When they enter the hotel lobby, the guests have two options: those who speak Japanese can talk to a welcome hostess in a white uniform, while the others will have to communicate in the language of Shakespeare with a velociraptor sitting calmly behind the counter. There is no risk of getting eaten alive however, because – just like his uniformed colleague – this intimidating reptile is not really a flesh-and-blood dinosaur teleported straight out of the Jurassic era but a robot specially designed to welcome hotel guests. Once this rather unsettling opening phase has been completed, the traveller may put on one side any items s/he does not intend to use during his or her stay. They will be delicately grasped by a robotic arm and locked inside a secure room. Another robot will relieve the guests of their suitcases and guide then to their rooms, where there will be no need of a key or card to get inside: there is a face-recognition system which will unlock the door automatically. Inside the room, a third robot is waiting to answer any questions the guest might wish to ask, provide a detailed weather forecast or switch on the lights and turn up the heating.
This is not a science fiction film scenario but is in reality what awaits guests at the futuristic hotel Henn-Na – a name which in Japanese means 'odd' – located in the town of Sasebo. The management has made a conscious decision to make intensive use of robots in order to provide the guests with an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Predictably, this unique hotel has aroused a great deal of media interest worldwide and piqued the curiosity of a good many tourists. The establishment has taken 80,000 room reservations over the last two years and is fully-booked most of the time. However, the reason for installing these robot assistants was not just a pure publicity stunt. "By having robots in charge of the reception and placing robots everywhere, we aim to make it the most efficient hotel in the world", explains Hideo Sawada, founder and chairman t of HIS, a travel agency which is behind the project, on the BD Hotels website. The agency has so much faith in the model adopted by the Henn-Na hotel that it is planning to open around a hundred more such highly-robotised establishments over the next five years.
The hotel of the future: robots on reception?
Relay, the robot butler
Head of Digital Transformation Advisory bij KPMG Netherlands
The hotel industry has only just begun to get interested in robotics. Early use cases started to emerge only in 2015.
Thanks to recent advances in Artificial Intelligence, a branch of information science which tries to reproduce human intelligence in machines, robots are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are coming into use in a growing number of industries. Whether we are talking about moving items in a warehouse, delivering food, helping medical patients with their rehabilitation or providing information to customers at a store, the robots of today are showing great efficiency. The hospitality sector has however so far been rather shy of deploying robots. “The hotel industry has only just begun to get interested in robotics. Early use cases started to emerge only in 2015,” points out Eric Wesselman, who heads up the Digital Transformation Advisory service at KPMG in the Netherlands. One of the reasons for this relative delay is that human contact plays an absolutely crucial part in the hotel business. High-end hotels pride themselves on their impeccable customer service provided by specially trained staff. There are not as many repetitive mechanical tasks that involve no personal relationships and so can be easily delegated to a machine, leading to significant productivity gains, as in many other industries.
This does not mean that hotel staff never have to perform any tedious tasks that could be automated, but it is a fact that if robots are to deliver their full potential in this sector they will have to work closely with the human staff, taking on the less fulfilling parts of their job so as to enable them to spend more time providing first-class customer service. Robots can also be used to add a touch of surprise and originality. “In general, robots are deployed for a number of reasons: speed, quality improvement, scalability or flexibility and cost-efficiency. This is a bit different in the hospitality industry. Their robots are currently more used to provide a unique customer experience, with enhanced UX personalisation capability when using AI,” underlines Eric Wesselman.
With this in mind, California-based company Savioke has developed a delivery robot called Relay. Used by a number of high-end hotel chains such as Marriott, Hilton, InterContinental and Starwood, this robot is specially designed to provide room service, thus enabling the hotel staff to spend more time attending to the guests and less time running from one suite to another with aperitifs, slices of cream cake or fresh towels. The robot is able to move around entirely autonomously – taking the elevator all by itself and navigating its way through the labyrinthine corridors of a large hotel.
“We designed Relay to work as an assistant for the hotel’s staff. The person at the front desk receives the orders, prepare the items and then gives them to Relay, who ferries them to the guest’s room,” Tessa Lau, the then CTO at Savioke (who has since set up another robotics company) told attendees at the 2017 Collision event, adding: “In the service industry there will always be people, because the art of service and hospitality is understanding what people want and creating a personalised experience just for them. What robots can do is making some aspects of services a lot more predictable and automated.”
Savioke CEO Steve Cousins points out that deploying a Relay robot can free up on average five hours per day for each staff member to devote to the guests. This approach also tends to increase the number of orders placed by guests, leading to an increase in revenue. At some hotels the Relay robot has even proved to be a higher source of revenue than the room minibar, he claims. Moreover, by arousing people’s curiosity, the robots can lead to a greater number of bookings, argues the Savioke CEO.
The advent of 'Robot as a Service'
Thus, robots can become a means of differentiation in this highly competitive market, runs the argument, and it might well become simply unthinkable for any self-respecting major hotel not to have its own robot, just as it would be inconceivable not to have a minibar or room service. In fact, quite a number of establishments are now testing out the use of machines to assist the staff. For instance, the Inter-Continental in San José in Silicon Valley is using a customised version of the Relay robot, known as Dash, while the M Social hotel in Singapore is collaborating with Savioke on its customised robot, AURA. However, these robots are not just being used to deliver things. Some of them are able to answer simple questions as well. In the Belgian city of Ghent, the Marriott Group has deployed a robot called Mario on the reception desk. Mario can communicate in 19 different languages and is also able to identify guests up to six months after their last visit, welcome them by name and hand over the keys to their room.
Although robots currently provide a unique customer experience in hotels, the route to a true immersive experience is still long. The natural language processing in robots is not always that good and multiple languages options are usually not offered.
Meanwhile, in the town of McLean in Virginia, the Hilton chain is testing a robot steered by Watson, the IBM supercomputer best-known for its ability to beat all-comers in TV game shows and analyse medical X-ray images. Known as Connie, this robot, which is a version of NAO by Softbank, serves as a tourist information database, informing visitors about the local attractions, places to visit, or the best restaurants in the vicinity. Connie is also able to move its arms so as to point the way around the hotel for guests. “This isn’t about reducing staff, but if you can take 100 different routine questions off the front desk, at the end of the day, it helps them answer phones faster, it helps them check people in faster, it frees them up to actually deliver hospitality,” Jim Holthouser, Executive Vice President for Global Brands at Hilton, explained in an interview with USA Today. These smart machines can even make themselves useful among the ovens. For instance, the M Social in Singapore is using them to help kitchen staff with the most repetitive or dangerous tasks. Austin, Texas-based startup Maidbot, which works with a number of hotels, offers a vacuum-cleaner robot that is capable of cleaning hotel rooms all by itself.
What will the hotels of the future look like?
All this is however still at the experimental stage. “The current applications of robotics are still in proof of concept mode,” stresses Eric Wesselman, explaining: “Although robots currently provide a unique customer experience in hotels, the route to a true immersive experience is still long. The natural language processing in robots is not always that good and multiple languages options are usually not offered. Last but not least, true intelligence (AI) in the robotic applications needs further enhancement. So we still have a few years to go until the technology reaches a sufficient degree of robustness that it provides a real WOW factor.”
Moreover, if the technology is to take off, hotels will need to adapt as well, Wesselman points out. “Hotels need to change so that robots can move freely and infrastructure does not cause blockages. Think about flooring, doors and elevators with WiFi enablers and also high-speed data accessible everywhere,” he says. Another way to encourage widespread adoption of this advanced technology might be for robotics firms to offer a subscription service so that hotels could try it out without having to make huge investments at the very outset. Wesselman forecasts: “I expect that one out of three of commercially available robot solutions will be offered ‘as a service’ by 2020,” explaining: “This means that the investment to acquire robot technology will no longer pose a threshold that keeps hospitality businesses away from using robotic solutions. And this ratio will improve rapidly as more vendors enter the market to compete.”
However, the potential uses of Artificial Intelligence in the hospitality industry are not limited to robotics. We also have the more discrete and more pervasive AI-based voice tools. Eric Wesselman predicts: “I expect that AI will enter the hospitality business quickly, where voice activated responses will provide a better customer experience in hotel rooms. We’re seeing some functionalities that Alexa and Google Home developed for the Smart Home. You can turn on the lights, operate the window screens, turn on the TV by voice.” In fact Amazon has already entered into agreement with a number of hotels to test out the use of Alexa in the rooms. The Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, has now integrated Amazon Echo speakers into all its suites to enable guests to activate various functionalities by voice command and the Hotel Clarion in Stockholm has signed up to a similar deal. Guests can also use Alexa to order room service or call a taxi.Other establishments prefer to develop their own home-made solution. For instance, the Las Vegas Cosmopolitan has been working with Chicago-based digital marketing agency R/GA to create Rose, a chatbot which not only handles all requests relating to the workings of the hotel and all room services but is also able to provide recommendations on tourist activities and even offer a guided tour of the hotel’s own art collection. HiJiffy, a Lisbon, Portugal-based startup that provides digital concierge services to the hospitality sector, has developed a chatbot for hotel management that enables guests to make requests to the staff via Facebook Messenger. Meanwhile the Radisson Blu chain has also developed a home-made chatbot called Edward, which is designed to respond to guests’ every need.
The goal is eventually to be able to use Artificial Intelligence to anticipate customers’ needs and expectations and provide the hotel guests with an ideal experience without them having to express any direct requests themselves. The Shangri-La Hotel in Abu Dhabi has already taken steps in this direction. Whenever a guest checks in, the air condition system in his/her room is automatically switched on so that the room will be at an ideal temperature when s/he enters. And why not record the individual preferences of every hotel guest so as to be able to set up the room according to their wishes when they come again? Or even gather public data available online on each person so as to be able to provide a perfectly customised experience? “Today’s solutions such as Google’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are just the start of voice-activated machines that, combined with AI, gather intelligence on one’s preferences, hence allowing the hospitality business to provide a more tailored customer experience,” underlines Eric Wesselman, predicting: “I expect this to take off fairly soon – in the next five years, give or take – limited to the higher-end hotels.”
If these services are to work properly however, there are some prerequisites. Firstly, the public will need to learn to trust robots and Artificial Intelligence; and secondly, the technology must not be intrusive or encroach on people’s privacy. In this respect, the proposals that have been made with a view to establishing a code of ethics for Artificial Intelligence constitute a good start.