Robots May Be Taking Over the Travel Industry
Room service at the Hotel Trio in the heart of California wine country is a social media-friendly futuristic spectacle.
The experience starts out typical: You check an in-room menu, call the front desk and place your order with the friendly staff member on the other end of the phone. But from that point on, everything about it is like something out of a sci-fi movie.
When your order arrives, your phone rings with a computerized message that tells you to open the door. When you do, you’re met by an R2D2-sized robot named Rosé. A touchscreen on the robot’s head greets you as a lid opens and reveals your items in a compartment below. The robot then implores you to take your items, wishes you to have a nice night and motors back to the front desk.
According to general manager Brooke Ross, Rosé has become a guest favorite, with some visitors calling down multiple room service orders just to see the robot again.
“Rosé adds an element of excitement and surprise to the property; not only is she functional but she [also] helps to create wonderful guest memories,” said Ross, whose hotel opened in Healdsburg, California this summer.
“Guests come down to ask if they can video her or if we’ll send her on a run just so they can watch.”
Rosé isn’t the only robot in the travel business these days. Hotels, airports, cruise ships and other segments of the industry are turning to robots to automate processes, increase efficiency and free up human resources for other tasks.
There's no industry-wide data tracking the number of robots in the travel space at this time, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend is on the rise — particularly in environments where automation is an easy add. Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmospheric Research Group in San Francisco, told TPG that the number of robots in travel is increasing exponentially, and that the technology is shaping up to be a “very real” part of the future.
“Ready or not, the robots are coming,” he said. “This is a part of travel that will see major growth in the years ahead.”
Various Hotel Jobs
Currently, travel organizations and entities are relying on robots for a multitude of different tasks.
Many of the robots are carbon copies of Rosé, handling room service and easy concierge-style tasks in small- to mid-sized hotels. Exhibit A: When Aloft Chicago Mag Mile opened earlier this fall, it launched with a version of the same robot that handles similar kinds of chores. Exhibit B: Vdara, the all-suite hotel in Las Vegas, recently added two robots that handle room service as well, and they’re (somewhat curiously) designed to look like dogs.
These robots are products from a Silicon Valley manufacturer named Savioke (pronounced savvy-oak). Currently the vendor has robots in 80 different hotels — far more than any other company in the industry.
Lauren Schechtman, vice president of strategic partnerships, sales and marketing, said her company’s robots are not designed to replace humans, but instead take tasks off their plates.
“People who work in hotels work hard and have many decisions to make; they have to show compassion and deal with emergencies every day,” Schechtman said. “Robots can’t do that. They are better suited for time-consuming and mindless tasks. That’s where we see the sweet-spots for all the products we make.”
Other robots from different manufacturers strut their stuff in different ways.
In October, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba opened FlyZoo Hotel at the east wing of Alibaba Xixi Park in Hangzhou, China. The pilot property relies on robots for all mission-critical services, including check in and check out, room service and more.
Other robots have been tasked with handling guest-management, standing by to answer guest questions or to help them get around. Pepper, for instance — a robot in the lobby of The Waldorf-Astoria Las Vegas — doesn’t move but engages guests all day long, advising them where to go for check-in, what sort of amenities the hotel offers and more.
As general manager Donald Bowman explains it, Pepper’s job isn’t to take the place of human staffers, but instead to supplement the human help — especially when there are lines at check-in.
“Our commitment is still to providing guests with one-on-one interaction with actual people,” he said. “Having Pepper gives us a great alternative, especially at those peak times when all of our representatives are helping guests and people come in with questions that they otherwise would have to wait to get answered.”
In the Airport and Beyond
This past July, the Dutch airline KLM piloted in two markets Care-E, a robot that was able to assist travelers with luggage by walking alongside them and carrying bags.
And last year, Singapore Changi Airport set aside Terminal 4 largely for the development of automation; more than half of the internal tasks are handled by robots. Across the globe, especially in various cities in Asia, some robots have even been programmed to assist with janitorial services in various airport terminals: These robots are like giant versions of the Roomba from iRobot.
And Pepper, from the Waldorf in Las Vegas? This SoftBank robot has also been employed to check-in guests at the Eva Air lounge at Taiwan Taoyuan Airport (TPE) and assist passengers at Munich Airport (MUC) in Terminal 2.
There are even robots plying the open seas. Royal Caribbean, for example, has deployed bionic bartenders on some of its cruise ships. These robots pour and mix drinks according to preset specifications.
How They Work
Travel robots work differently depending on the types of jobs they perform. Worker robots — those that run baggage through Changi Airport, for instance — are programmed like factory robots and can do their jobs independent of any other human interactions.
Customer-facing robots, however, like the ones used in hotels, are another story entirely. Programming the consumer-driven protocols for these robots is easy: In most cases, the encounters comprise a series of commands and survey questions the robot addresses to customers on a tablet.
Please take your item! Can I help you with anything else during your stay? Have a great day, Mr. Villano.
The hard part? Programming the robots to get around each property. While Relay robots are equipped with sensors designed to help thhem avoid bumping into things, Schechtman explained that Savioke products must “learn” spatial maps of each hotel before they can be expected to roam halls, ride elevators and deliver items to guest rooms.
"Just like with humans, the robots have a bit of an orientation,” she said, adding that each “training” session can take days. “You can’t expect them to just know where to go; you have to give them that information, so they can apply it on the job.”
Guest-management robots such as Pepper rely on natural-language process applications and artificial intelligence technology like those used in common consumer products. Think: Alexa, Siri and Cortana.
With this technology, a traveler can ask a robot where to find the best local Thai restaurant or how to get to the nearest drug store. The robot could understand the question, respond in kind and look up data almost instantly. In theory, the robot could respond as quickly as a service like Alexa and come back with more data than even the most expert human could uncover and produce in that time.
According to Chris Middleton, a UK-based robot expert, the day-to-day performance of artificial intelligence robots hinges on the amount of information that has been uploaded to the robot, and the robot's ability to access new information on the fly.
“[Without] access to a large amount of data … all [robots] can do is listen for trigger words and phrases and respond with preprogrammed functions or speech,” he said in an email. “Programming and data are the key with all information robots, along with their ability to understand a range of different voices, accents, languages and dialects.”
The Pros and Cons
Depending on your perspective and whom you ask, there are pros and cons to the rise of robots in travel.
For travel companies — the people buying and deploying the robots — the benefits are obvious: Robots cost less than humans do over time, require far fewer resources and free up employees to perform other, more complicated tasks.
For travelers, however, the bonuses are less clear. Customer-facing robots certainly have a wow factor, and robot room-service delivery is safer and more private. (You don’t have to worry about covering your skivvies with a robe if you know it’s a robot at the door.)
On the flip side, Harteveldt — the analyst from San Francisco — said robots lack the “warm and fuzzy” feeling that many travelers seek when they pay big bucks for travel experiences: especially at four- and five-star hotels.
“If you’re looking for an experience that goes above and beyond, you probably won’t get it from a robot,” he said. “Robots are for more mundane tasks; How many times do you have a warm and fuzzy reaction with a person bringing you an extra bottle of shampoo?”
Bowman, from the Waldorf in Las Vegas, spoke to this when he noted that robots are meant to supplement the humans — never to take over their duties completely.
Other hotel managers agree that the most personalized service will always come from fellow humans. Ross, the general manager at Hotel Trio, noted that for big-picture service requests such as fixing appliances or delivering elaborate gifts and amenities, the hotel still leans on people. Liz Kraft, general manager of the new Aloft in downtown Chicago, said that at the end of the day robots are a “curiosity,” but people are the ones who get the job done.
“These robots definitely are worth getting excited about,” she said, noting that her hotel’s robot is named Corgan, after the former lead singer for the Smashing Pumpkins. “But anyone who thinks they are the be all and end all is wrong.”
What’s Next for Robots
Perhaps our willingness to lean on robots will change over time. Between now and the future, regardless of what the travel industry thinks of robots, one thing is certain: More of them are coming, and the next wave of robots will perform even more duties formerly reserved for humans.
Consider this: Earlier this fall, Oslo International Airport announced it will roll out 10 automated robot snowplows to clear its runways in 2019. Add to that more robots in hotels, on cruise ships and other tourist hotspots, and the future of robots in travel is bright — even if the light is generated artificially and autonomously.
Harteveldt said he sees a time in the not-too-distant-future when robots will man information desks and kiosks, leveraging artificial intelligence and a hearty database to answer traveler questions more efficiently than ever before.
“I don’t think we’ll see much resistance to this trend,” Harteveldt said. “Even a simple, ‘Hi, how’s your day going?’ from a robot could change someone’s day — and change the travel experience forever.”
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in northern California. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.