses everything from opulent decor to personalized butler services.
  • Cultural Experience: Boutique or heritage hotels might cater to the JTBD of "I want to immerse myself in the local culture or history." They offer a unique, culturally rich experience that standard hotels might not.
  • Networking: For some, especially at business conventions or seminars, the hotel serves as a networking hub. The JTBD is "I want to meet and connect with peers or potential partners."
  • Safety and Security: Especially in unfamiliar destinations, the JTBD might be "I want to feel safe." Hotels address this by offering secure entryways, safes, surveillance systems, and concierge services to guide local safety norms.
  • Environmental Consciousness: Eco-travelers might have a JTBD of "I want to stay at a place that aligns with my environmental values." This leads to the rise of eco-friendly or sustainable hotels.
Remember, these jobs can overlap, and a single traveler might have multiple jobs they want to be done during a single stay. Successful hotels recognize these varied needs and design their services and amenities to cater to them. However, the art is in discerning which jobs are the most crucial for their target clientele and delivering them exceptionally well.

The evolution of the overnight experience

Hotels have a long history of evolving to meet travelers' changing needs and desires. As societies changed, technologies advanced, and travel became more common, hotels adapted in various ways. Here's an overview of how hotels have evolved to meet guests' needs.

Basic Accommodations and Safety

  • Historically, inns and roadside taverns existed primarily to offer shelter to travelers. They were bare, providing a bed and perhaps a meal, with the primary JTBD being, "I need a safe place to rest during my journey."
  • Early 20th Century: Many hotels lacked private bathrooms before the turn of the last century. Instead, communal baths or chamber pots were shared. En-suite bathrooms were included in 1910, signaling a shift towards personal comfort and privacy.

Business Needs

  • Early 20th Century: Hotels began to cater to business travelers by offering telegraph services, meeting rooms, and business centers.
  • 1990s and Beyond: With the advent of the internet, providing internet services became crucial. Initially, hotels added business centers with computers. Later, as laptops became ubiquitous, they started offering Wi-Fi — first as a paid service and then, due to demand, often complimentary.

Leisure and Luxuries

  • 1920s and Beyond: With the rise of Hollywood and the global elite, luxury hotels started offering more lavish amenities, from opulent lobbies to gourmet dining, to cater to the JTBD of "I want to experience luxury."
  • 1947 and Beyond: The introduction of in-room televisions, minibars, and air conditioning furthered the idea of comfort and leisure.

Fitness and Wellness

  • 1980s: As fitness became a significant trend, hotels began adding gyms and fitness centers. The JTBD was "I want to maintain my fitness routine while traveling."
  • 2000s: The wellness trend saw hotels incorporating spas, yoga studios, and even wellness retreats.

Dining and Cuisine

  • Mid to Late 20th Century: Hotels began to realize that food was an integral part of the travel experience. They started to include restaurants and elevated their dining offerings by partnering with renowned chefs. Room service also became a standard feature in many upscale hotels.

Family and Entertainment

  • 1970s – 2000s: Recognizing the increasing number of families traveling for leisure, hotels introduced amenities like swimming pools, game rooms, and kids' clubs.

Cultural and Local Experiences

  • The 2000s and Beyond: As travelers began seeking authentic experiences, many hotels started incorporating local culture into their designs, food, and guest experiences. Boutique and heritage hotels became popular.

Environmental Consciousness

  • Early 21st Century: With growing awareness of environmental issues, many hotels adopted eco-friendly practices, from waste reduction and energy-saving measures to full-scale eco-resorts.
This evolution showcases the hotel industry's responsiveness to societal shifts, technological advancements, and changing traveler needs. It's a testament to the industry's resilience and ability to continually reinvent itself.

Time travel - from 1850 to today

The primary need for "temporary overnight accommodation" is still the same but has been refined over the years. Let's prove this by an example. Imagining the reaction of someone from 1850 when presented with modern-day technologies and amenities is a fascinating exercise. Their worldview, shaped by their time's technological and societal norms, would make many modern conveniences seem magical or overwhelming. Let's consider the music consumption and the hotel stay. While both scenarios would be astonishing to someone from 1850, the overnight experience in a hotel would likely be more relatable than modern music consumption methods. Here's why.
  1. Innate Human Needs: The core purpose of a hotel room—providing shelter, a place to sleep, and personal comfort—has remained consistent over time. In 1850, travelers still sought out inns or lodging houses for these basic needs. Therefore, the foundational purpose of a hotel room would be immediately understood.
  2. Physical Familiarities: Many elements of a modern hotel room would have analogs in the 1850 context. Beds, chairs, tables, mirrors, and windows might still be recognizable, although they might look different in style and materials.
  3. Tangible Enhancements: While features like indoor plumbing, climate control, and electronic amenities would be novel and impressive, they are enhancements of concepts that existed in some form in 1850. For example, there's running water instead of a washbasin with a pitcher. Instead of a fireplace or a stove for warmth, there's centralized heating.
In contrast, the concept of music consumption in the digital age introduces several entirely novel ideas:
  1. Intangible Storage: The idea that music doesn't need a physical medium like an instrument, sheet music, or a later phonograph but can exist as digital files would be challenging to grasp.
  2. Invisible Connectivity: Streaming music over the internet, an intangible and omnipresent network, would seem like a concept out of fantasy.
  3. Ubiquity: The ability to access almost any recorded song instantaneously would contrast sharply with the more limited and localized music exposure of the 1850s.
While both experiences are astonishing to someone from the mid-19th century, the overnight hotel experience, rooted in tangible and familiar human needs, is more intuitively relatable than the abstract and revolutionary changes in music consumption.

What will AI change?

In both music consumption and hotel overnight stays, while AI will introduce efficiencies and novel experiences, it's essential to strike a balance. The hospitality industry thrives on human touch and personal interactions, and music, at its core, is a profoundly human expression. AI can enhance these areas, but the challenge will be to ensure it complements rather than replaces the human elements. Let's take a closer look at a hotel stay.

Increase the value for the guest

The first part is to enhance the value of a hotel stay so hotels can charge a premium price to increase revenue and profitability. This can be done by adding products and services guests are willing to pay for. Here are two examples.
Personalized Experiences
Personalized means that the hotel needs input from guests willing to share their preferences. If AI could help collect and interpret guest data, hotels would be able to enhance the experience.
  • Room Customization: Rooms could already today automatically adjust lighting, temperature, or even the firmness of the mattress based on a guest's previous stays or set preferences. AI might be able to refine existing technologies.
  • Tailored Recommendations: AI could suggest activities, dining options, or nearby events based on guests' interests.
Enhanced Convenience
  • Seamless Check-In/Out: Facial recognition makes check-in and check-out processes instantaneous. No more waiting at the front desk. This technology is already available, but hoteliers are reluctant to implement it. AI will probably not change the minds of hoteliers. Guests need to stop by the front desk.
  • Virtual Concierges: AI chatbots or virtual assistants in rooms can answer queries, provide information, or facilitate requests 24/7.

Increase productivity

The second part is to increase productivity or minimize the cost of acquiring and servicing the guest to achieve operational efficiency and maximize profits.
Operational Efficiency
There are many areas where AI can improve operations and make hotels more profitable. Here are two obvious examples.
  • Predictive Maintenance: AI can predict when parts of the hotel are likely to need maintenance, ensuring that everything is in top condition and reducing unexpected breakdowns.
  • Energy Optimization: AI can optimize energy use in unoccupied rooms or areas by analyzing usage patterns, leading to significant savings.

Final thoughts

Hotels have long served the fundamental job of providing travelers with shelter, comfort, and a sense of safety away from home. Over time, the industry has evolved, with hotels adapting to changing guest needs and expectations—ranging from the addition of in-room bathrooms in 1910 to internet access in the 1990s.
Fast forward to today, and we stand on the brink of another transformative phase: the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the hospitality sector. AI promises to elevate guest experiences through personalized room settings, instant service via virtual assistants, and predictive insights to optimize hotel operations. Additionally, AI can assist in dynamic pricing, targeted marketing, and real-time feedback analysis.
However, with these advancements comes the responsibility of ethically managing guest data and ensuring privacy. As hotels harness AI's power, striking a balance between technological innovation and the timeless touch of human hospitality becomes paramount. The future of hotels lies not just in intelligent rooms but in seamlessly blending AI's efficiencies with the warmth of human-centric service.
The significant threat to the hotel business is if AI-driven technologies like virtual reality (VR) become mainstream for business meetings or social interactions, it might reduce the need for business travel and, by extension, overnight accommodation. Leisure travel, driven by the human desire to explore and experience new environments, is less likely to be significantly affected if the physical experience is superior to the digital experience. This will take time, but at some point, the digital experience will be far better than the physical experience and far more convenient. At that point, you don't need to leave home, and there is no need for temporary overnight accommodation.