There is no question that robots are a hot topic in the hospitality industry. We saw this for ourselves this past June when a team from PressReader attended the Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition and Conference (or HITEC) in Toronto.
We had the opportunity to check out the latest innovative hospitality technology, coming soon to transform the guest experience at a hotel or resort near you. It wasn't all room-service robots and automated concierges, of course, but we certainly saw enough examples to conclude that hotel robots in some form will likely pop up at a property close to you in the near future.
Robots wowed HITEC attendees
In our report from HITEC, we told you about how the South Korean company Robotis wowed conference attendees with Gaemi, an indoor robot with advanced mapping and route-planning capabilities, designed to navigate its way around people and objects while delivering food and other necessities in hotels, hospitals and high-rises.
We also told you about Piaggio Fast Forward's Gita robots, which have built-in sensors and use radar to follow the user around and carry their cargo; and LG's line of robots, including the CLOi ServeBot, which "can handle repetitive serving and delivery tasks, assist employees with clearing tables, and allow more time for employees to focus on customer experience."
They came from Silicon Valley
It's not too surprising that when the first hotel robots popped up in the US nearly a decade ago, it was in Cupertino, California. That city is right in the heart of the Silicon Valley and is home to the headquarters of Apple Inc., so it's something of a tech mecca.
In 2014, Starwood, one of the world’s largest hotel companies, rolled out two robotic butlers (or “Botlrs”) at its Cupertino Aloft Hotel. According to a contemporary TechCrunch article, the robots, built by a company called Savioke (since acquired by Relay Robotics) were "able to perform tasks in the front of the house and the back of the house, as well as navigate around guests and use elevators."
Hotel robots enhance the guest experience
How did hotel guests respond to the presence of these non-human "employees"? Pretty positively, it seems.
A 2015 Computerworld article quoted Derrick Agas, then front desk supervisor at the Aloft, as saying, "People love it," Agas told Computerworld. "One family was staying here and their daughter really wanted to see it work. She loved it so much she wrote a letter. When she walked up to it, I opened the door so she dropped the letter inside and I hit the shimmy button so it did a little dance for her. She had the biggest smile on her face."
Robots inspire positive feelings
More recently, Boutique Hotelier reported on a study that found that when interacting with service robots, hotel customers experience overwhelmingly positive feelings including joy, love, awe/surprise, interest, and excitement.
Researchers led by Raffaele Filieri from Audencia Business School in France analyzed online reviews and found that 61% of customers express a feeling of fun interacting with robots, with only 28.5% of reviewers reported experiencing a sense of fear when being approached by a robot server instead of a human.
Robots are "friendly" and "playful"
Filieri and his colleagues looked at 9,707 reviews posted on two leading social media platforms (Ctrip and TripAdvisor) by customers who had encountered service robots across 412 hotels in eight western and Asian countries.
Service robots trigger overwhelmingly positive emotions in most customers who describe robots as cool, intelligent, cute, lovely, friendly, quirky, weird, popular and playful. Their service is evaluated as convenient, amazing, unique, fast, and distinctive. Customers also very often comment on the robot’s service attributes or appearance. Other positive feelings highlighted by our study were amazement and surprise.
Consider the "human stack"
Ask any Star Wars fan; human beings love to interact with droids. (Unless the droid is C-3PO; human-cyborg relations? Yawn.) Robots in hotels can enhance the guest experience through the power of surprise and delight. Novelty, however, should not be the primary purpose of robots in the hospitality industry — or of any other new technologies, for that matter.
Let's go back to that 2014 TechCrunch article we cited above:
For the most part, it seems that the Botlrs will be delivering amenities to guest rooms in lieu of actual humans, “freeing up existing talent’s time and allowing them to create a more personalized experience for guests.”
This is a key point. Operators in the hotel industry must consider each new technology spend — from a digital amenity such as PressReader to a cloud-based PMS powered by artificial intelligence to a robot concierge — in the context of how it will increase customer satisfaction while improving the lives of human staff. (In other words, when upgrading your tech stack, don't neglect the "human stack".)
Making a better employee experience
In previous blog posts we have learned some of the ways AI and automation can create a better hotel employee experience, and we can certainly lump robots into the general category of automation.
One of the primary ways that automating tasks can improve the employee experience in the hotel industry is by streamlining operations, which can increase efficiency and productivity and ultimately result in cost savings for hospitality businesses.
Hotel employees are often responsible for fulfilling a number of time-consuming and repetitive tasks — checking in guests, answering common questions and managing reservations, for example.
Robots can take on various tasks
Having these mundane tasks automated or assigned to different robots can free up their human counterparts to spend more time on higher-level responsibilities, such as providing visitors with an excellent customer experience and addressing more complex guest issues.
In a time when labor shortages are still very much a factor in the hospitality sector, this can make a big difference to the employee experience, and it can let hotel management sleep a little better at night.
(For more strategies to combat hospitality-industry labor shortages, see this recent blog post.)
The importance of providing options
Of course, despite the expanding role that new technologies play in the hospitality industry, not everyone is looking for their hotel guest experience to be a high-tech one.
Moreover, as the researchers from Audencia Business School learned, there is a certain percentage of the public who are actually afraid of robots.
That's why it's important to provide guests with options.
Many guests prefer the human touch
Laura Calin, the VP of Strategy and Solutions Management at Oracle Hospitality, told Hospitality Net that even the most sophisticated tech stack (room-service robots not necessarily included) functions best when it is employed alongside employees who can be on-site to provide customers with human interactions. Calin wrote:
There are still many customers who still place an emphasis on in-person services and prefer to come into a hotel and check in with a receptionist. Other guests may prefer to do it all on their phones and simply pick up their key, but even they would prefer to have a real human nearby in case they run into any errors or have questions throughout the process. The best way to employ technology is as a means of providing as many choices as possible and allowing each guest to choose what best serves their needs.
She didn't mention robots specifically, but Calin did predict that automation would play an increasingly important role in the hospitality experience, and that this will enable hotel staff to shift their focus to "soft skills".
When they are free from the more mundane tasks that keep a hotel operation running, employees will be better able to respond to guests on an interpersonal level and serve their needs.
Balance is the future of the hotel industry
In this era of constant innovation, PressReader stands as a pivotal tool for hoteliers, aligning perfectly with the hotel industry's forward momentum. By offering a vast array of digital content, PressReader ensures that guests have access to a world of information and entertainment at their fingertips.
As we embrace this wave of change, it's clear that the future of hospitality lies in the balance of technology and personal touch. Artificial intelligence and room-service robots may be the stars of efficiency and novelty, but the human element remains irreplaceable. The hospitality industry's challenge, and indeed its greatest opportunity, lies in harmonizing these elements to create a guest experience that is not just satisfactory, but extraordinary, from check-in to check-out.
In this pursuit of excellence, PressReader stands as a steadfast partner, ensuring that innovation and guest satisfaction walk hand in hand into the future of hospitality.
As Calin noted, "Even as hotels and their staff focus on becoming more efficient, I think in an ideal world there is a hybrid workforce, where humans and machines can work together to deliver optimal and personalized experiences for travelers."
Humans and machines working together? We might need C-3PO after all.