How robotics could change the hotel industry
In January, panelists at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit discussed the future of robots in the hotel industry. Panelists included executives from Hilton and Maidbot and Savioke, two manufacturers of robots for the service sector.
Hotels are already using robots to serve guests. Aloft Hotels has a delivery robot called Botlr that guests can summon through their smartphones. Botlr brings towels, water bottles, or other requested items to guests’ rooms. And the Henn-na Hotel in Japan has front-desk robots that understand multiple languages and help guests check in; a robotic porter carries guests’ luggage to certain areas of the hotel.
Another example of a robot in action can be seen at YOTEL, which uses a robot called YOBOT in its New York City property. YOBOT allows guests who arrive early to store their luggage until they’re ready to check in. “You can press a button, and the YOBOT […] will select a bin that will be brought down to you,” explains Belinda Atkins, SVP of Global Operations at YOTEL. “You can put your luggage in it, and then it will distribute it back up into the bay of bin storage units.”
Atkins says that guests enjoy interacting with YOBOT and that the hotel has even incorporated the robot into its holiday programming. During the 12 Days of Christmas, guests received surprise gifts when they stored their luggage. “Certain of the storage bins had gifts in them, so when you pressed the button, and the bin was put down for you to put your luggage in, inside there was a gift,” Atkins says. “And it was only certain bins [that had] the gifts in. It was a fun way of interacting, and we had a lot of our guests posting on social media, standing next to the YOBOT, to show that they'd won a prize.”
Atkins stresses that YOBOT is not a replacement for human employees, who continue to help guests with luggage and in many other ways. Instead, YOBOT handles a routine task for guests who choose to use it and allows employees to focus on other aspects of a guest’s stay. “The beautiful thing about the hospitality industry is it's very much a people experience,” she says. “Robots […] free up our team to spend time on the more fun things that happen in a hotel.”
Ken Greger, Managing Director at AETHOS Consulting Group, says that robots are well-suited to repetitive tasks that could be boring or dangerous for a human to perform. He predicts that hotels will assign robots to work behind the scenes and keep human employees in guest-facing roles. “There are a lot of people doing very routine tasks that in many cases could be relieved by robots and AI technology,” he says. “For example, there's a company that's doing dish washing with robots. There's vacuuming.”
Robots could take over unsafe tasks and allow humans to do other work. Greger gives the example of housekeeping, which can expose an employee to toxic chemicals in cleaning solutions. If a robot does the cleaning, human housekeepers could take care of safer tasks like making beds and straightening the room.
Greger also points out that using robots for monotonous work could help hotels retain employees. “It's not easy to retain people who are stuck in routine tasks if they have aspirations beyond that,” he says. If employees are given interesting jobs solving problems and interacting with guests, they may be less likely to quit.
Robert Rippee, Director of the Hospitality Lab at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says that another benefit of using robots is that they can multi-task and allow human employees to achieve more. “You have machines or platforms that are capable of doing a multitude of different tasks simultaneously,” he says. “If you have a robot that has a multitude of different sensors on it and different capabilities, that can enhance [a] human's ability to perform more tasks.”
Both Greger and Rippee say that robots are bad at detecting and projecting emotion and that this precludes them from most guest-facing work. “Where they've begun to apply it in more human-touch elements like concierge, I think the results are mixed,” Rippee says. “Perhaps it's due to the technology not being mature, or it could be just that's not an application where it's necessary.”
Greger says that to work effectively with robots, people will need to accept the robots’ limitations, especially the robots’ inability to empathize. “[Humans] can understand how someone feels about something, and a robot can't,” he says. “So I think having realistic expectations is going to be really important. They are machines. We don't expect a lot from our toaster. We can't expect much from a robot.”
Widespread adoption of robots in hotels will probably eliminate some jobs, particularly back-of-house jobs that involve repetitive steps. “Some people would need to be retrained,” Greger says. However, adoption of robots will also likely create new opportunities for human workers. People will be needed to program robots and to maintain them.
And when a hotel saves money by assigning robots to routine jobs, it could use the money it saves to hire more people in guest-facing positions and provide more personalized services. “If you put more resources into roles like that, where you're actually improving the guests’ personal stay instead of [doing] very routine things that robots can do, I think that's a win for the guest and it's certainly a win for the hotel,” Rippee says.
Even as hotels introduce robots in their properties, they will still need to employ people. “Human beings need human beings,” Greger says. “And hospitality can't be true hospitality without the human touch.”