Robots the talk of tech innovations at hospitality summit

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A replica of Star Wars droid R2D2 at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit.
A replica of Star Wars droid R2D2 at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit. Photo Credit: Danny King

LOS ANGELES -- Hotel robots that perform tasks like delivering amenities to guests or cleaning rooms will be the norm within the next five years, panelists at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) held here last week predicted.

The anticipated growth in hotel robots was largely attributed to falling technology costs and guests becoming more accustomed to the concept.

Early hotel adopters say devices such as Savioke's Relay robot and Maidbot are gaining favor because they are efficient at both delivering items such as toiletries and bottled water to guests and cleaning rooms. They are also a novelty among family travelers.

Executives with both larger hotel owners like Host Hotels and smaller counterparts like Southern California-based Seaview Investors both expressed satisfaction on the ALIS panels with their early trials of the robots.

"We feel that it pays for itself, more from a guest-satisfaction standpoint than from labor savings," said ALIS panelist moderator and Seaview Investors president Robert Alter. Seaview has used a Relay robot at his company's Residence Inn Los Angeles LAX for the past 18 months.

Host Hotels managing director Michael Lentz, said, "We're testing Maidbots for cleaning rooms. You have to think in years ahead that there are opportunities to reduce our operating costs."

Front and center at the conference was Savioke's Relay robotic butler, which debuted as Botlr at select properties under then-Starwood Hotels' Aloft brand in 2014.

Panelist and Savioke "chief robot whisperer" Tessa Lau said hotels typically lease a Relay for about $2,000 a month (the company does not sell the robots) and the device, on average, performs a front-desk-to-room delivery of smaller products like toothpaste or bottled water in less than four minutes. Lau, too, alluded to the novelty factor, noting that many families with kids take "robot selfies."

Savioke’s Relay robot makes the rounds at Marriott International's Innovation Lab.
Savioke’s Relay robot makes the rounds at Marriott International's Innovation Lab. Photo Credit: Danny King

Robotics was among the most topical subjects at the conference, where much of the on-stage discussions focused on technology and the concept of "the hotel of the future." With amenities such as free WiFi having long been made essential and services such as keyless entry via mobile device expected to accelerate across the industry during the next few years, service robots, along with amenities like virtual reality tours of hotel properties, were discussed as the next wave of hospitality technology.

Meanwhile, Marriott International used the conference to illustrate how it has taken the torch from acknowledged technology innovator Starwood Hotels (which Marriott acquired last September) by building its Innovation Lab at the conference to show off the latest developments under its Aloft and Element select-service brands.

The use of such technology is considered more and more essential for effectively serving guests. This week, software giant Oracle will release a study undertaken by Phocuswright (a sister company to Travel Weekly) outlining how guests want hotel operators to deploy technology. Of the 2,700 U.S. and European travelers polled, almost half said hotels should use technology to perform services such as enabling guests to select a specific room location or providing in-destination activity choices. About a third said technology should be used to facilitate service requests for in-room items such as coffee, pillows or toiletries. Still, just where the line falls between effective and invasive -- or even creepy -- remains to be seen.

Marriott International touted the latest features for the Aloft and Element brands at its Innovation Lab.
Marriott International touted the latest features for the Aloft and Element brands at its Innovation Lab. Photo Credit: Danny King

"We feel like people are suffering from digital overload," said Niki Leondakis, CEO of hotels and resorts for Two Roads Hospitality, which oversees Destination Hotels and the Thompson Hotels and Joie de Vivre groups.

"We want to get back to hospitality, back to the human touch."

"We wouldn't necessarily see robots replacing team members, because we're in the business of hospitality," added panelist and Hilton Worldwide's chief marketing officer, Geraldine Calpin.

Still, while even a technology-oriented person such as Lau acknowledged that the cornerstone of hotel service will continue to be based on human interaction, she added that hotels risk obsolescence by ignoring advances in areas such as robotics, data tracking and communications.

"I would love to talk to a person when it matters," Lau said. "But a lot of the hospitality service parts are more amenable to automation."

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