LAS VEGAS - RLH Corporation has always espoused a dedication to investing in technology. Now, the company is mobilizing its growing clout in the hospitality marketplace and its established tech spend to enhance the franchisee and guest experiences in tandem, starting with the introduction of an automated housekeeping robot. The news was unveiled at the company's annual global brand conference, held this year at The Mirage.
The robot was designed as part of a partnership with Peanut Robotics that was formed roughly two months ago, said John Edwards, RLH Corporation's chief technology officer. The robot is designed to do supplemental housekeeping work alongside a human housekeeper, such as cleaning toilets and collecting linens, allowing housekeepers to focus on other aspects of their job.
"Really, the goal is to augment customer service," Edwards said. "If we can allow housekeeping to focus on cleanliness and service, that is a win for us."
The major differentiator for this robot is a prehensile arm capable of holding tools. Joe Augenbraun, CEO of Peanut Robotics, said the automation is still in its early days, but the arm of the device was carefully chosen to have a level of strength that is comparatively less than that of a human in order to avoid injuries.
"We chose the arm very carefully," he said. "It is designed for people in wheelchairs who need to reach things. We can't harm anyone, that would be the end of our company."
The company is aiming to debut a pilot program for its services at two properties in 2019, with the hopes of pursuing a mass rollout of the device in 2020. As of this time the pilot hotels for the project have not been chosen, but Augenbraun said the robot will be sold on an hourly operating fee and not a set price. He pointed out that because the device makes use of machine learning it will be slow at first, and hopefully will top out at three quarters of the speed of a human operator.
"This is an [artificial intelligence]-powered product. We couldn't have done this 10 years ago or even three years ago," Augenbraun said. "This is one of the reasons we are not selling the robot. It's not a big problem to have the robot clean something thoroughly, it can brush a toilet for two hours nonstop, but the problem is how fast it can do that job effectively."
Augenbraun said that currently the robot is designed to help with housekeeping, but RLH has goals to eventually have robots stock minibars and carry luggage for guests.
RLH Corporation’s robot announcement may have stolen the show, but earlier on president and CEO Greg Mount said the company’s growing portfolio is affording it additional competitive advantages heading into the new year.
"We are now approaching 1,500 hotels in 48 states," Mount said. "Scale creates advantages, and we have some serious scale now."
The new heft in RLH Corporation’s portfolio partly comes from its acquisition of Knights Inn, which was finalized in April 2018 and added 340 properties to RLH across North America. Mount said this growth, particularly over the past five years, has enabled RLH Corporation to push for lower distribution costs throughout 2018, which will continue in 2019.
In addition, Mount said technology investments, such as its new robotic venture, will be top of mind in the coming year. According to Mount, the company’s technology strategy is as much about what RLH plans on doing as what it will avoid doing. Rather than compete with tech giants, Mount said his company will be using technology to assist hotel operators and better understand guests, staying out of the larger tech race.
One of the company’s most recent investments is an updated RedLion.com. RLH brought the company’s website development in-house to speed up the rate at which it can implement changes. In 2018 the company also consolidated 15 of its central reservations phone numbers to a single one (1-800-RED-LION), and also invested in voice technology for menu options, as well as made inroads in artificial intelligence.
“You can’t wait for the future, you need to create it,” Mount said. “We’ve spoken over the years about technology innovation; it still remains in the forefront of what we do but we must work together to prepare for the future. I mean that more now than ever before. The world is changing by day, hour and minute.”