The recent launch of Mi-Pad Hotel in Queenstown has been heralded as New Zealand's first example of a "smart hotel", complete with a "digital concierge" by the name of mia (note the lowercase "m"; the future sign of a robot?).
Riffing off the Appleverse, the Mi-Pad (get it?) aims to be a "next generation" experience "set by you and designed for the world we live in". The Mi-Pad offers a modern, clean, technology-enhanced hotel with virtually (get it?) no staff — the website lists only the Hotel Manager and mia under "our people".
What market will a smart hotel appeal to? Is this the start of a new trend, are robots and artificial intelligence going to take over the service world? What does this mean for the future of human service workers? Can a hotel with no staff still deliver hospitality?
One way of seeing this hotel is as a response to a challenging marketplace. Though New Zealand hotels are enjoying an eight-year sweet spot of high demand from record tourist numbers and limited supply, they are facing significant disruption from online booking platforms and agile competitors like Airbnb.
Businesses often respond to competitive pressure in one of two ways: upping their game by providing increased levels of product and service; or lowering costs through limiting product choice and replacing labour with technology. Mi-Pad is a fine example of the latter, providing modest product levels, in their words "everything you need and nothing you don't", with technology that significantly reduces employee numbers. This is not new in tourism and hospitality — pop into your local airport or MacDonald's and check out the automated kiosks.
This move to smart service (replacing people with technology) will undoubtedly appeal to a generation used to using phone-based apps for just about everything, and for a certain position in the market will make a lot of sense. However, "rationalising" product choice and service levels tends to lead to a commodified offering (just another room), greatly limiting the price one can ask. Also, when we look at what mia can actually do (act as a room key, control room temperature and lighting, request privacy or a room clean), the title of "digital concierge" seems very ambitious.
Let's be honest, mia pretty much just offers an alternative to using the light and heating switch, but "she" (don't get me started on gender norming in service technology names) will obviously not match the abilities of an actual concierge. In many ways, the move towards a "smart" hotel represents a common offering in the modern marketplace: limited product choice, super-efficient, commodified and reasonably priced.
So, the arrival of Mi-Pad asks a very important question — what are service people for? If a hotel has untrained, poorly paid, demotivated youth performing basic tasks like checking you in, but incapable of offering real hospitality, then surely replacing them with mia makes absolute sense?
In that case, does mia herald the end of skilled service staff?
I would argue not, because there will always be hotels that want to differentiate themselves from the commodified/cheap and cheerful end of the market and they will require motivated, skilled and empathetic "hosponauts". These staff will need to meet the complex needs of demanding, discerning guests, who will be willing to pay top dollar for the experience. This is the segment of the market that New Zealand should be focusing on developing — high value, high skill and high yield. These jobs will be rewarding intrinsically and financially and will ensure our reputation as a fully developed tourism destination.
• Dr David Williamson is head of the AUT Hospitality department in the School of Hospitality, Tourism & Events