It has been almost 9 years since the Henn na Hotel opened in Nagasaki Japan. The first all robot staffed property in the world opened a fascinating window into a potential future, but ultimately the impact on the industry as a whole was limited.
In a business where personal connection and service is key, robots can be perceived as an odd fit and some believe detracts from the guest experience or limits interactions. After all, people are at the heart of what we do – both the guests and the associates, so adoption of hotel robots has been slow and limited to a handful of limited roles. But robotics technology has come a long way and more and more hotels are turning to robots to assist staff and enhance and improve the customer experience.
Staffing hotels has always been a challenge and the number one expense for most properties. Since the pandemic, the demands on staff (and for staff) have grown even greater and, with rising wages and fewer applicants, hotels have started to look for new and innovative ways to meet that challenge. Technology is a great tool to drive optimization of staff and to make the hotel run more efficiently. There are software tools that can manage staff scheduling, Apps that let guests access self-serve options, mobile and kiosk check-in, and many solutions that staff can use to be faster, more effective, and more productive. And studies show that using tools like these can improve the customer experience as well. Many hotels have implemented some or all of these technologies, yet gaps remain and so robots are getting another look.
Co-Bots and Following Robots are Here to Help
There are many potential functions for robots in a hospitality setting that are less extreme, and less expensive, than having a robot dinosaur checking in guests. Some common uses today include delivering room service or amenities to guests, help bussing tables, or augmenting servers in the restaurant. There are also cleaning robots, like larger versions of your home vacuum. Most robots that have been implemented to date are intended to replace all or part of a task that would have been performed by humans.
However, there are also robots designed to work in tandem with staff – what are commonly referred to as co-bots. These robots don’t replace the staff, rather they are intended to augment them, make them more efficient, and to create a better workplace for the team. By eliminating repetitive or ancillary tasks, staff can focus on their core functions, have a safer working environment, and can remove some of the tedium and physical demands from their role. The hotel has the opportunity to accomplish more with a small staff, lower workplace injuries, and improve employee retention.
Following robots, such as those offered by Piaggio Fast Forward, would be a good example of just such a case. Imagine housekeepers being able to move heavy carts without touching them and sending them to be replenished while they are cleaning a room. Engineers being able to carry a ladder while their tools follow behind them. Or back of house staff being able to move three heavy carts with one trip and no pushing. Over 30% of workplace claims come from pushing or pulling injuries, so the hotel has a strong ROI and the staff has a better working conditions.
Co-bots allow the staff to also focus on guests. A luggage cart is typically pushed from behind and limits guest interaction, but with a following cart the staff can walk with the guest, make recommendations, and create a more personal experience. An engineer can have their hands free for other activities while the cart follows them. Poolside staff can have their heads up and hands free while their cargo follows behind them. There are even hotels that are testing following robots for guest services allowing guests to take a robot on errands with them.
While 2024 may not be the year that we see robots in every hotel, many hotels will be looking closely at how robots, co-bots, and technology in general can help them hire, retain, and improve their staff, as well as improve the guest experience. Whether in front of house or behind the scenes, technology brings both challenges and opportunities, and each hotel will have to make their own decisions as to what will truly bring value. Technology is never a good solution if it just brings expense and complication. Solutions that work best are those that fit seamlessly into current processes, deliver financial value, and provide a benefit for the hotel or guests. Change always happens slowly and then all at once, so don’t be surprised if during your next stay you find a robot helping to make the journey a better one.