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In Mallorca recently, I talked to a group of hotel managers from around the world about their current preoccupations. A manager from Shanghai told me he had gone to see his counterpart at a rival establishment and found a robot standing behind the reception desk.
The robot asked if it could help. “I’ve come to see your general manager,” he said — and the robot summoned the general manager on the phone. Robots in hotels would be a big trend, the group agreed.
Except that it seems to have collapsed almost as soon as it started. Henn na in Japan, which claimed in 2015 to be the world’s first robot-staffed hotel, has reportedly stood down more than half of its 243 robots because they didn’t work properly. One guest was repeatedly woken by the digital assistant in his bedroom asking him to repeat his request. Eventually the guest realised it was being triggered by his snoring, the Wall Street Journal reported. (I attempted to get independent confirmation from Henn na, but no one, human or robot, replied.)
Other hotels are still trialling robots. A 2017 McKinsey study reported food, drink and toiletries being delivered by robots at a hotel in the San Francisco Bay Area, with guests ordering toiletries they didn’t need just for the fun of it.
Automating hotel services actually goes back a long way. In the 1980s, I heard Gérard Pélisson, co-founder of Accor, the French hotel group, talk about its Formule 1 budget chain, which was almost staff-free. Guests let themselves in with a credit card and got their meals from a vending machine. The toilets and bathrooms were self-cleaning.
Hotel robots are really just a gimmick. Most of what we do today, from checking in and out to getting our room keys and having our passports scanned, can be done with a mobile phone app or a machine in the reception area. Much of what a concierge can tell us, from the best local restaurants to what’s on at the theatre, is a Google search away.
Many of us already avoid most human contact at the airport, whether choosing seats, checking in, presenting our boarding passes at security or clearing immigration on arrival. All of that is now available online or is done by a machine reading our passports and recognising our faces with not a robot in sight.
Hotels can be the same. Some already offer app-based services. The issue is whether we want them. We all have our preferences. I like to see a smiling (human) face when I check in but prefer not to talk to anyone when I leave. I appreciate the people who clean my room in the morning but feel intruded on if I return in the evening to discover that someone has turned down the corner of my sheet (surely the least needed of all hotel tasks) and left two chocolates on my pillow.
An entirely automated hotel would bother me more than a machine-run airport does. Hotels are, after all, homes away from home.
But in some parts of the world we may have no choice. It is no accident that the first robot hotel was in Japan. The country is a leader in robots to replace workers. It has an ageing population and restricted immigration.
The UK may be next. KPMG has estimated that EU nationals make up nearly one quarter of Britain’s hospitality workers. After Brexit, the UK plans strict immigration limitations on EU workers earning under £30,000, which will include many hotel employees. I don’t know whether we will see robots taking their jobs, but we will probably see more automation and fewer humans.
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