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Taking Humans Out of Hospitality
© Kevin Whipple / Culture Trip
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Taking Humans Out of Hospitality

Picture of Peter Ward
Tech Editor
Updated: 8 May 2018
Hospitality has always been about human interaction. But in an increasingly automated world, does face-to-face service still have a place in hotels?

When guests at the LUMA Hotel in Times Square request ice, coffee pods, or bathroom amenities to their rooms, there’s a strong chance they’ll be met at their door by Alina, one of the less conventional employees working at the hotel. She’s about four feet tall, looks a little like a mobile trash can—and she’s a robot.

Alina is one of many robot butlers used in hotels around the world and part of a growing trend of automation in hospitality. The days of talking to a person on the hotel front desk, being welcomed onto a plane by a human smile, or even being served by a bartender at a hotel bar may be on their way out, as technology brings efficiency and cost savings to the industry. But at what price?

Alina in action at the LUMA Hotel in Times Square, New York City | © LUMA Hotel

At the LUMA Hotel, Alina carries out a limited but helpful set of tasks. “We decided to invest in a robot butler to enhance our guest services. We knew we wanted to offer our guests an amenity that was both unique and fun, but also would be helpful to them, as well as our staff,” says Kate Martin, general manager of LUMA Hotel Times Square. “Once a team member fills Alina with the necessary items, she is able to call the elevator wirelessly, navigate through the hotel independently, and phone the guest’s room when she arrives with their delivery, before automatically heading back to her charging station in the lobby.”

Perhaps the most famous example of robots in hotels is the Henn na—or “Weird” hotel—in Japan. Here guests check in with robot dinosaurs and have their luggage taken to their room by an automated trolley. Videos, images, and articles about the hotel went viral in 2015, although it was seen as a novelty rather than a blueprint for other properties to follow.

At Hotel EMC2 in Chicago, there are two robot butlers: one named Leo after Leonardo da Vinci and the other Cleo after Cleopatra. Allyson Murphy, front office manager at the hotel, says that guests are often surprised when they show at the door, and ask for the robots to return to their rooms so they can shoot videos and take photos for social media.

Leo & Cleo
Leo and Cleo at the Albert restaurant inside Hotel EMC2 in Chicago | © Kevin J. Miyazaki / PLATE

It’s easy to pass off robot butlers like Leo and Cleo as a fad which don’t offer much more than Instagram opportunities for guests, but they are representative of a wider movement towards fewer human interactions at hotels. Hotel EMC2 also offers guests a service where they can text most requests to the front desk, such as wake-up calls, “Do Not Disturb” notices, and food orders. This is a low-tech and subtle hint at the way the industry is moving. “We’re in such a texting world where it’s so much easier than picking up a phone and calling, I think a lot of hotels will transition to this,” says Murphy.

Some hotels have gone even further. CityHub, a hotel chain in the Netherlands, is positioning itself between hostels and hotels on the price scale, and keeps costs down to a minimum through automation and technology. The hotel swaps rooms for sleeping units called hubs, and fits out each hub with Wi-Fi, mood lighting, a king-sized bed, and Bluetooth music streaming. Guests receive a personal wristband when they check in, meaning they can serve themselves at the bar, and the accompanying app means they’re permanently connected to the hotel without actually talking to any of the staff.

“We tried to discover what makes a hotel expensive and we found out that a lot of people are doing administrative tasks,” Sem Schuurkes, one of the co-founders of CityHub, explains. By automating those tasks, CityHub hotel employees are left to do the more pleasant tasks, like talk to guests. The company’s head office monitors everything from afar, and can see in real time how the hotel is performing and act on that. “On location, hosting and having fun with the guests is all that’s left. You can leave it to the fun people and automation can run the place.”

Schuurkes says he’s shocked at how behind the times some hotels are. “There are still people filling everything in with pen and paper, and even when they have an IT system, they print out all the data from the day and store it somewhere. Traveling is becoming bigger so they’re doing fine so maybe they think they don’t need to improve,” he says.

CityHub guests can scan their wristbands and serve themselves at the bar | © CityHub

But change is coming, and it helps that larger technology companies are working on providing automated and artificially intelligent solutions to hotels on a large scale. Hotel EMC2, for example, has Amazon’s Dot devices in its rooms, meaning guests can control their environment and request services and items using the artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled voice assistant Alexa.

IBM also offers its Watson Assistant solution to hotels. The company combines its work in Internet of Things, where all objects are connected to the internet and accessible, with its Watson AI, which has been a forerunner in the field since its victory on the quiz show Jeopardy in 2011. In a hotel room setting, guests can have conversations with Watson and ask it to turn the air conditioning down or the TV off, in a similar way to how Alexa can be used when hooked up to devices. The AI can also replace or enhance the role of a front desk employee.

“We’ve done work with Motel One out of Munich, which is a hotel lobby/concierge solution,” says Bret Greinstein, IBM vice president, Watson Internet of Things. “It’s front lobby, front desk where people can get support by just asking for things that they want.”

Greinstein explains a scenario where a guest walks into the lobby and asks Watson Assistant where it can get the best Brazilian food in the area. The AI would take into account live data such as the weather and refrain from suggesting an outdoor restaurant if rain is forecast.

With all this data being collected and analyzed, the question of privacy comes to the fore. Everything that is automated has the ability to collect data, and in the case of conversational AI, that data can even be your voice. Greinstein says IBM sought to ensure that user data didn’t become a product in itself, to be analyzed, exploited, or even sold.

A Pepper robot using Watson technology in Munich Airport
A Pepper robot using Watson technology in Munich Airport | © Munich Airport

“The establishment of trust between a hotel chain and a customer has been something hotels have worked on for decades. Hotels require that level of trust and privacy,” he says. “That’s an important element and one that is missed when you just stick a consumer device in a hotel room.”

Aside from privacy, there are also the obvious concerns that automation takes the soul out of traveling, and there are some elements of staying in a hotel that require a human touch. Hotel industry insiders acknowledge that automation should enable human relationships rather than replace them, but they also want to provide speedy service in a world where almost everything is now available on demand.

Perhaps robot butlers such as LUMA Hotel’s Alina aren’t quite the future of luxury travel hospitality, but the technology inside and around them almost certainly is. “As wonderful as Alina is she can’t pick up on body language or answer questions, so we still feel that having the human aspect is what ultimately will allow us to personalize the guest experience. However, we also know that guests are expecting speed and efficiency,” says Martin.