Robert Rippee has been a central figure in the development of the Black Fire Innovation Hub since its inception.

As executive director, Rippee is responsible for guiding the hub’s programming and curriculum, which is designed to ignite innovation and push forward technologies in hospitality, gaming and entertainment.

He answered questions from Vegas Inc about artificial intelligence and building a culture of innovation.

With CES having recently concluded in Las Vegas, was there anything specific that you found exciting at the show?

Although I could not participate in the 2024 CES, I am well-acquainted with the breakthrough technologies presented there, particularly the exciting developments in Generative AI and robotics.

This push for digital transformation and automation has become a strategic imperative for most industries, including those in hospitality and gaming, to not just stay competitive but also to drive innovation in addressing ongoing challenges and seizing new opportunities.

Generative AI is revolutionizing content generation, data analysis and the customization of customer interactions. Concurrently, robotics technology has rapidly progressed, filling essential roles from security to customer service, thus ensuring that businesses maintain continuity and enhance their competitive edge. Together, AI and robotics are not merely transforming existing business paradigms—they are forging entirely new markets and vistas of opportunity.

Do people overestimate the impact of artificial intelligence? Is fear over the way it will impact the job market justified?

That is a very difficult question to answer. I believe the answer lies in understanding the impact of technological advancement in general and not just AI. The impact of technology on the job market is multifaceted, serving as both a disruptor and a creator of new career paths.

As automation and digital tools streamline or replace routine tasks, certain jobs are being phased out, compelling the workforce to adapt through reskilling and upskilling. Concurrently, technology is the bedrock of novel industries and job roles, ranging from cybersecurity experts to data scientists, app developers and sustainability managers. It catalyzes entrepreneurship, enabling the launch of innovative startups and services. AI applications are at the core of these novel industries and entrepreneurial trends.

Specific to hospitality, how do you see technology advancing and serving Las Vegas tourists?

Let me share an idea: Generative AI is making significant strides in transforming how content is created, data is analyzed, and customer interactions are personalized.

To illustrate, consider a South Korean tourist navigating the bustling Las Vegas Strip. Currently, the likelihood of encountering promotional materials in Korean or finding staff members fluent in the Korean language or the cultural nuances across the numerous hotels, restaurants, shops, and attractions is quite low. This is where AI could step in, with the potential to revolutionize the tourism experience by breaking down language barriers.

It has the capacity to make communication universal, allowing the rich experiences offered to become readily available to visitors from any part of the world, regardless of the language they speak. This capability to make experiences more accessible and engaging for everyone represents a monumental leap forward.

Discuss the intersection between technology from a science/research perspective vs. from an artistic perspective? Is science taking its lead from art, or is art being produced in reaction to technological innovation?

I believe it is a convergence rather than a taking of the lead. Think of it as technology supplying the canvas and the paints, but it is still up to human creativity to create the art. We have to be careful not to overly confuse the outputs of generative AI with the capacity of the human brain. Perhaps one day in the distant future, computing power may enable similar outcomes but for today, the power of the human spirit and creativity are unmatched.

How do you stay updated on emerging trends and technologies relevant to hospitality, and how do you incorporate these into your strategies?

I am a voracious reader. Starting my day and finishing my day reading. I also learn from multiple channels of information. I listen to podcasts, watch videos, and consume technology and innovation-related media. I have been a lifelong learner, earning my Ph.D. at 62! So staying updated on emerging trends is a part of my intellectual DNA.

What role do customer insights play in driving innovation in hospitality and other areas of expertise for you? And how can businesses ensure a customer-centric approach in their innovation processes?

Understanding customer preferences is pivotal for innovation, especially in sectors like hospitality, gaming, and entertainment. The traditional approach of broad demographic targeting and one-size-fits-all marketing is becoming obsolete. Imagine the potential of tailoring your business strategy to cater to the unique preferences of an individual customer, such as Elizabeth Smith, rather than a vague category like ‘females aged 18 to 34’. This level of personalization is not just desirable; it’s a game-changer, offering a significant edge in today’s competitive marketplace. With AI, we have the tools to gather and analyze granular customer data, enabling us to deliver hyper-personalized experiences. This isn’t just the future of business—it’s a bright new era of customer-centric innovation made possible by cutting-edge technology.

How can businesses balance the need for experimentation and the potential for failure while maintaining the stability of ongoing operations?

In “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” a seminal work by Dr. Clayton Christensen published in 1997, he dissects the reasons behind the failure of businesses to innovate, pointing out that an over-commitment to the status quo often overshadows the impetus for change. He suggests that successful companies typically adopt one of two strategies: outsource innovation to a dedicated external team that can develop and test ideas without constraints or cultivate an internal team focused exclusively on innovation, operating with a degree of autonomy from the main business operations. While these approaches may be well-suited for large, publicly traded gaming companies, small to medium-sized businesses can benefit from this wisdom. The recommendation for these smaller entities is to carve out a space for innovation that operates parallel to the day-to-day business, ensuring that the inertia of ‘how things have always been done’ does not stifle growth and creativity.

How do you foster a culture of creativity and innovation within a hospitality organization, encouraging team members to contribute and embrace new ideas?

In my doctoral dissertation, I explored the complexities of shaping and, more critically, altering organizational culture. Cultivating a culture that prizes creativity and innovation requires engagement at all levels, from the highest echelons of the boardroom to the dynamism of the front-line workforce. For the leadership, including the board and C-suite executives, endorsing a high tolerance for the risks associated with innovation must be a deliberate strategy. The nature of innovative and disruptive ideas means their return on investment is unpredictable—that’s what makes them groundbreaking. On the ground level, it’s about empowering the front-line employee to scrutinize existing problems and opportunities to enhance customer engagement, understanding that the usual way of doing things might not always be the best. Fostering innovation could be likened to nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit within the organization. Successful entrepreneurs are characterized not by their immediate success but by their resilience and ability to view failure as a catalyst for change rather than a dead end.

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This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.


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