Robots can give hotels room to grow

Robots which can deliver room service and roll 160 napkins an hour might just provide some of the answers to the labour-starved hotel sector's problems.

The number of hotel rooms in Singapore is expected to grow by about 13,300 by 2020.

But that rate is likely to outstrip growth in the workforce.

Therefore, the use of technology is the way forward for the hotel industry, said Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran yesterday as he launched the latest Industry Transformation Map (ITM) for hotels.

It is aimed at helping the 400 hotels here adopt manpower-lean business models, innovate, internationalise and grow the workforce.

From 2005 to last year, total room revenue grew 2.6 times from $1.2 billion to $3.2 billion, while revenue per available room nearly doubled.

Achieving the same growth as in the past will be "increasingly difficult" unless the industry transforms, Mr Iswaran warned.

Robots are one way hotels are preparing for the future.

At the Marina Bay Sands, a new employee is set to feature from next year - a metal robotic arm.

It will lend a hand to the hotel's human employees whose job is to roll up 3,500 napkins each day and slot utensils into them for use during events such as weddings.

The robotic arm, which can roll up 160 napkins in an hour, will be able to do the job of seven full-time employees, who can then be redeployed to do other higher value jobs such as interacting with guests, said Marina Bay Sands' senior vice-president for hotel operations Ian Wilson.

The use of radio frequency identification chips in linen, uniforms and even decorative items in hotel rooms is another way technology can help the sector.

An innovation used in more than 10 hotels here, this allows workers to track the items without having to manually count them, which can lead to average man-hour savings of up to 60 per cent.

But innovation is only part of the solution. In an industry powered by a 33,000-strong workforce, emphasis will still be on human capital.

Which is why a three-year campaign to raise awareness about hotel jobs and careers will begin in the first quarter of next year, Mr Iswaran added.

It is part of the ITM's aim to tackle challenges such as rising customer expectations, an ageing workforce and Singaporeans' lack of interest in a career in hospitality.

Grants - in which the government will fund up to 70 per cent of the cost - will also be given out to hotels which make changes to boost productivity.

In the first half of this year, Singapore received 8.2 million visitors, up 13 per cent from the same period last year. They spent $11.6 billion, a 12 per cent increase.

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