For hotels' bartending needs, robots are in the mix

|
Easybar Beverage Management Systems' interface and dispenser. Servers input drink orders and cocktails are automatically prepared and poured.
Easybar Beverage Management Systems' interface and dispenser. Servers input drink orders and cocktails are automatically prepared and poured.

According to James Nicol, CEO of Easybar Beverage Management Systems, a cocktail poured by a robot is not only made much faster than one mixed by a human bartender, it also tastes better.

"A drink is consistently better coming out of our automated Easybar system," he asserted. "It's always accurate, so you never have a drink that's too weak or too stiff. It's literally perfect every time."

While automation has slowly been creeping into the hospitality space for some time, the industry is currently experiencing an acute labor shortage, inspiring hotels and resorts to accelerate the introduction of robots for chores ranging from housekeeping to room-service deliveries.

A Smartender automatic beverage system from Smart Bar USA, whose units start at around $30,000.
A Smartender automatic beverage system from Smart Bar USA, whose units start at around $30,000.

Oregon-based Easybar is one of several automated service bar manufacturers taking the concept of a back-of-house robot bartender to the next level. Since launching its first automated systems eight years ago, the brand's technology has gained significant traction within the gaming world.

"In a casino environment, there's a lot of liquor being served and a lot of table service out on the gaming floor, and this is where these systems are kind of revolutionizing things," Nicol said. "Servers can simply come up, draw all the drinks off the system and it rings up automatically, with all that information being stored and tracked. And of course, the speed of service is just so fast. You can get a cocktail out faster than you can serve a bottle of beer."

Easybar's automated cocktail system can offer up to 164 brands of liquors and mixers. The company also offers draft beer and draft wine dispensers.

Las Vegas and other gaming markets are by no means new to the idea of drink-mixing robots. In recent years, robot bartenders have been showcased at venues like the Tipsy Robot in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood on the Strip and the Robo Bar in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Biloxi in Mississippi. Unlike automated service bars, however, those robots have largely been consumer-facing.

Barry Fieldman, co-managing member of the automated service bar manufacturer Smart Bar USA, said, "Those robots are entertainment and aren't even in the same conversation. They're expensive. They're slower, because you're actually watching the robot make the drink to be entertained, and you're going to pay a premium for that cocktail. Meanwhile, you don't even see our machines."

Like Easybar, Las Vegas-based Smart Bar USA, which launched in 2012, has gained a solid foothold within the gaming space. The company also sees significant upside in venues like movie theaters, stadiums and arenas and even onboard cruise ships. Smart Bar USA's Smartender automatic beverage systems start at around $30,000 for a 16-brand liquor-dispensing system, including shipping, training and installation.

Among the many major casino hotel players deploying automated service bar technology is MGM Resorts, which debuted the tech at the MGM Springfield when it opened in Massachusetts last August. The launch proved so successful, Fieldman said, that MGM plans to eventually roll out the machines across its portfolio of Las Vegas properties, as well.

At the 2019 NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference in New York earlier this month, MGM Springfield president and COO Michael Mathis said the automated service bar "can make 300 different kinds of cocktails. We pour them consistently and can put out the perfect bloody mary or rum and Coke in really quick time. And the interaction with the customer is that much better because our employees aren't in the back mixing drinks."

Mathis asserted that the back-of-house automation "doesn't change the traditional bar experience" front-of-house.

What about housekeeping?

The bar isn't the only area where hospitality players are looking to streamline operations. Under its recently launched RLabs innovation division, Red Lion Hotels Corp. is testing a housekeeping robot at select properties throughout Silicon Valley.

"The industry has not stepped up in the area of robotics yet," said Red Lion president and CEO Greg Mount. "It has been somewhat superficial and gimmicky in its approach, with robots as displays in the lobby or in some cases just delivering room service."

John Edwards, Red Lion Hotels Corp.'s chief information officer, unveiled the company's housekeeping robot at a conference late last year.
John Edwards, Red Lion Hotels Corp.'s chief information officer, unveiled the company's housekeeping robot at a conference late last year.

Created in partnership with Peanut Robotics, RLabs' housekeeping robot is designed to buck those trends by completing all the tasks of a hotel housekeeper, with the exception of making the bed. Though RLabs is still working on getting the machine to work as quickly as its human equivalent, Mount said the technology could help ease pressures related to the ongoing labor shortages in the hospitality industry.

"We looked at the area of robotics based on the fact that unemployment rates continue to hover below 4%, and the cost of employee acquisition and overall general compensation costs continue to rise both in salaries and benefits," Mount said. "I don't think you will see robots replacing more skilled labor, ... but they can augment some more of the tasks that require less skill and tend to be redundant."

However, according to Alex Susskind, a professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, even hospitality's most redundant tasks will likely continue to require human oversight, at least for the foreseeable future.

"There's always a dimension of quality control that you have to have in place in order to make sure these things work as they're supposed to," Susskind said. "Just like on an assembly line, humans will still be part of the equation."

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI