Analytical Reporter July/August 2021

Last year when I read about Hotel Sky opening in Sandton and Cape Town and the fact that they had robots working there, I was curious about using robots in the hospitality industry and wondered whether it was a growing trend?

Robots, technology and automation are not new, of course, and there are robots already employed in repetitive tasks which require 100% accuracy, especially in the manufacturing industry. In the laboratory industry too, automation of tasks which used to be done manually has become common and equipment continues to evolve in this respect. To a degree, this automation is very much the same sort of technology and functionality implemented to develop robots that can ‘interact’ with humans.

But robots in hotels? Does it work and do guests like dealing with a robot rather than a person? For myself, I guess having my bags delivered to my room by a robot might be quite nice – no scratching for change and wondering how much I should tip. But for more than that?
I am not sure.

I do remember many years ago on a business trip to the UK staying in a hotel where not once – in the entire week I was there – did I see a human being working at the hotel. Not even people cleaning the rooms, although my room was definitely cleaned each day. You booked in using an iPad and got a code to access your room. No one to welcome you at all. I found it strange and I can’t say I liked it. On the other hand, if you don’t feel like making conversation with anybody, I guess it’s perfect. Hotel robots are one step up from that, though. They have humanoid or appealing features, can talk in pre-programmed phrases and are interactive to a certain extent. They can definitely welcome you to the hotel, if that’s their function.

So, what do robots get used for in the hotel industry? Well, at Hotel Sky the robots welcome guests and are available to answer standard questions. They’re basically guest ambassadors. But there are many more applications for robots in hotels. From the more mundane such as cleaning carpets and floors, to carrying luggage to rooms, to taking temperatures, to delivering room service, to acting as waiters. There are even robots that can be programmed to cook specific meals (I think I want one of those).

What are the advantages to automation and AI in the hotel industry? Obviously in this time of COVID-19, hygiene and social distancing are of prime importance. The less human or face-to-face interaction the better, in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Robots are easy to sanitise regularly and don’t sneeze or cough when they talk to you. I imagine they clean floors and carpets a lot better than we do too. There are also UV-disinfection robots, which is important at this time.

And, while it’s definitely not a problem in South Africa, there are countries that have difficulty finding long-term staff members. I suppose it is also handy to ‘employ’ robots, who would never ask for a raise, don’t need tea and lunch breaks, and will work long hours without complaining.

Although they do need to be charged regularly – so they do have breaks of a sort. And I imagine they require a fair amount of maintenance in order to continue operating optimally.

You could also say that with robots carrying out the more mundane or timeconsuming tasks, human hotel staff are freed up to provide a better and more personalised service. One thing robots can do is to memorise (record) faces of guests, what room they are in, and what their preferences are – in this way the hotel experience is actually a little more personalised. It is difficult for humans to remember everything about a hotel guest or even to necessarily recognise them, although I have stayed in some hotels where I have been astonished at the level of recall of some of the staff. Robots can also be programmed to ‘understand’ and respond in different languages, which is very useful for travellers.

Japan, of course, is the leader when it comes to robot and AIpowered hotels, with the Henn-na Hotel Group first introducing robotstaffed hotels. It’s spread quite a bit since then, with many hotels in the US and elsewhere implementing robots as staff.

Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas even has a robot that can mix drinks for you, while Pechanga Resort Casino in California has robots helping out as security.

It will be interesting to see where this all leads. Will robots take over a multitude of jobs in the hotel industry? And will hotel guests prefer this?

Until next time
Louise

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