Updated July 24, 2020 - 4:13 pm
The robots are coming.
It sounds like a line straight out of a sci-fi movie, but it could hold true in Las Vegas. Hotel-casino operators across the valley have accelerated their adoption of automated technology to cut back on human-to-human interactions, a hazard in the age of COVID-19.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that COVID-19 is a catalyst for change,” Applied Analysis economist Jeremy Aguero said. “(The pandemic has) required businesses that need to adapt to look at every point of human interaction and ask: Can it be automated?”
Automation can strengthen business’s efforts to keep guests and staff safe, but industry watchers also say it will lead to major shake-ups in Southern Nevada’s workforce.
Casinos’ move toward technology
Experts forecast more automated and self-service technology will enter casinos as the pandemic stretches on. Self-check-in kiosks, robotic bartenders and ordering tablets at restaurants are just a few examples.
“We will see more of the self-service tech … as customers demand it,” said Toni Repetti, an associate professor at UNLV’s College of Hospitality.
At MGM Resorts International’s Bellagio, guests can skip interacting face to face with a front-desk worker and use mobile check-in instead.
MGM spokeswoman Callie Driehorst said the company accelerated the rollout of touch-free technology like mobile check-in and digital keys in recent months, “allowing for physical distancing in addition to an enhanced guest experience.”
“Digital initiatives in the planning stages became even more important in the wake of the pandemic,” she said. “Also in response to the health crisis, we launched initiatives such as digital menus and restaurant queues, all of which are helping us to create safer environments for employees and guests.”
A spokesman for Caesars Entertainment Corp. said the company has done away with restaurant menus in response to health and safety concerns brought about by the pandemic, and diners can see the menu on their phones instead by using a QR code.
The technology “may continue to be deployed when conditions return to normal,” he said.
Wynn Resorts Ltd. spokeswoman Deanna Pettit-Irestone said the company has added several new digital technologies since the pandemic began, including check-in kiosks; a digital resort directory sent via text or QR code; an online food and drink ordering system at fast-casual restaurants; and tap-and-pay capabilities, digital menus and an online reservation system at all restaurants.
Pettit-Irestone added that mobile pre-check-in will be added in the coming weeks.
“Wynn’s new automated technologies provide more options for our guests to curate their visit while controlling the level of interaction they have with others,” she said.
Station Casinos has implemented electronic table games at six properties in the midst of the pandemic, limiting touch points between dealers and gamblers who want to play craps, baccarat, roulette or blackjack.
The games still use dealers and cards, but players use their own betting terminal screen instead of chips to place a wager.
The changes were made with the “safety and entertainment” of guests in mind, according to the company’s website.
Company representatives declined to provide additional comment.
Representatives for Boyd Gaming and Las Vegas Sands Corp. did not respond to requests for comment.
Uncertainties about the future
Resorts’ adoption of more technology won’t widely disrupt jobs on the Las Vegas Strip just yet.
Culinary Local 226 and Bartenders Local 165 have agreements with a handful of casino operating companies — including Caesars and MGM — regarding automation and worker retention.
The five-year contracts, signed in 2018, require companies to take a series of steps regarding any new technology implementations, such as holding negotiations and giving notice on new technology; offering employees free training on how to use the new technology; providing free job training if the technology creates jobs and offering retention bonus packages if a worker is laid off because of new technology.
“Companies introducing technology to eliminate jobs is not new. Hospitality jobs will continue to change and evolve as they always have,” union spokeswoman Bethany Khan said.
Aguero is confident that automation is coming — “businesses are either going to adapt, or perish,” he said — but he doesn’t believe all hospitality jobs are at risk.
He said success of Las Vegas’ hospitality industry relies on three main pillars: its 150,000 hotel rooms, operating one of the busiest airports in the country and having roughly 300,000 leisure and hospitality employees dedicated to serving visitors.
“I’m just not ready to believe that third … leg of the stool is any less relevant in July of 2020 than it was in July of 2019,” he said. “Customers like human interaction.”
Automation workforce risks
Reports from the Brookings Institution, University of Redlands and PwC published before the pandemic suggest automation would disrupt 38 percent to 65 percent of Southern Nevada jobs by 2030 or 2035.
“I would imagine if those studies were updated today, that timeline would be shortened (because of COVID-19),” said John Restrepo, founder of RCG Economics.
Robert Rippee, director of the Hospitality Lab at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, said three companies reach out to him weekly on average to discuss adapting some sort of automotive technology that can detect and prevent the spread of the virus. Before the pandemic, he would have discussions on automation “far less frequently,” maybe a couple of times in a month.
“(Consumers) want to have fewer physical interactions with other people or staff,” Rippee said. “The gaming industry is responding to customers by providing that assurance to make them feel safer or cleaner. … This is the new standard now.”
That new standard is likely to affect jobs in the local leisure and hospitality industry, which accounted for roughly 30 percent of the Las Vegas metropolitan area’s establishment-based employment in 2018, according to data from the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance.
According to various reports, the hospitality industry has some of the most at-risk jobs when considering automation.
A report from TitleMax that looked at 2017 data found food preparation and service workers have a 92 percent likelihood of losing jobs to automation. Waiters and waitresses stood at 94 percent, cashiers at 97 percent, maids and housekeeping cleaners at 69 percent, restaurant cooks at 96 percent and security guards at 84 percent.
While customers may think devices like robot butlers would be a nice, businesses need to decide which technology is effective, safe and constitutes a good long-term investment before making any major purchases.
“There’s a major cost to the technology, and we’re not sure if (COVID-19’s effect on consumers) is going to be a short-term effect or long-term effect,” Repetti said. “Do companies really want to invest in all those technologies that, in a year, customers won’t be using?”
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.
Automation and education
Research has shown that employees’ level of education plays a significant role in automation risks.
In 2016, the Brookings Institution found that those with a high school diploma had a 52 percent chance of their job being automated. Those with a bachelor’s degree stood at 31 percent.
Fifteen percent of residents in the Las Vegas metropolitan had a bachelor’s degree in 2018, while 30 percent had a high school diploma, according to the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance.
“It’s the low wage, low skill workforce that has the most susceptibility to get replaced,” said John Restrepo, founder of RCG Economics. “We need to move toward a higher skilled workforce.”
Southern Nevada has spent years trying to diversify its workforce, but Restrepo says it’s unlikely the region will be able to completely transform its economy within the next 10 to 15 years, when various reports predict significant workforce disruptions due to automation.