Covering Digital Transformation in today’s world is more than a full-time job. So many exciting things are happening in the technology space at the moment that it is impossible to keep up with them all. One of the best methods of learning and networking that I have found is to attend a conference. You get to listen to talks, network with speakers and find out about new trends.
One of the areas which is gaining much public attention is that of Artificial Intelligence.
In November, I went to AI Tech in London, where I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation by Michael Mrini, The Director of IT, at Edwardian Hotels.
What impressed me most about his presentation was that he wasn’t just talking about the possibilities. He had actually delivered on his futuristic vision, which had been in place for over a year.
For me, this presentation stood out. It was the best example I had seen so far of digital transformation using Artificial Intelligence. It had been applied to the hospitality industry where there is an expectation of excellent human-centred customer service. More significantly for me, it was also an example of where AI augments the human experience rather than replacing it, pointing to a future that involves humans working together in harmony with computers to create great customer experiences. I realised I could learn a lot from Michael.
Michael Mrini, Collecting his award from the CHTA for most valued person 2017
Michael’s creation was a “Virtual Hospitality Host” called Edward (Many of you on social media will be more familiar with term “chatbot”).
The idea behind Edward was to create an artificially intelligent service, which delivers exceptional experiences for guests who prefer digital based brand interaction. Edward works by using automated and intelligent text-based interaction, via a self-service interface that is accessible 24/7. Guests can send a text Edward and get immediate responses. The natural language understanding (NLU) interface enables guests to use natural, life-like conversational language rather than having to remember cryptic commands. Edward is also integrated to Edwardian’s staff and property management systems, so it is backed up with human assistance if required. Complaints or requests that need a follow-up, get passed on to the relevant member of staff for immediate action, ensuring great customer service.
I wanted to speak to Michael to find out about his journey and how he built Edward. I was delighted to be invited over to the 4 star Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel near Heathrow in London to talk about this and find out more about the man behind the creation.
Simon: Michael, can you tell me how the idea for Edward came about?
Michael: We started thinking about a better way to serve our guests in 2015. With the popularity of the smartphone, we were aware of the demands from our guests for more digital methods of interaction. The first step was to allow on-line check-in. Initially, we would send the customer an SMS based confirmation. We noticed that our customers would reply to these confirmations with further questions, expecting a reply. This was where we spotted an opportunity to digitally transform the way we engage with our guests.
Simon: What was this opportunity?
Michael: Having worked in this business and with the IT systems for over 20 years, I had a good understanding of the business and its processes and believed the introduction of the latest technology in this area would be beneficial for both guests and employees. My vision was to introduce Edward as the newest member of staff, automating responses to common questions. We trained Edward so that he would answer a guest in the same way that a human would, this would allow the team to focus their attention on providing a better human to human guest experience, without compromising on the existing service levels.
Simon: How does Edward work?
Michael: Guests can interact with Edward via an SMS service. This allows guests to check and request hotel amenities – such as towels or room service, get information about local bars and restaurants and even express complaints – simply by sending a text message. Edward will respond within a few seconds. Most importantly, by using technology smartly and capturing this information, we can make this available to all departments and can give customers a better service.
Simon: How did you train Edward?
Michael: The Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology enables Edward to understand the request and the sentiment. However, by “teaching” him how to respond, he comes across as human. We wanted Edward to come across as a hospitality employee, therefore we trained Edward like we trained our other employees. Edward demonstrates a ‘Can do’ attitude; Edward never says I don’t know or I can’t help you. Instead he says ‘we’ll get back to you shortly’ and gets a human to help. For example, if a guest says ‘where do I get some ice’, Edward doesn’t say ‘there is an ice machine on your floor’ instead he says ‘I’ll send you some ice’ and asks room service to deliver the ice in person. If Edward doesn’t have the answer to a particular question he will forward the enquiry to guest relations and get them to reply, he will then add the answer to his learning for future reference.
Simon: It sounds like the future has already arrived! What are the most frequent requests?
Michael: Edward can be interacted with in over 900 different ways. Examples include,
“Do you have a car park?”,
“What time is breakfast?”,
“Can I have extra towels?”
“What time can I check in?”
“What time can I check out?”
“Can I order spaghetti?”
These are all common enquiries, where human interaction really isn’t required. As he has been trained by humans, Edward has his own distinct ‘personality’, he can automatically escalate complaints should a request be not followed up and is even multi-lingual, speaking Arabic and Spanish too! If a task needs to be generated from the enquiry for another department, Edward will ensure that they get the message.
Simon: That’s very intelligent! What has been the feedback from the guests been like?
Michael: Many of the guests did not realise that this was a system at first! Edward has received tips and has feedback on TripAdvisor. Many of our guests think Edward is a human being. Some have even invited him to their room for a drink!
Some of their comments:
“Customer service is taken extremely seriously and with a service that I found ground-breaking and just such innovation is Edward …. an almost personal butler service provided by text message”
“I love the virtual assistant, Edward! He was very friendly too and assisted me in all the ways he could!”
“The virtual host, Edward, great idea and makes for a very personal experience.”
Simon: And the employees, how have they taken to Edward?
Michael: As with any change, there was uncertainty initially. AI is not something you see in hotels, it was therefore very unfamiliar to most people in our industry. Especially the way we developed it – Edward as not only a question and answer tool but a system what works almost entirely like a customer service person. But Edward has become a tool that enables our employees to spend more time focusing on being good hosts and doing what humans do best and that is looking after humans. Edward answers questions that do not need human interaction and acts as a triage for more specialist requests.
Simon: What are the plans for further digital transformation?
Michael: At Radisson-Edwardian, the digital transformation journey never stops, we have been on this journey for over 20 years. We have been continuously improving our business processes using technology throughout that time. We started off automating the most manual intensive processes, then moved onto create a data warehouse to create a reporting and analytics capability. When smart devices came out, we set about creating a suite of 23 apps to manage the workflow each area of the business from room booking to housekeeping. Each of our employees has been issued with an iPod touch or they can use their own smart device so they can access and record the information required to do their work. We will also continue to improve Edward and our guest services. Edward is currently available at all 12 of our hotels in the UK and the information captured is all fully integrated with our staff management systems. We have plans to introduce a Voice interface like Amazon Alexa in the near future.
TO BE CONTINUED….This concludes part 1 of the interview. In part 2, I will be finding out more about Michael’s background and the change journey he undertook to create Edward, to find out if there are any lessons to be learned on what it takes to deliver successful digital transformation. Don’t miss it.
About Edwardian Hotels London
Edwardian Hotels London is one of the UK’s largest, privately-owned companies which has been developing luxury hotel and hospitality brands since Jasminder Singh OBE began his career within the hospitality industry in 1975 – forming the beginnings of what would subsequently become Edwardian Hotels.
Today Edwardian Hotels London operates Radisson Blu Edwardian hotels, The May Fair Hotel London and a fast-growing range of distinctive restaurant, bar and spa brands.
For more information visit their website at www.edwardian.com