Digitalisation easing skilled labour shortage in hospitality sector

7 November 2023
Founder of Lieblingsplatz hotel group using digitalisation, AI and mulling franchise

Around 2.1 million people were working in Germany's hospitality sector when the pandemic first made waves in December 2019. Meanwhile, the number of employees has plunged to a historic low of 1.8 million and the industry still lacks around 100,000 employees over the pre-pandemic era. The term "shortage of skilled labour" is barely fitting as the "personnel situation is desolate", said Niels Battenfeld, founder of the Lieblingsplatz hotel group. Thus, the company is focusing on digitization and experimenting with AI in Lieblingsplatz's Surf Rescue Club in Grömitz on the Baltic Sea coast. The club does not have a reception desk and a robot swings the wooden spoon in the kitchen. Battenfeld has designed a digital kiosk 100 metres further down the beach. Hungry customers can choose from six different pizzas that come straight out a hot vending machine or oven.

Pizza vending machines and robots as cooks

But are pizzas that come out of a vending machine really tasty? "Absolutely," said Battenfeld emphatically. "The raw ingredients are key. We get them from Gia, a family-run manufactory in Berlin. The ingredients are added automatically, brought to the right temperature in two pizza ovens, and four minutes later the crispy pizza can be taken out." The tests met with great enthusiasm, the pioneer said, who now finds himself in uncharted territory thanks to his automated approach. "We are among the first to venture into this field. We have met with approval and initial criticism as well as a bit of fear about the future." The automated kitchen may yet compensate for the lack of employees. "The robot supports rather than replaces humans," he stressed. And this is working, he added. "The young and the young-at-heart in particular accept innovations in the kitchen swiftly. They look at the system once and work with it the next moment with the greatest naturalness."

Digital pizzeria

Tackling energy and food waste

Battenfeld is currently changing manufacturers. "Our new cooking robot has a larger range of products and can produce for 20 hours at a time. That allows us to prepare fresh food at night for the next day. We can build up three mainstays with our new partner. We can cook for our own restaurant, act as a producer for the surrounding area and stock a delivery service." The more mainstays, the safer the economic concept - an increasingly important aspect given the rising costs of goods, energy and personnel. In 2023, the minimum wage per hour rose from EUR 10.45 to EUR 12. On top of that, VAT on food is expected to return to 19 per cent in 2024. Only a certain percentage of the increased costs can be passed on to guests prompting Battenfeld to cut corners where possible. Vacant rooms are not fully heated, occupied rooms are not cleaned daily and fridges in the living room replace lavishly stocked breakfast buffets. "This is another test balloon we are experimenting with in Grömitz. Other hotels still have buffets, but we are pursuing a bakery-shop idea in the Surf Rescue Club." Guests serve themselves depending on their tastes and pay on a "scan and go" basis.

Robot in im Surf Rescue Club

More time for guests 

Digitalisation helps cut back on staff and prevents food from going to waste. Around 12 to 18 million tonnes of food end up in rubbish bins across Germany every year. Hotel buffets account for a significant share of such waste. Provided the test phase goes well, Battenfeld intends rolling out the Lieblingsplatz concept as a franchise. "We are currently thinking about a licensing model to pave the way for quite a few great Lieblingsplatz hotels. Using our model businesses as a blueprint, we can get independent partners to become active 'Lieblingsplatz' hotels." The departure from a classic reception desk, for instance, has proven successful, the catering enthusiast said. "Around 90 per cent of our guests at the Surf Rescue Club book online and receive the access code to their room in this way. Employees, who are relieved of administrative tasks, can now become really good, professional hosts. "Instead of stereotypical questions like, 'do you have a reservation' and 'how many keys would you like', the focus is now on guests' real needs. Staff give tips on the surrounding area or perhaps planning an e-bike tour."

Surf Rescue Club

Best of three worlds

An approach that is as individual as possible is at the heart of Battenfeld's philosophy. "I want to digitise what works and remain passionate about hosting guests. We combine the best of three worlds in the Lieblingsplatz hotels namely, the reliability and service of hotels with the community of hostels and the personal touch of Airbnb, where local hosts provide travellers with insider tips."


Sources and further information

Niels Battenfeld, 47, laid the foundation for his brand by opening "Lieblingsplatz, mein Strandhotel" in Sankt Peter-Ording in 2013. Trained in the hotel industry, the hotel manager worked for Marriott and A-Rosa among others. The Lieblingsplatz group has 12 hotels in Germany and Austria. Its Iatest addition, the "Surf Rescue Club", opened in August on the dunes in Grömitz in the Hamburg Metropolitan Region.

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