For as long as any meeting planner can likely remember, the wow factor has been a key ingredient in the success of meetings and events, with superior onsite service ranking right alongside it. In the hotel of the reasonably foreseeable future, both of those cherished elements will very possibly be taken to a higher level by “smart” robots.
And this is reality, not science fiction.
Hotels are already beginning to use robots to do jobs once done by human beings. And all indicators suggest the emerging trend will become very mainstream over the next decade.
“The future has arrived,” says New York City-based futurist and emerging technology expert Gray Scott. “And so have robots.”
For example, last July the 72-room, modestly priced Henn-na Hotel, which translates as Strange Hotel, opened in the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Sasebo, Nagaski, Japan. The hotel is staffed with robots. Porter robots carry guest luggage. Housekeeping robots make sure the property is spotlessly clean at all times. A ‘smart’ robot holds court in the cloak room. The landmark hotel was designed by Kawazoe Lab, the Institute of Industrial Science at the University of Tokyo and Kajima Corporation. Its other amenities include keyless room entry via facial recognition technology and self-service check-in.
“Hotel operators are looking…for new ways to offer technology-enabled hotels to those tech-savvy customers. And the use of robotics will become just another example of that. And as they offer more of that, millennials will want even more.” — Umar Riaz
In the U.S., Silicon Valley and the San Francisco area have become the testing grounds for robot technology in hotels.
In August of last year, Aloft Hotels made history when its Cupertino, California, property became the first to deploy a robot butler, dubbed a Botlr. Earlier this year, it added a new one, and shipped the original off to properties in Miami and New York to prepare the hotel world and Aloft guests for the future of hotel service.
In August, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) rolled out a “relay robot” named Dash, from Santa Clara, California-based manufacturer Savioke, at its Crowne Plaza San Jose-Silicon Valley property. When Dash, approximately three feet tall, rolls up to a guest’s room with a delivery such as bath towels, it phones the guest to announce its arrival.
Not to be outdone by its Silicon Valley neighbors, the new Axiom Hotel, set to open in San Francisco this fall, announced in mid-September it will do “pop up” events in the area featuring BeamPro robots from Palo Alto-based manufacturer Suitable Technologies. The pre-opening displays of robotic technology will reinforce Axiom’s commitment to cutting-edge technology in its hotels.
There are currently a number of robots capable of doing various tasks in hotels, Scott says.
He cites the Care-O-bot 4, a “modular service robot” whose key target markets include hotels. The Care-O-bot 4, created in Germany by Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation, can provide reception desk assistance and room service, according to the company’s website.
In the foreseeable future, Scott says, Care-O-bot 4 units will function as bellhops and take guests’ bags to their rooms. “It could then deliver room service to your room,” he says. And unlike a human bellhop, a robot bellhop will never forget to transmit your order to the room service department. “And all of that can happen before the robot even leaves your room,” Scott says. “Then another robot could be on the way to your room with your drinks or food. That is a clear improvement from a guest services point of view.”
The most interesting aspect of the Care-O-bot 4, Scott says, is that its modular design means “a hotel can choose the configuration it wants for the tasks it wants done. For example, you can buy just the component that would function as a bellhop and carry luggage. But you can also configure it in other ways for other functions.”
In the next few years, Scott says, hotel robots will be programmed to go to the bathroom and get a towel for a guest or clean the room on demand. “And the more progress that is made in being able to program robots to perform specific tasks like that, the more you’re going to see robotic technology being used in hotels,” Scott says. “And creating the algorithms and writing computer code to manage specific tasks is more advanced than ever before. And with each iteration, robotic technology is getting smarter and smarter.”
The FoldiMate 5000 robot, designed for the simple chore of folding clothes or laundry, will eventually be used by tech-savvy hotels in their housekeeping departments, Scott says.
The current generation of robot technology that most excites Scott is the Pepper model from SoftBanks Robotics Corporation.
Since July, three consecutive production runs of 1,000 units have each sold out in one minute, according to the company’s website.
“Pepper is designed to read facial expressions and respond to your emotions,” Scott says. “So if you’re not happy with your hotel room, Pepper can see your frustration or disappointment and respond with empathy.”
In terms of meeting and event applications, Pepper represents a significant advance over robots that can simply perform a mechanical function, Scott says. It can actually interact with meeting attendees in a calculated, purpose-driven way.
And it also creates the ultimate wow factor at an event.
“Pepper is designed to emotionally engage an audience. So imagine Pepper running around a conference where he is having serious conversations with people, but also understanding how they feel about the conversation. And if they see that someone is excited, then they can give the person more information about a product or the company that makes the product. The potential is really limitless.” That implication has enormous ramifications for how robots can be deployed at meetings as much more than a gimmick or novelty.
As the technology evolves, Scott says, robots also will be able to offer various kinds of onsite services to meeting attendees, such as facilitating or helping attendees navigate among meeting rooms. More important, such robotic functionality is closer to reality than most people think. And in business terms, it’s simply a matter of a hotel brand analyzing the cost-benefit ratio in terms of how they want to present their brand.
Jane Scaletta, general manager of major destination management company AlliedPRA Orlando in the country’s No. 1 meeting destination, believes robots will indeed play a role in the hotels of the future. But she’s skeptical of their direct value to the high-touch process of hosting meetings.
“I agree that we will see robots in the near future in many customer service-related positions,” Scaletta says. “With regards to meeting and incentive programs, I think the most important aspect for the success of a program is the memorable aspect the attendees come away with. I think ‘front of the house’ positions need to stay human and emotional, while many ‘back of the house’ positions could be automated with robots, for instance, in housekeeping, laundry, dish washing, and even valet parking. The auto industry is so far ahead of the game using robots that I can see cars being moved and parked in efficient, space saving, multi-layered garages.”
“I think ‘front of the house’ positions need to stay human and emotional, while many ‘back of the house’ positions could be automated with robots, for instance, in housekeeping, laundry, dish washing, and even valet parking.” — Jane Scaletta
As an event planner, Scaletta says, she “can work with both and welcome the efficiencies of automated rooming lists and flight manifests, or even efficient automated airport check-in and security. But for incentive attendees especially, the interactive experience at a new destination or hotel has to be emotional, elating and memorable. Something you cannot accomplish with robots because humans are unpredictable and exciting. As Andrew Martin, a character in the 1999 movie “Bicentennial Man” said, “As a robot, I could have lived forever. But I tell you all today, I would rather die a man, than live for all eternity a machine.”
Extreme innovations in the use of robotic technology in hotels is not just good for guests, says Umar Riaz, managing director of the hospitality and travel services practice at global consulting firm Accenture in New York. It also is good for the hotel industry from a business perspective.
For example, Riaz says, there is a timely and important demographic element to the topic.
“A lot of hotels now talk about targeting millennials as customers,” Riaz says. “And they have begun looking at hotel design or the on-property experience as something that must appeal to younger customers, who are very tech-savvy. And those younger customers are going to be much more comfortable with new technologies like robotics. And meanwhile, hotel operators are looking, in a broader sense, for new ways to offer technology-enabled hotels to those tech-savvy customers. And the use of robotics will become just another example of that. And as they offer more of that, millennials will want even more.”
From a bottom-line business perspective, the appeal of robotics is tied to logical assumptions about the practical economic benefits of robotics, such as lower costs and more standardized consistency for the same functions or services provided by a human. And robots will not call in sick or have family emergencies or require health insurance or 401k plans. That could lead to significantly reduced operating costs — savings that theoretically could be passed on to meeting clients.
That would transform robotics from a gimmick or millennial-focused marketing ploy into a genuine bottom-line business benefit of significant importance, Riaz says, just as the technology has done in other fields, such as the automotive industry.
“As these technologies mature and the costs go down, you have to think that at some point, there will be tangible business benefits to using the technology in hotels,” Riaz says. “And as the technology becomes more affordable in the future, there will be a strong business case for using it.”
The other key benefit is an increase in the level of guest services — meaning that robots can do the same thing over and over again with more precision and consistency than humans, Riaz says.
That also will eventually become a tangible business benefit.
“The other thing that is happening in the hotel industry, especially in North America, and is really fueling the industry is the growth of limited service hotels and the economy brands,” Riaz says. “So robotic technology is really tailor-made for those kinds of brands and properties. For example, those properties could provide ‘self-service’ cleaning. You just push a button and a robot cleans your room for you. And as you start to look at it, you start to see a lot of examples like that — the ways robotics could be used in hotels. The key will be the adoption process and how well guests respond to the use of the technology.”
As robots assume new and prominent roles in hotels, other futuristic technologies such as keyless entry via facial recognition, will start to become mainstream in their deployment, Riaz says. Today, keyless entry via a smartphone or Apple Watch is a good example of science fiction becoming reality, he says.
“It is more than a novelty now,” he says. “It is a clear improvement in customer service and the guest experience.
Marriott, Hilton and Starwood have led the way so far in pioneering innovative uses of futuristic technology such as remote check-in and keyless entry via a smartphone, Riaz says. And in some properties, mobile check-in has gone beyond the pilot phase and is now considered an emerging mainstream practice. The next step will be the accelerating spread of keyless entry.
“The real challenge for the hotel industry will be to keep up with all this new technology and really understand how using it could impact their brand,” Riaz says. “One of the big trends in the hotel industry now is segmentation, as major hotel companies create more and more individual brands that try to set themselves apart from everyone else and target a particular customer. So you have to think that the evolution of these new technologies and creative ways to use them will become a way that certain hotels can segment their market and appeal to a particular customer, such as millennials who love technology.”
Given that, he says, hotels will start to think more in terms of a “technology platform” that includes a multitude of elements tailored to their brand based on functionality and guest appeal. “Understanding all that and making the right decisions for their brands, Riaz says, “is going to be the big challenge for the industry going forward.”
Futurist Scott agrees that a truly transformational wave of astonishing technological innovation is about to take place in the hotel industry and that it will have dramatic and important impact on meetings and events.
“In the future, you’re going to see all kinds of new technology implemented in hotels,” he says. “And they have to do that, because as our homes become ‘smarter,’ we will expect the same kinds of technology and convenience in hotels. And the first places we will start to see it is in the mega-convention centers and the major hotels in the convention industry. And that will happen because meeting planners and the people who attend meetings know now about technology that they want their meetings to be ‘smart.’ That’s the next logical step in the evolution of meetings.”
At the same time, the general pace of technological evolution is faster and more dramatic than ever before, Scott says. Therefore, the innovations and new technologies of the next 10 years will far exceed those of the last decade. “We’re going to see exponential growth now in the things technology can do,” he says. “And that’s especially true in terms of ‘smart’ devices.”
One example now being developed is next-generation, in-room technology.
“Stepping into the hotel room of the future will be like stepping into virtual reality,” Scott says. “Everything in the room will be ‘smart.’ Walls will be digital displays, so you can have any view you want, whether that’s a serene beach or anything else you desire. Imagine hotel beds that use gentle haptic vibrations to wake you in the morning. These kinds of technologies will eventually be ubiquitous, and they will forever change the way we travel and how we relate to a hotel room or a meeting room.”
Using OLED technology, convention centers, conference facilities and major meeting hotels also will be able to create event-specific “smart walls” that offer a full spectrum of services for both planners and attendees, Scott says. In effect, the meeting will become a fully immersive technological experience, which will greatly accelerate and facilitate more impactful and successful meetings. And part of that will be much more dramatic such as technology-driven presentations that will render traditional audio-visual technology and PowerPoint obsolete.
The mission of Suitable Technologies, the developers of BeamPro and Beam+: Smart Presence technology products, is to give people of the world broader access to each other through face-to-face interaction. Their products enable users to move about, speak, see and interact with others — regardless of their location. Beams allow employees to be remote attendees at conferences all over the world, attend keynotes, network, explore the expo halls, and even give a keynote on stage.
“And the ultimate use of the technology will be that for the duration of a meeting, using a fully developed technology platform, meeting hosts and planners will literally be able to transform a hotel into a manifestation of their brand,” he says.
Scott expects that the full transformation of hotels will take seven to 10 years.
Meanwhile, Riaz says, consumers will become increasingly excited about futuristic applications of technology in hotels.
“From a service point of view, I think what you’ll find is that the consumer will have a lot more choices in terms of what type of experience they want in a hotel,” Riaz says. “For example, if you prefer an experience where you do not have to talk to or deal with a front desk agent and you can just check in with your phone and go to your room and open the door, you will be able to have that experience. And there is no doubt there are now consumers who want that kind of service.”
The business challenge: “It’s difficult to make a giant leap in the hotel industry because there is so much real estate that is already established,” Riaz says. “So I think what we will see is a gradual shift toward these new kinds of technology. Ten years down the road, the way you interact with a hotel is going to be very different from the way you do it now. As more and more new technology gets introduced, the experience of staying in a hotel will be transformed dramatically. And then that change will be segmented, according to brand and type of customer.”
Based on the rapid evolution of modern robotics and automation over the past decade, in the future it is possible — and perhaps even likely — that in order to reduce costs and simultaneously increase the consistency of customer service, robots will largely replace humans as hotel staff members, Riaz says.
“I think it’s very possible that at some point in the future, you will see a hotel that has only two human beings working in it,” he says. “The rest of the work will be done by robots. Based on what we’ve seen with the new hotel in Japan, for example, I think it’s possible that within five to 10 years, we could see such an automated hotel.” C&IT