CUHK: Robots can prop up struggling restaurant industry

Elisa Chan at New York Institute of TechnologyVancouver and Xiaoyan Luo, … It has been so in recent years, however, the case for wide adoption is …

With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc to the hospitality and restaurant industry, the deployment of service robots is being eyed as one of the way to help the industry up to its feet, according to a recent study made by The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School.

“Our results show that with the pandemic dominating people’s awareness, service robots could signal low interpersonal contact, reduce the perceived risk of virus transmission, and in turn increase visit intention,” said study author Lisa Wan, associate professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management and Department of Marketing at CUHK Business School.

Entitled “Robots Come to the Rescue: How to Reduce Perceived Risk of Infectious Disease in COVID-19 Stricken Consumers”, the study was conducted in collaboration with Prof. Elisa Chan at New York Institute of Technology – Vancouver and Xiaoyan Luo, a PhD student at CUHK Business School.

Already, restaurant owners have turned to robotics to entice back customers who have stayed away as part of social distancing measures.

For one, a subsidiary of Chinese property developer Country Garden opened the world’s first restaurant complex in Shunde, Guangdong province, in June, completely staffed and operated by robotics. The facility, which can accommodate 600 customers, is equipped with 20 robots that can cook over 200 dishes ranging from Chinese food, hotpot and fast food. The food is said to be available within just 20 seconds of ordering. When ready, the food is delivered directly to the customer’s table by a skyrail system or on trays by robots.

In the US, burger chain White Castle is testing “Flippy”, a robotic chef arm that can cook french fries and other foods. In Russia, KFC has opened a store that uses a fully automated fried chicken preparation system.

Indeed, robots are being put into applications including front desk operations, concierge and room delivery. It has been so in recent years, however, the case for wide adoption is hampered by heavy upfront investment and perceived lack of real “usefulness” due to frequent break downs. Furthermore, hotels and restaurants are loathed to lose the personal the industry is known for.

“Ironically, in face of a pandemic, it is exactly the lack of interpersonal touch characterised by service robots which makes potential customers perceive a lower risk of contracting viruses and in turn, increase their intention to visit,” said Wan. “Businesses, especially for the hard-hit tourism industry, need to prepare for pandemics as a constant in the business environment. The research suggests that service robots could be a long-term solution and sheds new light on the robot-customer dynamic specific to the tourism industry.”

Favourable consumer feedback

The CUHK research was divided into two studies. In the first study, the researchers conducted a survey in early April that asks if the respondents would visit a restaurant if robots are used. A total of 496 responses were received. The results show that respondents would visit a restaurant if robots are used and they also consider using robots would reduce interpersonal interactions, which would effectively reduce the risk of contracting an infectious disease.

In the second study, the researchers recruited American and Chinese respondents via two online platforms. A total of 1,062 respondents took part in the survey. The questions were identical to the first study with an added hotel scenario. Again, the results show that the respondents would visit both restaurants and hotels due to reduced interpersonal interaction via the use of robots. Interestingly, Chinese respondents indicated higher intention to visit hotels and restaurants when robots are used than American respondents. According to the results, the Chinese respondents also believed to a greater extent that reduced interpersonal interaction due to robots would effectively reduce the risk of viral infection.

“Tangential to the core predictions, our findings suggest that the use of service robots to reduce perceived risk of virus transmission and encourage visits could be more salient in collectivistic cultures such as China,” Wan said. “This could be attributed to more reliance on interpersonal cues in decision-making for collectivists. Future research may explore the cultural impacts which will have significant theoretical and practical implications for the successful infusion of service robots in the tourism industry across cultures.”

In addition, Wan pointed more research on intelligent automation and how consumers perceive and react to service robots in the tourism industry is needed. While governments and health authorities are devising reopening plans that centre around public health and businesses establishing stricter guideline for operations, Prof. Wan stressed that the measures may not adequately soothe pandemic-stricken consumers.

“Every effort to ensure a safe and fast recovery is imperative to revive the tourism industry,” Wan said. “This research proposes and tests how the psychological impacts from a prolonged (and possibly recurring) period of social distancing may play a role in business recovery, especially that in the tourism sector. We believe that this psychological perspective complements the mainstream focus on health and economic measures to combat COVID-19 and similar pandemics which may come to pass.”