The most labour intensive and logistically demanding of any area of operations, housekeeping is slowly dragging itself into the 21st century, with not a robot in sight, yet, writes Dan Creffield

It’s no secret that the hotel industry is set in its ways. And in way only know that route. Nowhere is this more evident than the spite of the many marketing campaigns, brand managers, housekeeping department. social media initiatives and the rest, much of its operations “Housekeeping management is evolving gradually, but because are run along the same principles that saw the business first of the very strong people factor you can’t make big changes fast,” modernise in the 1950s and 60s.With anything that enhances the guest experience or the top line – the revenue stream – hospitality groups move faster to invest. But in terms of innovation behind the scenes and back of office, there has always been hesitation. There are several factors: long budget cycles; ‘decision horizons’ of senior managers, {who are typically rotated every two to three years and, therefore, reluctant to leave an uncertain financial legacy) behind to haunt their track record; and it’s not usually something you can reap the benefits from straight away – progress is typically a longer-term investment. While industry long-stayers are rightly lauded, many managers who have worked their way through the ranks the traditional optimises and remodels housekeeping processes to improve productivity, control quality, measure staff performance and highlight training opportunities as well as areas for process improvement. “What many people don’t realise, is that, from a logistical standpoint, housekeeping is probably the most complex department in the hotel – it is ‘interrupt-driven’ [current tasks are superseded when a more urgent demand is received]. But it is also very repetitive – the same situations and problems occur.” Weiss insists that the idea is not to replace the human factor, but a quest to manage people more efficiently and “introduce smarts” into the organisation.

Deus ex machina

Tony Cousens, GM of Ramada and Days Hotels Singapore at Zhongshan Park, agrees that there has been talk about deploying robots or greater automation to reduce the need for additional manpower, especially in labour intensive departments. However, he believes the practicality of obtaining and maintaining a fleet in the long-run remains to be seen at this stage, as the technology is still developing. “We are in the service industry after all, and a personal interaction is essential in creating a memorable experience. “It will be interesting to see how the industry balances its use of technology while ensuring that the human touch is not compromised.” Wyndham Hotel Group’s two managed properties – Ramada and Days Hotels Singapore at Zhongshan Park are the first in the country to use Optii Keeper. Room attendants use iPhones installed with the cloud-based programme to connect directly with the Property Management System ensuring seamless data connectivity and accurate updates on the room status.

Products and passion

“There are always new and innovative products arriving on the market specifically designed for housekeeping operations,” says Jowin Lau, a senior housekeeping instructor at the Hotel & Tourism Institute of VTC in Hong Kong. “Ultimately they are all helping to improve efficiency but have no means to replace people. Hotels may consider fully automated check in/out systems but not all housekeeping tasks can be performed by machines!” As an hotelier, for Lau housekeeping is service-oriented – people are the key element in meeting and exceeding guest expectations. And it’s not only about cleaning rooms – housekeeping also helps create an ambience in the hotel’s public areas. “Professional housekeepers are responsible for the guest’s sensory experience during their stay. It is all about being detail- minded, observant and possessing a passion to serve.” FCS Computer Systems, which offers an e-Housekeeping Solution, agrees that while people cannot be replaced in this department, innovation can help automate manual processes. “Technology can help to increase the operation’s efficiency and simplify the workflow with the use of a mobile app such as FCS m-Housekeeping, helping to dispatch assignments with tracking and status update functions. Room attendants and supervisors now have more time to focus on service delivery,” commented a company spokesperson.

Number crunching

Sands Cotai Central in Macau operates the largest Conrad hotel in the world at 636 rooms, and the world’s largest Holiday Inn at 1,224 rooms. The properties run high occupancies with the bulk of housekeeping work compressed between 11am and 5pm. An efficient operation is critical from a number of perspectives: guest experience, team member engagement and satisfaction, and from a financial standpoint. In late 2013 Sands Cotai introduced the e-housekeeping software application Optii Keeper, which integrates with PMS Opera [Micros Systems], providing real time information for room attendants and supervisors while creating a virtually paperless operation. Room attendants receive their daily task assignments on an iPod touch and supervisors carry an iPad mini, enabling them to share real time information, eliminating the need to knock on doors trying to determine whether the guest has checked out or not. Room controllers are located in the housekeeping office and are able to monitor the cleaning status of every room. “E-housekeeping enables us to improve our scheduling as well as providing transparency on the number of ‘no service required’, ‘do not disturb and ‘sleep out’ rooms, allowing us to maximise productivity,” says Dina Angelucci, executive director of housekeeping operations, Sands Cotai Central & The Parisian Macao. She adds, the group is looking to introduce new systems to further streamline housekeeping operations. “Chef aprons are usually exchanged at the wardrobe and uniform room counter on a one-for-one basis, and we complete in excess of 500 transactions a day. Introducing an apron dispensing machine would eliminate all these transactions, allowing the wardrobe team to inspect a significantly higher percentage of the 8,000 garments a day that we process.” The newest property, The Parisian Macao, opens in the second half of this year and the wardrobe operation will see the introduction of next generation ultra high frequency RFID chips, which will significantly reduce the amount of time spent scanning garments. “Within our current operation we scan 10 garments a time; the UHFRFID technology will allow us to scan a trolley of 130 garments within four minutes – we are very excited about that!” And Angelucci also drops the ‘r’ word. “We are exploring robotic vacuum cleaners for large conference and event spaces, as well as an automated apron dispensing machine for our wardrobe and uniform room.”