Almost three years ago now, in the Huis Ten Bosch theme park near Nagasaki, the “most efficient hotel in the world” opened its doors. At the Henn-na Hotel, trying to find an employee is a fruitless endeavour, because there are none. At least, no human employees. Whether it’s check-in at the front desk, carrying suitcases or cleaning rooms – everything is performed by more or less humanoid robots. The doors to the rooms are opened via facial recognition, and everything else is done digitally too. Welcome to the future!
What’s more, the trend is spreading. In American Aloft Hotels, the robot Botlr has been helping out with room service since 2014, whilst in the Residence Inn in Los Angeles it's his counterpart Wally. In the Hilton McLean in Virginia, the robot concierge Connie assists guests with any questions they may have, and the IBM robot Sepp does the same at the Motel One in Munich. Robotics companies are currently working hard to develop the successors to these robots, teaching them how to use the lift and speak politely to guests.
According to Andreas Romani, expert at the consultancy Ideas4Hotels, these robots are nothing but gimmicks. “It’s great for Instagram,” the consultant says. However, he sees no real benefit to guests or in terms of lightening the load on hotel employees, at least not yet.
“In fact, there are other developments under way that really do make life easier for both parties,” says Romani. Digital check-in and check-out, for example. Just take a look at airlines, who Romani claims are always ten years ahead of the hotel industry: “There, it is common practice for passengers to check themselves in, open their boarding card on their phone and thereby take some of the strain off airport employees,” says Romani. “Everyone takes it for granted, no-one gets excited about it.”
What’s more, those hotels that already offer digital and keyless check-in have apparently had very positive experiences, according to the consultant. The benefits are especially apparent at check-out: “If you have a business meeting to get to but have to wait in line behind a party of 20, you’re likely to quickly lose your temper.” Yet there are also other efficiency-increasing features that can help save time. Take auto-completed registration forms, for example, that only require a signature.
Another example is the online invoice, which the traveller simply has to confirm with one click before adding it into their virtual travel expenses statement. “Online payment is something that many hoteliers haven't even cottoned onto yet,” according to Romani. This means there is a lot of potential waiting to be unleashed, including for hoteliers, not least thanks to new virtual forms of payment.
To date, such innovations have primarily been appropriated by young, creative hotel chains or by large chains in select markets. Best Western, for instance, launched its ‘Mobile Guest Engagement Platform’ in the USA in 2017. This platform allows Best Western guests to access a digital guest folder, book extras, contact an employee or book a taxi, for example. The check-in process is just one of its many features.
In Andreas Romani's view, this kind of digital interaction with guests is the number one trend for the future. People are increasingly opting for asynchronous communication instead of picking up the telephone, and that is what hoteliers need to offer their guests. Romani is convinced that “messengers are the next big thing”, simply because people “enjoy being able to chat to an employee”.
The developers of the Henn-na Hotel have entrusted this particular task to the chatbot ‘Dinosaur’. This cartoon dino has been pre-programmed with typical questions and answers. But Dinosaur is not alone: Edwardian Hotels London, who are behind several Radisson Blu hotels, have introduced digital assistant Edward to help guests, and at the Ameron Hotel Speicherstadt in Hamburg it is James who fulfils this task.
© Illustration : Kirsten Semmler • Images : Adobe Stock
1. Do-it-yourself check-in and check-out – usually via smartphone, which ideally is also used to access the room.
2. Simplification of the payment process. Innovative payment systems can substantially simplify the payment process both for hotels and for business guests. This includes mobile payment and new payment methods such as virtual company credit cards. HRS is working on this area together with credit card providers such as AirPlus and American Express.
3. Messenger: Exchanges between guests and employees no longer take place in person or via telephone, but asynchronously via text or voice message.
4. Chatbots: Self-learning digital systems can quickly and reliably respond to standard queries and accept requests, thereby easing employees’ workload.
5. Robots: Robot concierges and service robots can answer guest queries and perform certain jobs, such as providing room service. It’s still early days, but substantial progress is being made in this area.
6. Voice assistants: According to market researchers, certain aspects of communication will be transferred from smartphones to Alexa and co. For data protection reasons, the use of this technology in hotels is viewed with some scepticism.
“Chatbots have a lot of potential in our view,” explains Jennifer Schönau, General Manager of the Ameron, “as they can lift some of the load off our employees and also provide guests with an additional service.” James, who has been in operation for one year now, can be accessed via the website and via Facebook Messenger, and is now able to answer around one hundred different questions such as “How much does it cost to bring a dog?”, “How much does breakfast cost?” or “Where can I park?”. If James is unable to answer the question, it will be redirected to the front desk where an employee will enter the answer instead. In this way, the digital assistant is continuously learning.
For Romani, “it doesn’t really matter whether it's a computer or an employee communicating with the guests”. What is more important is that communication ‘takes place via the channel that guests are currently using’. Some chains have already tasked employees with the sole function of chatting with guests. At Marriott, for example, they can communicate via the app, at Starwood via WhatsApp, and at Hyatt via Facebook Messenger.
However, the next phase of evolution is fast approaching: digital voice assistants. According to market researchers, they have a bright future ahead of them both in the home and, potentially, in hotels. Expert Romani remains sceptical. For business travellers in particular, he sees a number of data protection issues. In their case, having Alexa in the hotel room could actually be a no-go.
Hotel manager Schönau – who has yet to notice any real lightening in the workload since the introduction of James – says: “People looking for a hotel, especially a higher-end hotel, want personal contact”. For her, any technological developments will have to seamlessly meet this requirement. Consultant Romani agrees: “The reality is not Japanese high-tech hotels, but medium-sized private hotels that are often still battling to set up a stable WiFi connection. If I decide to communicate via WhatsApp, but am unable to respond to a query until four hours later, it actually ends up being counter-productive”. For Jennifer Schönau, in an ‘ideal’ world “these services would be as personal as possible, but backed up by all the useful features of technology.”