Steve Cousins
Steve Cousins

Robotics firm Savioke's 3-foot-tall robot hotel butler travels on rollers and can hold 2 cubic feet of items for guest deliveries. Fifteen months after deploying its first robot to the Aloft Cupertino (a.k.a. "Botlr") in California's Silicon Valley, Savioke has sent six more to hotels throughout the U.S. And CEO Steve Cousins aims to deploy "hundreds" of robots to hotels during the next year. He spoke with hotels editor Danny King about the robot's benefits.

Q: Are the robots sold or leased to the hotels?

A: We're offering it as a service, as opposed to selling them. We don't think hotels are up for the challenge of running and servicing autonomous robots, so we want to take that responsibility off the hotel.

Q: How much do hotels pay?

A: It comes in at less than the cost of one shift worked. A couple thousand dollars a month is typical.

Q: What's been the success rate of the robots' deliveries?

A: It's successful 99% of the time right now. If for some reason it doesn't make it -- say, kids are blocking it from where it's going, or the Internet's out -- there's always communication, so it's always monitored all of the time. Where [human] delivery would take 20 to 40 minutes, we typically do those in five minutes. That's a huge quality improvement for the guest.

Q: What are some of the other issues with the robot?

A: We're constantly looking at what didn't work last week and how we can make it better. For instance, occasionally a robot would get off the elevator, see an obstacle, and when it turns a wheel would fall into the elevator gap. So we made the wheels fatter. Some of the other problems are when a guest shoves the robot to the side or moves it, and now the robot doesn't know where it is. Guests will do strange things, especially under the influence of alcohol. But most of the time we can fix the problem remotely. We have someone 24/7 at a call center whose job is to look for those problems and respond.

Q: Are you getting any pushback from hotels saying that guests may not want the less-than-personal service experience?

A: It's actually been the opposite. When you're in the lobby, you want to be dealing with people, but once you're in the room there's a lot that you just want to do yourself. The assumption is that people showing up at your door to bring you things is a good thing, but most guests don't like that part of the experience -- there's a stranger at the door holding his hand out for a tip, and there's an awkwardness. The robot is a cute little thing, it opens up its lid [for delivery], it doesn't expect a tip and it doesn't judge you.

People worry about personal security. Think about a woman in a strange city late at night; she's going to be wary about someone she doesn't know [from room service] coming to her room. And if you're the only employee there, you're not going to want to deliver something at 4 a.m. to a man on the first floor.

Q: Is it true that the design of the robot was influenced by R2-D2 from Star Wars?

A: We're all influenced by R2-D2. It turns out that George Lucas got it right with the size. The footprint is such that it won't be tipped over. And any taller than that, and it gets freaky.

This article has been updated to reflect that only the robot at the Aloft Cupertino is called "Botlr." A previous version incorrectly referred to all robot butlers as Botlrs.

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