Automation can not exchange hospitality’s human contact, says Mandarin Oriental Singapore GM


Philipp Knuepfer knows all about change. As general manager of the Mandarin Oriental Singapore, he helms a property that 40 years ago was the first luxury hotel in the Marina Bay area and is now part of a bustling luxury district. This year, the grand dame hotel closed for a six-month renovation to catch up to the changing luxury travel landscape – better views, better suites, more sustainable practices. But for Knuepfer, the most important element remains people – and not just the guests. Here he tells us about the careful balance luxury hospitality must strike between the rise of automation and AI and the irreplaceable need for the human touch:

“In luxury hospitality, we will always rely on people. During Covid-19, we saw hotels close and some downsize their operations team. Now we need to gain people’s trust back as we reopen. I’m talking especially about our frontline staff – the housekeepers, waiters, bellmen, doormen. When we go out to recruit for these positions, they’re as hard to find as operations people. You can have the best automation and the best AI, but at the end of the day, this is a people business. 

When I travel for business, I don’t need to be looked after. I want to arrive, go to my room, work. I don’t want five people coming to ask me, “How is everything?” But when I have more leisure time, I enjoy having someone who helps me arrange itineraries and look after my family. The beauty about personalised service is that it is non-standardised.

Human-to-human connection also gives a local sense of place. When I arrive in Singapore, I don’t want to feel like I’ve arrived in New York or Bali or Switzerland. AI can never fully accommodate this because it’s tricky to create those emotions.

Image: Imran Sulaiman

That said, I saw the humanoid robot Sophia in Saudi Arabia’s upcoming experimental city Neom, and it’s quite uncanny when she sits next to you. With just a few questions – Where are you from? What are you doing? Where did you go to school? – she can personalise your experience better than many humans could. 

We have to be thoughtful about how we use this technology. AI should definitely perform routine tasks. In America, hotels are already trying delivery robots that bring up a toothbrush or a key. And guests are quite happy because they can avoid the culture of constant tipping. AI can also be integrated into back-of-house matters such as managing telephone systems, reservations, key cards and wherever else routine tasks can be automated. But ultimately, AI will help our employees spend more personal time with guests.

Over the next 20 to 30 years, those who can train and retain human talent will win the race.

But just as customers have changed, so have employees. The most important way to obtain and retain talent is to have competitive wages and benefits. When I started, the hotel school student mantra was that you get paid nothing but you get to work 16 hours a day and one day you are rewarded. And many people like me found that utterly motivating. That has certainly shifted! Today, nobody finds that motivating anymore. We have to adjust.

The second thing we need to offer is an engaging environment, where employees get to be mobile, travel the world and work in different areas. The work environment needs to allow them the freedom to express themselves. They don’t want to read from a script or wear the same uniform. 

Thirdly, younger people want to learn and be valued. In this regard, the hospitality industry has to be less demanding. Our biggest challenge is that we are a 24/7 operation. We need a better model. We already see this model in the United States, with unions and different labour laws. But in Asia, hospitality people are working extremely long hours. Changing that will have an impact on hotel rates, because labour costs will rise. But it’s what will allow hospitality to stay attractive as an industry where you can make a living as well as a career. And I think the customer is happy, certainly in the luxury segment, to pay for that. 

When you look at Singapore, and indeed the rest of the world, tourism is a very important part of the global economy. Over the next 20 to 30 years, those who can train and retain human talent will win the race.”


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