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October 25, 2016
Technology
James Lingle

There is a real opportunity to help guests and associates, and improve how we do business.

I grew up loving science fiction. Space ships, warp drive (yes, I'm a Trekkie!)  And robots were always cool to me.  When I think of the idea of robots, I always seem to start with Isaac Asimov's android creation, R. Daneel Olivaw from his classic Robot novels, that captured my imagination as a young reader.  While not exclusively, robots in popular culture have leaned heavily toward the android, or human form (C3-PO, Rosie from the Jetsons, David from AI, and ASIMO from Honda).

The reality is there are many different types of robots in myriad forms, and they have the ability to make an impact on the hospitality industry.  Robots are nothing new.  Modern (digitally programmable) robots have been around for at least 60 years and have taken a variety of shapes and forms.  I’m not talking about Pcs, kiosks and microwaves.

Perhaps the best example of impact from robots has been in the manufacturing industry.  As of the early part of this decade, 90 percent of all robots were found in factories and about half of those were bought by the auto industry.  Over the past 20 years, robots have begun to filter into other industries such as warehouses, hospitals, labs and now, hospitality.

WHY SHOULD ROBOTS FIT INTO THE HOSPITALITY PICTURE?

The main focus behind robots is to have an impact on some area of the guest or associate experience.  The Residence Inn LAX has seen this benefit with Savioke’s Relay robot, which the property’s staff has named Wally.  Property General Manager Tom Beedon said, “The best things about having Wally in my hotel are how it helps my employees do their job, and the delight that it brings to my customers.” Relay is an autonomous robot helper developed for human environments, and has been able to aid the hospitality industry through its ability to retrieve items and deliver them to guests.

Robots free up associates, allowing them to create a better guest experience.  They can make unsafe tasks safer, and can provide information that allows a guest to more easily get where they want to go or provide them with a service they need during a time of peak demand.  Another example of a robot that services the hospitality industry is the housekeeping robot manufactured by Maidbot.  As Micah Green, CEO and founder of the company, said, “… Rosie (Maidbot’s housekeeping robot) has been crafted to provide serious value to hotel operators.” Maidbot’s robots are also autonomous solutions for the hospitality industry that provide safe and cost-efficient services, in this case, decreasing the time to clean a room and reducing the risk for work-related injuries in room attendants, which allows them to focus on other more important tasks.

Robots can also be good business decisions.  They can complete tasks that provide additional revenue, tap into unsatisfied demands that provide financial benefit and provide marketing advantages.  At the Residence Inn LAX, Beedon estimates that delivery and additional services that Wally provides as well as the attention that Wally brings to the hotel has “conservatively” provided a half percent boost to his property’s RevPAR index.  The property’s owner has even opted to deploy another robot, named Winnie, to its sister property because of Wally’s success.

When we think of where robots fit further into the hospitality industry, imagination (and technology) is truly the limit here.  Take the Hennna Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan, the world’s first hotel staffed entirely by robots.  You can have an android robot check you in (or you can opt for the Velociraptor) and an automated robot bell cart to take your bags to your room.  If you have a question while you’re in your room, the lampsized doll is your personal concierge.

Beyond the guest experience, robots can have a real impact on the back of the house as well.  MaidBot can reach areas that are not easily accessible to team members, often discovering problems at a stage when they can be addressed pre-emptively and discretely.  Other companies such as DishCraft Robotics which provides robotics to commercial kitchens, or Delta Five that uses robots in pest control applications, are also able to help hospitality companies become more efficient and promote safety.

Perhaps the greatest potential in the industry is when robotics can touch multiple areas (guest, associate and business), and quite possibly one of the most interesting of those opportunities is Hilton’s Connie. Connie can best be described as a cognitive learning partnership between Hilton and IBM’s Watson, a question and answering system or technology platform that uses natural language processing.  For associates, Connie has proven successful by adding value to the guest experience at the Hilton McLean in Virginia.  When Connie helps a guest, it frees up the front desk to check in additional guests, shortening wait times and lines, and enhancing the guest experience.

Cognitive learning is designed to allow Connie to learn to respond in a natural manner, which according to Ron High, IBM Watson’s CTO, is “particularly powerful in a hospitality setting.” It also allows Hilton to focus on making the travel experience for its guests “…smarter, easier and more enjoyable,” said Jonathan Wilson, vice president of product innovation and brand services at Hilton.

On average, Hilton’s Connie has 50 conversations per day.  As a result, exciting things happen on the back end that impact both the guest experience and the property’s awareness of its business.  Connie learns what the guests are really asking about and how they are asking the question. If you ask, “Where is the pool?” and I ask “How do I get to the swimming pool?,” Connie will eventually give both of us the same answer to what, on the surface, is the same question, but in reality are two very different questions that need to elicit the same outcome.

However, data is potentially the biggest value robots have to provide us.  Hoteliers can learn from the information all of these types of systems collect.  Does the data from Connie tell us we have a signage problem; do we need to gather more information about local restaurants or tourist attractions; is the coffee shop closing too early; is MaidBot telling us we have a cleanliness problem in the ballroom; is Relay letting us know that the elevator is out of service?  Our challenge is to use this data in the right way – to create a better experience for everyone and to run our businesses better.

Robots will continue to increase their reach into our industry – it is a matter of the cycle of technology deployment.  Internationally acceptance will likely come first.  The Henn-na hotel in Nagasaki mentioned earlier is an indicator that the experiment is already well under way.  In Asia robots are widely accepted in most environments.  Will that level of acceptance flow over to the United States and other markets much like new technology commonly flows down from larger hotels to smaller ones?  It’s hard to say for sure, but I am guessing that it probably will.

A robot has the following criteria:

  1. It is programmable (via a computer) and/or controllable (by an operator).
  2. It has some form of articulation such as directional movement, moving arms, etc., that generally reminds you of how a person or animal might move.
  3. It usually performs some type of repetitive tasks similar to how a person or animal might perform that same task.

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