By Alexandra Constantinescu (Lecturer in Hospitality and Tourism Management) at University of East London (www.uel.ac.uk)

The past few months have been a steep learning curve for the hospitality industry. From overcoming safety concerns, to redesigning the customer journey and managing expectations of customers’ who are now seeking highly personalised experiences, hospitality leaders find themselves in a position where they must innovate, redefine, redesign, and upskill. And this is just the beginning. New challenges are starting to emerge, as the industry is now fully open for business. Demand is high, staff is scarce, pressure is building up. Up until recently, technology and innovation have been used within the hospitality industry as tools for performance management and cost efficiency. It now becomes apparent that such tools must also be seen as a strategic business orientation, with value creation and market differentiation being highly reliant on the industry’s ability to innovate and adopt cutting edge technology.Are hospitality leaders ready for the future?

Latest technology and innovation trends in hospitality include the use of artificial intelligence, as well as immersive technology, and the metaverse. Artificial intelligence (AI) is getting increased traction, especially for businesses targeting a tech-savvy demographic, with chatbots taking over and providing real-time responses that are almost impossible to maintain with human-to-human interaction.This not only enhances cost efficiency on the long term, but also enables faster response rates, consequently improving customer experience, or at least streamlining it. More recently, AI robots have also been introduced in some settings, partially replacing basic face-to-face interaction – although some functionalities are still limited, and it might take a few more years until they will

be able to fully take over complex front-desk tasks. Immersive technology – i.e. virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) – has been used within the industry to enhance customer experience, and maintain contact with existing and potentially new customers during lockdown. It is likely that such innovations will continue to be popular post-lockdown, with VR and AR increasingly being used as experiential marketing communication tools. Furthermore, a recent Deloitte report outlines that immersive technology is also beginning to gain popularity in staff training, with some research showing that AR training might result in greater knowledge transfer and might yield up to a 75% learning retention rate – higher than any other forms of training.The metaverse is an extension of MR, including 3D avatars and strong elements of gamification, where physical and digital worlds are bridged, creating live, data-bound digital replicas of real-life environments. The key feature of metaverse is that it allows not only for continuity between activities and environments but also for multi-platform applicability.The metaverse can be used as a distribution channel and a marketing plat- form, appealing to the forward-thinking, tech-savvy demographic.Whilst still emerging, the metaverse space allows for highly personalised experiences, leading to enhanced user interaction, and increased customer engagement. It can be used to develop multi-sensory experiences, to monetise branded digital assets, to take co-creation to the next level and to unlock innovative loyalty schemes. It can essentially be used to take some elements of the customer experience to the next level – and this may in fact be true for many other techno- logical innovations. But let’s keep in mind that at its core, hospitality is an industry run by people – for the people.That the physical, real-world environment still matters.That the ‘personal touch’ is still at the core of the industry – and it can still make or break that ‘perfect’ customer experience.

Indeed, future hospitality leaders must be highly creative, technologically proficient, innovative thinkers – with a vision to bring an otherwise traditionalist industry in a new, experiential, digital age. Nevertheless, they must still have the ability to inspire, the power to bring the best in people around them and lead their teams towards delivering unique, highly personalised, memorable customer experiences.These are some of the most important aspects that should be taken into consideration in the training of future hospitality leaders.The Institute of Hospitality and Tourism at the University of East London provides a wide range of Industry- informed programs aimed to meet current and future employability needs of the industry.