“I hope my research and the courses I teach on this topic will help people understand the role of AI in hospitality,” says Oscar Chi.

Carson Doctoral Graduate to Teach First-of-Its-Kind Class on Artificial Intelligence in the Hospitality Industry

By Eric Hollenbeck

Oscar (Hengxuan) Chi, a newly minted assistant professor in tourism, hospitality, and event management at the University of Florida, has his sights set on advancing the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the hospitality industry, sharing his research knowledge to educate a new generation of hospitality students, and perhaps clearing up misconceptions about the role AI and social robots will play in the industry’s future.

The hospitality industry has traditionally been perceived as a field requiring high levels of human interaction, but that’s not entirely accurate, according to Chi (’21 PhD).

“Through my research, I found that not all customers prefer face-to-face interactions,” he says. “Customers who value privacy or prefer to receive more consistent and prompter service are more likely to choose to interact with AI service devices.”

This might be a celebrity, politician, or some other recognizable dignitary who is trying to stay under the radar—or general travelers who need a fast flight check-in.

However, there is a “dark side” of the technology, according to Chi. In order to improve the performance of AI devices, a large amount of data is collected on customer behaviors and habits, “some of which might be objectionable to the members of customers’ social group such as spouses, bosses, or friends,” he says.

Past data breaches or infringements on personal privacy may lower overall customer trust in AI devices, and companies must be mindful of this, he says.

During his doctoral studies at the Carson College of Business, Chi has been the lead author or co-author on journal articles on topics such as consumer acceptance of artificially intelligent devices, tourists’ attitudes toward AI, and consumer trust in interacting with social robots.

Chi’s impressive record helped him land a tenure track position at the University of Florida, which has a nationally known tourism program. He’ll be teaching a first-of-its-kind class on AI in the tourism and hospitality industry.

“This class will look at AI in the hospitality industry and help students understand how the technology can be integrated in services and consumer perceptions on AI,” says Chi.

An accomplished researcher at WSU

Chi was one of the most accomplished graduate student researchers in recent memory at the Carson College, authoring and co-authoring an impressive 15 research papers—an achievement which earned him the college’s 2021 Outstanding Doctoral Student Research award.

“Oscar’s research record is truly outstanding. His productivity is more typical of what you would see from an experienced professor,” says Debbie Compeau, senior associate dean for faculty and research in the Carson College.

Although AI emerged as his specialty, Chi also worked with Professors Dogan Gursoy and Christina Chi on notable research on customer sentiments toward dining, traveling, and staying at hotels during the COVID-19 pandemic; consumer acceptance of autonomous vehicles in travel and tourism; the performance of hotels that provide wellness amenities; measuring the nostalgia evoked by heritage tourism; and other projects.

From his undergraduate degree to his doctorate, Chi spent his entire academic career with the Carson College. Reflecting on his ten years at WSU, Chi holds fond memories and a deep appreciation for the faculty and staff who helped support and guide him through his education.

Chi traveled from his home in China to Pullman, sight unseen, for college based solely on the reputation of the WSU hospitality program and its faculty. “When I first got here, I was very homesick but I had professors and advisors who reached out and helped me through. Pullman has become a second home,” says Chi.

“I had professors, especially Dr. Gursoy and Dr. Chi, who shared their insights on the industry and career paths, which helped guide and inspire my career choice.”

The future of AI in hospitality

For some consumers, advancements in AI may raise concerns about technology eventually replacing human labor. But tourists of the future are unlikely to interact only with service robots, Chi says.

“AI’s highest and best use is to empower or enhance the consumer experience,” he says. “If customers think human interaction is needed in an area, AI will never replace those interactions.”

Instead, consumers will interact with AI and live customer service representatives in ways that appear seamless. People have always been skeptical of emerging technologies for fear it would make human labor obsolete, notes Chi. “Look at the introduction of the personal computer or even further back, the steam engine,” he says.

“It’s common for people to express hesitancy toward new technologies,” he says. “I hope my research and the courses I teach on this topic will help people understand the role of AI in hospitality and how to incorporate the technology into operations at all levels.”