Definitely Doug 5/12/23: Meet Your Future Staff Members! (Part One)

by Doug Rice

This week I will return to a topic I have covered before, because it has, within the last 12 to 18 months, become one of the hottest-growth categories in hospitality technology. That topic is autonomous mobile robots – specifically, ones that can move around the facility as well as perform specific tasks. Many of these products were launched pre-Covid but were often seen at the time as more of a marketing gimmick than a legitimate operational solution.

However, the past year has made clear that the hotel and restaurant labor shortage originally precipitated by the pandemic is likely to be permanent. In a world where the cost of labor to perform many menial tasks has skyrocketed and where it is often impossible to get staff at any cost, more and more hotels, especially in the select-service segment, are starting to consider robotic assistance.

Robotics is still very early in the adoption curve in North American hotels, but several manufacturers I spoke with said that 2022 volume was up 3x to 4x compared with 2021, and that the trend has continued this year. Adoption is much further along in China and some other parts of Asia, where one vendor estimates that 25% to 35% of select-service hotels are now using autonomous robots. A few major hotel brands reportedly have global deployments on their roadmap, although timing is still unclear.

While some lifestyle hotels were the earliest adopters of robots, select service has spurred the current growth. These hotels are finding that robots can help them tap into revenue sources and services that previously only full-service properties offered, such as room service (sometimes utilizing nearby restaurants or ghost kitchens for preparation). Others have doubled or tripled sales of high-margin food and sundries from lobby pantries by enabling guests to order directly via an app for delivery by a robot. Many have found robots useful for getting food from delivery app drivers to guest rooms without having to let drivers up onto guest floors or require guests to come down to the lobby – and they can do it with minimal additional burden on the already overworked front desk staff.

There are many times more robots being marketed to hotels now than when I wrote the last one 15 months ago, so there is a lot of material to cover. I have divided it into a two-part article that will start today and conclude in two weeks. The topic also calls for a few changes in my usual approach to emerging technologies. There are many different types of robots, with some manufacturers offering robots in several categories. Because of that, I have organized this by category and will identify the key companies that I spoke with in each category.

One company I will call out separately, however, is Softbank Robotics, because in addition to manufacturing its own robots for certain cleaning applications, it has also forged close partnerships with many other robot manufacturers across the spectrum of applications, providing services, integrations with third-party robots, and investment funds for many of them. Softbank Robotics’ perspective was very helpful to me in understanding the ecosystems of robots and the major players in different applications.

Also, while I normally avoid links to advertising materials and even testimonials from hotel customers, this article will include some. With robotics, the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words and a video is worth a thousand pictures” is very true. I found it difficult to envision how some of these robots worked, and how hotels were viewing them, until I saw some of the videos. I have therefore linked to some of the ones that helped me, courtesy of the respective vendors as posted on public sites (you may need to click ‘play’ on some of them and/or bypass YouTube ads). The videos are not intended as an endorsement of any specific product; in many cases multiple vendors offer robots with similar capabilities to the ones shown; these were just the best public domain videos I could find.

In this first installment, I will cover several variations of delivery robots, designed to move materials within hotels (and other buildings). These are among the most-used robots in hotels today and have achieved a fair degree of maturity. In part two I will cover several types of cleaning robots, as well as security, telepresence, guidance, mingling, disinfection, and inspection robots. I will also provide general guidance for evaluating, selecting, and implementing robots within hotels, including a discussion of how hotel staff feel about the robots and how management can turn what may initially be perceived as a threat into something staff actively embrace.

Room Delivery Robots

Robots that can deliver items to guest rooms have been around for almost nine years, having made a splash with deployments in some Aloft hotels starting in 2014. They were first introduced by Savioke, which is still a significant player today, although it rebranded last year as Relay Robotics. Other companies with offerings in this category include Chinese companies Keenon and Pudu Robotics (both of which now have a North American presence) as well as Aethon and Richtech Robotics. Bear Robotics, a U.S. market leader in restaurant robotics, is also in pilot with a new product for hotel guest-room deliveries.

This video testimonial from Relay Robotics and The Westin Buffalo provides a good overview of a hotelier’s perspective of the value of a robot. This animated video from Bear Robotics illustrates the robot delivering a food order in an office building, but except for navigating the employee entry gate, the process would be essentially identical for delivering something to a guest room in a hotel.

Capacity. Where many of the earlier modules could handle only small payloads, the recent trend has been for higher capacity robots capable of performing multiple deliveries in one trip. Most of the latest designs have a large payload compartment that can be subdivided vertically and/or horizontally into two, three, or four sub-compartments, each with its own locked door. Except for luggage, they can handle most items that are typically delivered to guests in hotel rooms: room service meals, outside food deliveries, towel sets, bathrobes, bottles of water, and items from the hotel pantry or gift shop are all common. The payload can be delivered to a single room or, if multiple compartments are used, to different rooms; one vendor reported that about 30% of missions included multiple deliveries.

Implementations. Room delivery robots have been implemented in luxury, full service, and select service hotels. They can enable select-service hotels to offer services that were previously impractical, such as room service delivery from local restaurants, delivery of high-margin sundries from the pantry, and restaurant delivery orders from food apps. They also relieve the front desk staff (often just one person in the evening and overnight hours) of having to leave their post to deliver towels, sheets, blankets, and other complimentary items.

Some hotels have chosen to offer robot delivery as a complimentary service, while others may charge a nominal delivery fee, particularly for food items. Those that have assessed fees report only minimal guest resistance, and some have seen significant increases in ancillary spend because guests just want to see the robot in action (the most-ordered item in most hotels is bottled water). Suspected reasons for increased spend include a higher expectation for quick delivery, ability of the guest to order without having to make themselves presentable in public, and eliminating the expectation of a tip (and the need for cash that many guests no longer carry).

To be sure, hospitality is a human experience, and hotels need to think carefully about whether and how to introduce robots in a way that can enhance rather than detract from human service. Some guests will always want the human touch, while others prefer the privacy and/or novelty of robots at least some of the time. Where robots have enabled hotels to provide services they previously could not, there are few guest complaints because nothing has been taken away.

But luxury hotels must tread cautiously, because personal service is for many guests an essential part of the product. Some that have deployed robots give guests a choice of delivery by robot or human. And while I have not seen statistics, their anecdotal feedback has been that significantly more guests ask for the robot than they expected, sometimes to provide entertainment for children (or adults!), sometimes for privacy or as a more contactless approach. But in luxury, guest choice is important.

Mobility. In discussions with the vendors, I explored the state of the art in robot capabilities.  Most of the vendors now offer full integration with elevators so that the robot can move freely anywhere in the hotel. Some vendors include this at no extra cost and support all or virtually all elevator controls and permitting requirements, while others may charge integration fees or require the hotel to contract with local elevator service companies at their own cost. This can be complex, may require local permitting, and can represent a significant hassle for hotels and their elevator contractors. Some vendors may require a good Wi-Fi connection within the elevator, which may be an issue in some hotels; others use proprietary solutions based on point-to-point radio communications. Hallway doors, if present, must also be fitted with electronically controllable automatic openers, although this is usually more straightforward than elevators.

Communication. Robots usually complete deliveries to guest rooms by calling the guest’s room phone after they arrive (this requires integration with the hotel phone system), or by calling or texting the guest’s mobile phone. Typically, the guest is given a code that must be entered to unlock the compartment that holds their delivery. Keenon also offers an integration with door chimes. Aethon, as well as the pilot recently deployed by Bear Robotics, both provide hotels with an app that guests can use to order food, sundries, or housekeeping items. In this case the status and unlock code may be communicated through the app.

Food App Deliveries. Food deliveries from outside the hotel (notably from apps like Uber Eats and Doordash) present additional opportunities and challenges. While they can effectively add in-room dining options for hotels that otherwise could not offer them, many hotels have been challenged by the sheer number of guests ordering through these apps. Drivers may be unable to access guest room floors controlled by elevator keycards, and even where that is not an issue, hotels may have security concerns about allowing them to do so.

Front desk staff are often too busy to even call the guest, much less deliver the food, and guests may not be dressed to come down to the lobby. Food deliveries held at the front desk can get cold, orders can get mixed up, and pungent foods can affect the lobby ambience. Even where drivers have free access to guest floors, they may leave the food in the hallway, where it is sometimes stolen or picked up as trash.

Hotel robots available in North America have not yet fully addressed third-party app deliveries, but can substantially reduce the burden. Most solutions allow the robot to be docked at or near the front desk, so that it can be loaded and dispatched in just a few seconds (enter a code to open it, drop in the payload, enter the room number, and close the door). Some vendors offer integration with some ordering apps that can enable the driver to do this independently (although if no robot is available when they arrive, they may still have to leave the food at the front desk). Pudu Robotics has a solution deployed in China that is based on lock boxes; the delivery driver can put food into a box and specify the room number for delivery. When a robot is available, it can pick up pending orders from the locker and deliver them, all without human intervention.

Logistics and Ordering. Most commonly, hotel staff handle requests from guests via telephone or chat, or they receive outside deliveries for guests, and load the items on the robot. Some robot providers are starting to integrate with food delivery apps and ghost kitchen software, but this is not yet common.

With overworked and understaffed front desks, hotels are well advised to consider the best way to fill orders, which may include complimentary items (linens, toothbrushes, etc.) as well as paid items from an onsite pantry or gift shop or room service, and third-party deliveries. The logistics are important: while the robot delivery times are typically about four minutes (depending on the layout of the hotel), the clock does not start until the order has been loaded and dispatched. That requires hotel staff, who may often be too busy to respond immediately. There is no point in having a robot create the expectation of a quick delivery if it takes an hour for the front desk to load and dispatch it.

At select-service hotels where the pantry is not in easy reach of the front desk, the hotel may want to stock common non-perishable items at the front desk so that staff can grab items and dispatch them without any material impact on customers waiting in line (vendors reported that most requests that can be fulfilled by the hotel are for just a few common items). Full-service hotels may want to delegate the task to the telephone switchboard attendant (or to kitchen staff, if room service is offered). While these options can result in faster service to guests, they also represent significant and non-traditional operational changes for most hotels. They need to be planned and thought through carefully, with the involvement of front-line staff.

Other Features. Most of these robots offer interactive screens and data analytics. The screens can be used to introduce personalities at the time of delivery, to collect feedback, and sometimes to perform other tasks. Some can even talk, although mostly only to play recorded messages. There are some other kinds of robots that can both talk and listen, but I didn’t see any in this category. Aethon offers its customers a progressive web app for ordering common items, whether complimentary or paid; Bear Robotics’ pilot does the same. Folio posting for paid items (and any delivery charge) must still be done manually by the staff for the robots I have seen, although WeChat Pay is supported by some vendors in China.

Most room-service delivery robots automatically return to their charging station between runs. This is more important for room delivery robots than for most other robots because the robots “return to base” autonomously, and staff may forget to initiate any required manual charging.

Cost and Return on Investment (ROI). Room delivery robots are not cheap to buy or lease, but neither are human staff (and in many cases hotels cannot find the latter at any price). The robots themselves tend to cost between $20,000 and $40,000, but most are also offered on a lease or “Robot as a Service” basis for several hundred dollars per month. Vendors vary substantially in terms of additional costs for configuration, training, service, and integrations; in some cases everything is included, while others may charge fees for certain capabilities or services.

Most vendors provide ROI estimates, but I would put very little credence in them. Your ROI will depend not only on the cost, but on how many deliveries you do per day; whether you charge for all or some; whether you are replacing staff, compensating for staff you cannot hire, or offering an additional service; what items you sell at what profit margin; how well you market the services offered by the robot to your guests; and other factors. Most of these are outside the vendor’s control and they will not be able to estimate the impact as well as you can. The best advice is to start with the minimum number of robots needed to handle expected requests, see what kind of return you generate, and add more services and/or more robots as justified. Several vendors reported that while most hotels achieved an ROI quickly, it took as much as a year for them to adjust their operation to the point where they had fully maximized it, often at levels about 50% higher than in the initial months.

Other general buying guidelines applicable to all categories of robots will be covered in Part Two of this article in two weeks.

Food Delivery Robots

Whereas room delivery robots operate in the front of house, food delivery robots mostly stay in the back of house. Both kinds of robots may share components and navigation software, but the payload design is simpler for food delivery, usually consisting of a few open shelves or drawers. These robots generally do not require elevator integration and often need not navigate closed doors that would require electronic controls. The cost of the robot chassis is similar to that for room delivery robots, but the body and integrations may be simpler and less expensive.

Food delivery robots are offered by Keenon (reportedly the biggest globally), Bear Robotics (largest in the U.S.), LG, Pudu Robotics, and Richtech Robotics; some Temi robots can also be used in this way.

The most common application for these robots is moving food from the kitchen expo to the dining room, where the server can pick it up, and moving dirty dishes back to the dishwashing area. This makes sense if the distances are far enough that serving and bussing staff find they are wasting time carrying trays back and forth. They can also be useful in moving food, dishes, or other items from location to location within the kitchen or other prep areas. They are particularly valuable in large meeting hotels where food may need to be delivered over long distances to meeting rooms. They can also be useful for replenishing food or other supplies in club lounges, buffet lines, and other distant outlets. In addition to saving staff time, they can reduce workplace fatigue and injuries as well as loss of dishes and food from collisions.

This video posted by Bear Robotics on LinkedIn shows a typical use in a hotel restaurant.

A key consideration is how the robot navigates. Some use a combination of sensors such as LIDAR and multiple 3-D cameras to navigate within a pre-mapped area, while others rely primarily on ceiling-mounted labels that must be mounted every several feet. Both versions also have sensors to avoid obstacles, but the primary navigation methods differ. Not all ceilings will support the latter approach, and some restaurants may find the labels inappropriate in public spaces.

Depending on the physical setup, all of the above applications may occur entirely outside of public areas, or the robots may deliver and pick up in designated areas in the dining room. In most cases, the robots will not need to deal directly with customers (although this can be an option). However, if they will be visible, then hotels will want to consider their physical appearance. Many vendors can customize this, at least to a degree.

Some food delivery robots have been deployed to deliver orders directly to diners at tables, but this is more commonly used in fast-casual dining restaurants than in hotels. Payloads on these robots are not secured, so sending them into public spaces unaccompanied by staff risks the possibility of food tampering. Room service robots, or enclosed variations of food delivery robots, are a better choice where this is a risk, such as to deliver a food order to the lobby lounge or a meeting room.

Heavy Lift Robots

The robots discussed above are generally limited to carrying smaller, lighter weight loads. Larger hotels that have the need to move heavier loads have options from Aethon and Techmetics. Some are open pallets that can be loaded with several hundred to more than a thousand pounds of payload, while others can lift up and move existing equipment, such as housekeeping or laundry carts.

To date, these have been used in larger hotels mostly to move heavy loads to or from the loading dock or to meeting rooms. Some vendors are looking at solutions such as housekeeping carts that can be “swapped” in real time, where a housekeeper pushes a button when their cart needs replenishment, and a robot brings a fully stocked cart and picks up the used one.

To Be Continued

While these are the most common robots in hotels today, there are many others, and the tasks they can perform can be quite impressive. In part two in two weeks’ time, I will cover several types of cleaning robots, as well as security, telepresence, guidance, mingling, disinfection, and inspection robots. I will also provide general guidance for evaluating, selecting, and implementing robots within hotels, including a discussion of how hotel staff feel about the robots and how management can turn what may be perceived as a threat into something staff actively embrace.

Douglas Rice

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