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Research Digest Why tourism venues should think twice before deploying robot cleaners

Overview

In “Robot cleaners in tourism venues: The importance of robot-environment fit on consumer evaluation of venue cleanliness”, published in Tourism Management, ESCP Business School Professor Chi Hoang and co-author Hai-Anh Tran (Alliance Manchester Business School) built upon the person-environment fit theory to analyze how the use of robots to clean a venue affects tourists' perception of the venue, especially its cleanliness.

Why study this

Cleanliness is one of the most important determinants of customer experience – and therefore business performance – in tourism and hospitality settings, even more so since the outbreak of Covid-19 has raised the bar for hygiene standards. Branded hotels such as Marriott and Hilton or travel hubs such as Heathrow International Airport have started using robot cleaners in their protocols, not only to cut costs and spare employees certain repetitive, undemanding activities, but also in the belief that it will enhance consumers' perception of their venue's cleanliness. But this expectation had not been tested empirically so far.

Findings

  • The researchers proposed that consumers' perception of a (human or robot) cleaner's competence for the task of cleaning depended on two characteristics: adaptability (to accommodate customers' needs) and resilience (ability to withstand long hours, unhygienic working conditions, etc.).
  • Overall, the use of robot (versus human) cleaners in a tourism venue decreased tourists' perception of the venue's cleanliness and reduced their intention to visit.  
  • When the cleaning task was viewed as disgusting (clearing blocked toilets or emptying bins), consumers expressed a higher level of empathetic concern for the cleaners and therefore rated robot cleaners as more competent than human cleaners. 
  • When the cleaning task was perceived as disruptive (in a case where hotel guests were busy business people or honeymooning couples), clients tended to shy away from potential social interaction with cleaners and therefore rated robots as better cleaners.  

Cleaning tasks that demand a high level of interpersonal interactions (e.g., in premium tourism venues) should be handled by human cleaners because the higher adaptability of human cleaners makes them a better fit for such tasks. However, cleaning tasks that require a high level of resilience, such as cleaning at establishments located in low-hygiene areas or those frequently visited by low-hygiene tourists, may be effectively handled by robot cleaners.

Key insight

Consumers generally expect a venue serviced by robot cleaners to be less clean than one cleaned by humans and are thus discouraged from visiting.

Impact

These findings illustrate the importance of anticipating and managing consumers’ emotional experiences when managers debate whether to use robot cleaners. Managers will need to make trade-offs between the benefits (cost reduction, enhanced capacity) and negative consequences of robot deployment (lower cleanliness perceptions). If managers decide to deploy robot cleaners, they should clearly communicate to customers the fit between the robot cleaners’ characteristics and the nature of the task. 

Final takeaway

While the deployment of robot cleaners in tourism venues dilutes consumers' perception of the venues' cleanliness, robots are considered a better fit than humans for certain cleaning tasks, namely disgusting or intrusive ones.

AUTHORS


Chi Hoang Chi Hoang Assistant Professor of Marketing at ESCP Business School (London campus)
Hai-Anh Tran Hai-Anh Tran Assistant Professor of Marketing at Alliance Manchester Business School (UK)

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