Employees stand at the concierge desk at Studio City casino resort, developed by Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd., in Macau, China, on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. Studio City is the latest test of the former Portuguese colony's ability to attract visitors wanting to play on more than gaming tables and slot machines. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Chat robot revolution

The glitz and glamour of casinos and hotels have not only helped the city rake in hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue but have also nurtured numerous professional practitioners. While some continue to shine in the industry at home and abroad, some are leveraging this experience to create something new. Macau Business retraces the serried steps of two start-ups founded by people who have worked in the territory and now provide technology solutions – the chatbot – to help small businesses and enhance the industry. 

Virtual hotel assistant  

For his six-year stint on the front desk of Sheraton Grand Macao Hotel, Cotai Central, Stefan Renziehausen has had a lot of happy memories about providing the best and most enjoyable experiences for guests - although, of course, hiccups and challengesoccurred. 

“There are like 4,000 rooms in Sheraton Macao, and one big challenge when I was working there . . . at least 100, 200 guests asking for similar requests [a day]: an extra bottle of water, making up my room . . .” says Renziehausen. “Someone had to process these and follow up, but there were always some messages that were not communicated properly.” 

Founders of SABA Hospitality

Not to mention the language barrier between him, a German who is not fluent in Cantonese or Mandarin, and hotel guests, who arrived from around the world and often did not speak Chinese and English well.  

This day-to-day workplace challenge inspired him to look for a solution; namely, the inception of SABA Hospitality last year, with three other co-founders, two of whom also have years of experiences in the Macau hospitality industry. 

Compared with the common practice that guests need to communicate their needs and requests with the hotel staff through phone calls or face-to-face exchanges, the Macau-based firm offers an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven chatbot solution for hotel operators known as SABAGuest, whih centralises and automates communications with guests for their stay at the properties.  

“This is the technology that is the future,” says Mr. Renziehausen, Executive Director – Operations of the firm. 

Any language 

SABAGuest, a web-based platform for which hotel guests need not download any applications, can respond to guests’ enquiries and requests, manage their complaints, make recommendations, and present the latest property offerings.   

“Guests can type and speak in any language on the platform, which can still process the message and display the answer on the [guest] mobile,” says Renziehausen. In short, what SABAGuest does is identify key words, sentence structure and other ‘flags’ of the guest’s message to provide the most suitable reply in accordance with the settingscustomised by SABA and the properties beforehand.  

“For instance, there is a huge difference between a red wine glass and a glass of red wine; the words are the same but in different order - our platform can understand exactly what the guest is asking for,” he claims.  

While the platform is configured to process more than 100 languages with the integration of Google translate, it specialises in six – namely, traditional and simplified Chinese, English, Korean, Japanese and German – guaranteeing the language level of native speakers. SABAGuest can also be integrated with social media platforms, including WeChat, Line and Facebook Messenger, and allow for hotel staff to intervene at any time to handle the interaction with guests.  

Macau challenge 

Since its incorporation in May of last year the company has deployed SABAGuest in 25 hotels around the world, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Dubai, the United States and a budget hotel in Macau.  

“With our specialised language setting, Southeast Asia is the market we are particularly looking into – countries and regions that get a lot of other Asian customers like Japanese, Korean and Chinese,” says Renziehausen. “Also, in Asia, people are much more familiar with the [chatbot] concept and know what it is. If the GM of the hotel is tech savvy it’s also easier [for our platform] to make sense for them.” 

Talking about the challenge of gaining traction in the Macau market, where 119 hotels and guesthouses offer over 38,500 rooms, he noted that “the difficulty is that the hotels here are so big and the decision-making process takes a long time.”  

Acknowledging Macau hotels are still not tech savvy in handling guest interactions, he confidently predicts that “sooner or later hotels in Macau will have a virtual system and some forms of chatbot technology.” 

Personalised experience 

With personal interaction and personalised service key factors of the hospitality industry some are worried technology solutions like chatbot might depersonalise the experience for guests.  

“In some of the hotels our platforms are deployed in the staff sometimes really cannot clearly understand guests’ requests [due to language barriers],” he says. “Technology is also so smart and advanced now that it is difficult to tell the difference between what is a robot and what is a live conversation.” 

For example, SABAGuest is customised so that it will only respond to questions after a few seconds to imitate the pace of human conversation to the extent that “some hotelguests don’t really know they’re not talking to a real person,” he added. 

The Executive Director of Operations emphasised that this platform improves the operational efficiency of hotels as well as freeing staff to engage with guests in a more meaningful manner.  

“It’s time consuming and difficult for staff to just sit by the phone and answer questions like the opening hours for breakfast 50 times,” he added. 

For hospitality  

With many companies focusing on developing chatbot and similar technology in recent years, what makes SABA stand out are the experiences accumulated in the hospitality sector, he claims, with the co-founders having a combined 50 years in the sector.  

“That’s our competitive advantage: we know the hospitality industry.  We don’t just develop a chatbot but a chatbot for the hospitality industry,” says Renziehausen. “For instance, our system can arrange a wake-up call: because we have been in the hospitality industry, our system always asks automatically a second [time] 10 minutes after.”  

After operating for more than a year, SABA expects to break even by year-end or the first quarter of next year. It has also participated in various trade shows and start-up competitions for promotion and is expanding its network. In June, the company picked up the People’s Choice Award in the Entrepreneur 20X competition at the Hospitality Industry Technology Exhibition and Conference (HITEC) held in the United States. 

Looking ahead, the team is eying opportunities for the application of chatbot technology in areas other than hotels. The company has developed a digital menu and ordering system for the food and beverage business, for example, as well as currently developing a platform for the private accommodation rental sector.  

“Wherever you have customer services like restaurants, lounges, membership clubs,these can all be [areas of] product development in the next few years. I’m at home here,” he added, underscoring that the Asian market is a primary focus for the development of SABA. “This is where tourism is happening and this is where we want to be.” 

Keith Cheung

Technology for SMEs 

With more than a decade in staff recruitment in the Greater China region under his belt, particularly in hotels and resorts in Macau, Keith Cheung recognised the power of chatbot several years ago.  

“As many Macau hotels have high headcount, such as thousands of employees, we introduced the adoption of chatbot technology in our workflow to automate some of the interview procedures [with candidates],” he recalls.  

This left Cheung with such a great impression upon leaving the recruitment sector in 2017 that he decided to start his own firm – SignHUB – which seeks to provide automated technology solutions like chatbot for small-and-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) at an affordable price.  

Like many start-ups, his entrepreneurial journey has not been smooth.  With the failure of the first two chatbot products, targeting dining and education, respectively, it wasthird time lucky for SignHUB, which he founded in Hong Kong with a product development team in Macau.  

“Our third product mainly focuses on the automation of the registration process for educational institutions in Hong Kong; for example, it will handle enquiries from customers by providing them with the relevant information like the types of courses offered and timetable,” said the SignHUB founder and CEO. “Some mid-sized educational institutions in Hong Kong are using it with quite good outcomes.” 

Sales funnel 

On the heels of the success of the third chatbot product, the start-up launched MyCart, a chatbot solution integrated with Facebook Messenger in the second quarter of this year, targeting shops and merchants conducting online sales and promotion via social mediaengine Facebook.  

“One of the selling points of MyCart is that it bridges sales promotion with customer relations management,” he explained. “For example, when a merchant wants toundertake a sales promotion, they now don’t have a channel to notify all their customers; but if they have accumulated a certain number of visitors to their Facebook page, MyCart can help them automatically spread the sales promotion news to every potential customer.” 

“We have clients conduct promotions [via MyCart] regularly, and some of their customers have already placed orders,” he added. “The conversion rate is like 5-8 percent.” 

Illustrating an analogy for the journey of a customer making a purchase as a sales funnel, Cheung notes that “the top tier is awareness, the middle is consideration and the bottom is conversion. What MyCart is doing is at the level between consideration and conversion.” 

Event platform 

With the new product on the market for about half a year, nearly 50 clients from Macau and Hong Kong in various areas have used MyCart, including apparel, jewellery, grocery, furniture, healthcare services, and others.  

“The growth [in the number of clients] has not been quick because we haven’t invested much time and effort in the promotion of MyCart since its start due to the release of another product,” Cheung explained, referring to a new event management, marketing and ticketing platform – 1TICKS – which the company launched in June.  

“It is like a simplified, local, and Chinese version of Eventbrite, one of the world’s largest event management and ticketing website,” he said. Any event organiser can open an account on 1TICKS to promote their activities and sell tickets online. The companycharges both customers and event organisers for every ticket sold via the platform.  

“SignHUB started with chatbot solutions, which help businesses automate some of their operations and reduce labour costs,” he continued. “But these are only the biggest problems faced by two out of 10 clients. For the other eight, what they are most concerned about is how to find new clients, so what we do now is try to help them enhance brand awareness.” 

hotel concierge reception desk

Bright prospects 

As the platform is still in the optimisation stage, there are not many events available on 1TICKS at the moment other than ‘GEG Presents: Hello Kitty Hello Again’. This exhibition, held in the city in commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the popular Japanese cartoon character, is organised by Macau International Grand Event Promotion Association.  

“The organiser of the Hello Kitty event has much experience in Macau but the problem it faces is how to find new clients and new revenue – and that’s where we’re trying to help,” he said.  “With more events available on the platform [in the future, we hope] more people will pay attention to it, thus benefiting the event organisers.” 

Mr. Cheung is confident about Macau market prospects for 1TICKS as the city boasts numerous events a year of various size.  

“This type of platform is also not commonplace here, so Macau is the primary focus for 1TICKS at the moment,” he said. “We might also try other markets, like Hong Kong, but there will be more competition.” 

Business volume 

Concerning advocating new technology solutions among businesses in Macau and Hong Kong Cheung said it will take more time to educate and discuss [the concept] with clients in the enclave.  

“For instance, let’s say MyCart could generate 10 per cent additional online revenue for merchants. Given the larger business volume in Hong Kong, it might mean HK$10,000 there while 10 per cent might only translate to MOP1,000 here,” he illustrated. “Thus, it is easier for Hong Kong businesses to embrace the new solution and go through the change.” 

Embarking upon its third year of operation SignHUB is expected to break even next year although it is still too early to talk about when the investment can be recouped, according to the CEO.  

“We’ve come up with many products over the past two years, so what we will work on in the near future is putting our efforts into optimising existing products, aligning them all [in similar stage of development], he said. “We don’t have a large team and we don’t want it to be too stretched.” 

But what is certain is that their mission has not changed.  

“We started up SignHUB because we want to help SMEs with new technology solutions – and that’s what we’re still doing,” he concluded.  

What is chatbot? 

In general, chatbot – code for chat robot – refers to an artificial intelligence (AI) programme that can simulate conversations via textual and auditory means, similar to the way humans interact with each other.