Robots in hotels replace quitting hospitality workers

A robot butler returns from a delivery at the Dream Hotel in Los Angeles.
A robot butler returns from a delivery at the Dream Hotel in Los Angeles. (Linnea Bullion/FTWP)

The hospitality industry has turned to AI to address labor shortages

On a typical work day at the Dream Hollywood Hotel in California, Alfred waits at the front desk for marching orders. Dressed in a white collar and black bow tie, Alfred springs into action when a guest asks for shampoo or a phone charger, moving down the lobby to the elevator, ascending to a given floor and informing the recipient of the delivery by telephone.

This kind of service is standard for many hotel employees, but Alfred, named after Batman’s loyal butler, isn’t just any staff member: he’s one of two robots that the hotel uses to serve customers and help employees with their daily tasks.

Vaughn Davis, the hotel’s general manager, began building an operating model based on greater reliance on technology in 2017, but the ongoing labor shortage in the travel industry has provided “an opportune time” to deploy robots in the hotel.

“There wasn’t a lot of human capital available during the pandemic,” he said. “So the robots were a way to fill that lack of talent available in the job market.”

The Dream is one of a growing number of hospitality companies that have invested in robots in recent years. And while travel demand soars as covid rules ease in many parts of the world, robots may provide at least a partial solution to ongoing staffing issues.

“We consider them part of the team, and they really help out,” said Davis, who noted the hotel has about half the staff it had before the pandemic. Alfred has been working at the hotel for almost a year and a half. Geoffrey — named after the butler in ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ — has worked at the hotel for about six months. Both were made by Relay Robotics.

According to Michael O’Donnell, CEO of Relay Robotics, a field technician maps the hotel so the robot can operate autonomously. “It’s kind of like those Google cars that you see driving around, where they sort of map neighborhoods,” he said.

Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys also brought in a crew of six robots. Two of them look after the food and assist the hotel restaurant staff, Angler and Ale. Two others vacuum common areas such as hallways and ballrooms, while another pair cleans the floors.

Sheldon Suga, the resort’s vice president and general manager, said he became curious when a colleague in Miami who owns restaurants told him about robots helping his servers. Hawks Cay introduced the machines last June. “First, it helps fill some of the labor shortages we have, but on the other hand, it helps existing staff,” he said.

Suga said the station is about 25% below “where we need to be” in terms of staff, compared to 2019.

Hospitality expert Anthony Melchiorri said the pandemic has exacerbated an existing labor shortage in the industry, turning it into a “crisis”. and attitudes towards robots have changed.

“Before it was like, ‘We’ll wait and see about the robots,’ then it was like, ‘Good to have, I’m the cool kid on the block with a robot,'” a- he declared. “And now it’s like, ‘Can I have 100 robots, please?'”

Leisure and hospitality accounted for 78,000 of the 428,000 jobs added in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest increase of any industry last month. However, employment in the sector is still down 8.5%, or 1.4 million jobs, compared to February 2020.

“Now it’s like, ‘Can I have 100 robots, please?'”

-Anthony Melchiorri

Hotels have been using robots since 2015, mostly in three-star establishments to transport goods, said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group. But the pandemic has accelerated their interest, especially since they offered a way to deliver items to customers without human contact.

Now, amid additional staffing challenges, he said, “hotels at higher tiers, including four-star hotels, now recognize that robots can be very helpful.” The pandemic has also seen an investment in robots to disinfect spaces, which travelers might have seen also in airports, train stations and cruise ships.

Those who have used the robots see many benefits from their presence, particularly in the form of additional contact time with guests. At Hawks Cay, Suga said the restaurant’s robots help minimize the time staff have to travel to tables, and they allow other staff who would have already spent four-and-a-half to five hours to spend the ‘vacuuming the hallways’ to do other things, more things for customers.

Grady Colin, general manager of the Garden City Hotel on Long Island, said after a Saturday night wedding, staff can dismantle tables and chairs, start a SoftBank Robotics robot, and go home. “The next morning, the ballroom is vacuumed,” which can take one person two hours, he said.

At Philadelphia International Airport, a robot developed by Piaggio Fast Forward can follow staff to deliver food and a few other items via a cargo bin. Although it is not self-contained and was implemented last year as a means of providing safe, contactless delivery, the machine takes some of the burden off workers, helping to carry heavy or bulky orders. .

Travelers also benefit, said Megan O’Connell, spokeswoman for MarketPlace PHL. “To this day, when our delivery specialists have it, people freak out, they take pictures with it,” she said. “It’s just a very positive thing to have at the airport.”

Melchiorri said he thought it should make sense to travelers. “I think people want value,” he said, noting that if customers are paying to stay in a hotel and a robot costs them time or is less efficient than the service they’re getting. wait, that would be a problem. “If it’s…more efficient, people won’t care,” he said.

Harteveldt said that if the robots are used correctly, they can “take on the most mundane tasks that have little or no added value from having a human involved”, such as bringing towels to a room at the request of a guest. ‘a customer.

He added that certain clienteles might be more receptive to this kind of technological advancement. For example, older customers may not respond as well, and he doesn’t expect to see robots adopted for indoor use in luxury brands, where “service is at the heart of the value proposition.” .

However, Relay Robotics counts luxury brands, including Mandarin Oriental, among its customers, O’Donnell said.

Melchiorri noted that “labour is a hotel’s most expensive cost”. Robots can have high upfront costs, with some disinfectant robots costing around $125,000. Other robots and companies are more affordable. Bear Robotics, which makes the bots Hawks Cay uses at its restaurant, typically charges $999 a month for a robot-as-a-service subscription, co-founder and COO Juan Higueros said in an email. .

“It works out to $2.75 an hour and the robots run at full load for 12 hours (a lot for most normal restaurant shifts),” he said. This subscription includes installation, training, maintenance and other services.

While hotel business operators stress that robots are only a supplement and not a replacement for employees, Harteveldt said it’s a reasonable concern. If a robot can perform 20 to 30 percent of a household worker’s tasks, he said, existing staff will certainly be more efficient.

“But it also means the hotel will have to hire fewer housekeepers over time,” he said. Hotels could “optimize staffing”, reducing that part of the staff from 10 employees to between six and eight.

But while the bots don’t make themselves sick, there have been other vulnerabilities: Japanese hotel Henn Na previously got rid of poorly performing bots. Hotel droids could also have exposed guests to hackers.

Davis said Dream’s staff love robots and have been involved from the start. They provided early feedback on the idea and they helped name the droids.

He said a number of hotels in their portfolio are about to add bots. “We are heavily invested in integrating robotics and artificial intelligence into the service culture in hospitality for the foreseeable and expanded future,” Davis said.

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