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Aloft Introduces Robotic Butler & The Future of Hotel Tech

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The future of hotel technology has arrived: robot butlers, digital concierges and apps that let you choose your own room are just the beginning. TPG Assistant Editor Melanie Wynne checks in on state-of-the-art advancements being used right now at hotel chains around the world. 

You don’t have to remember Rosie, the electronic maid of cartoon family The Jetsonsto appreciate the quirky appeal of a robot who looks after you. According to a recent story in the New York Times, this is what Starwood Hotels & Resorts are betting on with “Botlr,” a new three-foot-tall robot butler they’ve debuted this week at their Aloft Cupertino hotel in Northern California.

Botlr, Starwood-brand Aloft's new robot butler, is now in beta testing
Botlr/A.L.O., Starwood-brand Aloft’s new robot butler, is now in beta testing

Botlr, which looks like a streamlined version of R2-D2 (complete with electronic chirps and swivel action), can be programmed to independently carry and deliver items from a front desk to a guest’s room. Forgot your toothbrush? No worries, Botlr can bring it to you, taking the elevator on its own and traveling down the hallway at four miles an hour to arrive at your door and alert you by phone call. To see how Botlr (or A.L.O., as the robot is being called at the Aloft Cupertino) works, check out this video:

Pretty cute, right? Rather than a gimmick or replacement for staff members, Aloft sees Botlr/A.L.O. as support for busy front desk employees. If the mechanized butler’s test run proves popular with the Aloft Cupertino’s staff and guests, the brand foresees adding one or two robots to each of its 84 presently open properties. Twenty more Aloft hotels are slated to open between now and early 2017.

Starwood debuted the hip, tech-forward Aloft brand in 2005, gearing its high-design properties towards trendy business travelers with a more affordable price point and limited service – essentially, the W brand’s cool little brother. Aloft’s Cupertino property has traditionally been used to beta test new technology due to its location in the heart of the Silicon Valley (home to the headquarters of Google and Apple, which actually sits across the street from the hotel). If a gadget or automated service finds acceptance in Cupertino, Starwood has generally expanded its use to other Aloft and W properties.

Other Advances in Hotel Technology

The Hotel App

In the last few years, a variety of global hotel brands have begun introducing digital apps that perform a wide variety of tasks. For instance, in January two Aloft properties (in Cupertino and Manhattan) began testing a Bluetooth-based feature on its existing app that functions as a virtual room key, allowing guests to unlock their room door by tapping or twisting their smartphones near a door-mounted sensor. 

Throughout 2014, The Ritz-Carlton will be introducing a comprehensive app at all of its properties that enables mobile check-in and check-out, real-time service requests, concierge tips and more. European hotel group Accor is already employing their own version of this app at over 60 of its overseas properties.

Throughout 2014, The Ritz-Carlton is rolling out an app that performs most of the functions of its front-desk staff.
The Ritz-Carlton is now rolling out an app that performs most of the functions of its front desk staff.

Earlier this year, Marriott introduced its own app-based mobile check-in at 350 of its eponymous brand hotels worldwide, with another 150 properties slated to allow the service by the end of this summer. The Marriott app allows Marriott Rewards members to check in via their smartphone, then go to a separate check-in desk to pick up a key. Meanwhile, InterContinental is currently testing a similar process for its IHG Rewards Club members at Crowne Plaza hotels.

While Conrad Hotels have been using a similar app with check-in and concierge technology since 2012, by the end of this summer, Conrad parent company Hilton Worldwide plans to also roll out updated HHonors desktop and mobile apps that will allow members to sign into their program accounts as early as a day prior to their stay to view digital floor plans and choose specific rooms (based on availability) at all Hilton brands.

Automated Check-in Kiosks

Though it’s no longer a state-of-the-art technology in the realm of travel, Hyatt offers automated check-in kiosks at most of its hotels, similar to those found at airports. Some hotel groups, including Hyatt’s luxury Andaz brand, Mexico and Asia’s Capella Hotels and Resorts, and Indonesia’s Pop Hotels, have taken this concept a step further by furnishing their front desk staff members with iPads they use to check in guests – not unlike the way customers at Apple stores receive in-person customer service.

While no longer cutting-edge, automated check-in kiosks - like those used by Hyatt - are still uncommon
While no longer cutting-edge, automated check-in kiosks – like those used by Hyatt – are still uncommon.

Concierge on Demand

An app called ALICE that functions as a digital personal concierge is presently used by 10 different hotels, including The Setai in Miami, the Atlantic Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, and The Hutton in Nashville. Guests need only download the app once, choose their particular property, and they’ll gain access to a slew of services, including ordering in-room dining. Other properties, including the Waldorf Astoria’s Boca Resort, give you the option to text a concierge service 24/7 rather than having to pick up the in-room phone.

Uber Partnerships

Hyatt’s is the first hotel mobile app to provide integration with car service Uber – and if it proves a success, it’s poised to spark a trend. Hyatt’s app now provides an Uber button on a guest’s My Reservations section when he or she is staying at a Hyatt property where local Uber service is available. This Uber button will appear from the day of check-in to the end of the stay, offers guests the ability to order Uber options to/from their Hyatt hotel, and provides an estimated price and wait time. Through the Hyatt app, first-time Uber users will be offered a simplified sign-up process and an Uber credit.

In-Room Technology

Many other hotels already use in-room digital tablets to allow guests to access everything from front desk service to spa-treatment scheduling and pay-per-view TV. For example, each guest room in the tech-savvy Aria in Las Vegas utilizes a 7″ bedside touch-screen that enables guests to control their room’s dim-able lighting, temperature, TV, video and music systems, drapes, and service requests via a hand-held remote control. Several chains, including Sofitel, Taj and Four Seasons, now employ the multi-lingual, tablet-based app iRiS, and multi-platform app SuiteLinq is used by all Preferred Hotel Properties.

The tablet-based iRiS technology enables guests to access a slew of services from their hotel rooms.
The tablet-based iRiS technology enables guests to access a slew of services from their hotel rooms.

Front desk and concierge service has changed little over the last century, so it’s actually surprising that it’s taken so long to see changes like these in the hospitality landscape. While it seems unlikely that hotels will do away with their front desk staff and human concierges altogether, digital technologies like these point to travelers’ desire to take a more proactive role in meeting their own needs while they’re away from home, seeking less personal interaction while gaining more anytime-access to everything a hotel has to offer.

What do you think of technology in hotels? What advances do you like and what’s not quite there yet? Tell us about the coolest tools you’ve seen on the road.

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