Hotel robots do double duty as butlers and featured attractions

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Hotel EMC2's Relay robots, Leo and Cleo, can deliver items to guestrooms and "introduce" themselves.
Hotel EMC2's Relay robots, Leo and Cleo, can deliver items to guestrooms and "introduce" themselves.

In the eight months since opening Chicago's art-and-science-themed Hotel EMC2, general manager Christine Wechter has yet to get a complaint from a guest about the hotel's two robot butlers.

Quite the opposite.

"When both robots are in use from a high call volume and we have to send a human up, people actually get annoyed," Wechter said.

Three years after debuting its first Relay hotel robot at Silicon Valley's Aloft Cupertino, the robots' maker, Savioke, has placed its machines in about 70 hotels worldwide. The privately held company, founded in 2013, says its 3-foot-tall, rolling robot butlers are moving beyond being used by edgier select-service hotels for menial tasks such as toiletry deliveries. Now they are being sought by full-service hotels as crowd pleasers and conversation pieces.

With higher-end, full-service hotels such as the 195-room EMC2 and the Renaissance Las Vegas deploying multiple robots, Savioke is looking to more than double its distribution by adding at least 100 robots at higher-end hotels this year. It was scheduled to show off one of its robots at this week's Americas Lodging Investment Summit in Los Angeles.

In addition to broadening its delivery capabilities to items such as grab-and-go food and coffee, the robots, which are equipped with covered 1-cubic-foot delivery compartments and are leased by hotels for as much as $2,000 a month, are more often being used by guests for services such as delivering clothes and shoes to the front desk for dry cleaning and shoeshines.

While largely associated with Starwood Hotels' futuristic Aloft brand upon the robots' first deployment in 2014, Relay robots have also been adopted by hotels including Marriott International's Residence Inn, InterContinental Hotels Group's Crowne Plaza and Hilton's Embassy Suites, in addition to Marriott's Renaissance and independent properties like Yotel Boston and the EMC2, which is part of Marriott's Autograph Collection.

Additionally, Savioke has leased a robot to the Ten Thousand luxury apartment complex in Los Angeles's Century City district, according to Savioke co-founder and chief technology officer Tessa Lau.

"We're growing the market at the same time as we're growing the company," Lau said. "All of our customers are still really happy with them, and for the most part, everyone's been keeping them."

The social aspect is a relatively new wrinkle, however. While the robots can't talk, they can "introduce" themselves via text on its screen, beep and burp like R2-D2 of "Star Wars" fame, and twirl, making them fodder for the social media age.

With that in mind, the Renaissance Las Vegas has taken to naming its robots ("Elvis" and "Priscilla," of course), as has the EMC2 ("Cleo" and "Leo").

"Naming the robots was a project in itself," Wechter said.

With labor advocates long debating the risk of robots taking the place of human workers, such usage has raised questions in some hotel trade events about whether their use poses risks to hotel staff, especially among lower-paid housekeeping workers.

Both Lau and Wechter denied that the robots are being used to replace labor. Instead, they argue, they build business by both improving service efficiency and providing a buzz. Both noted that more robots are used to deliver "human touch" kinds of items like balloons and chocolates to guests.

Wechter said staff members use the devices to deliver items such as shampoo and shower gel to one another when cleaning rooms.

"They're almost a requirement here," she said. "We'll have them indefinitely."

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