Robots make their way into hotels

AUSTIN, Texas -- The hospitality industry has been interested in implementing robotics into hotel operations as recently as 2013, when the Pengheng Space Capsule Hotel in Shenzhen, China, debuted robot waiters and more. A recent panel here at the HITEC Conference, however, showed that robots capable of performing menial operations within a hotel may be graduating beyond novelty status soon, according to Steve Cousins, CEO of robotics developer Savioke.

Robots are currently being used sparingly in hotels, as the most commonly produced robot is a large mechanical arm used for industrial production that is unsafe to be used around humans, but is perfectly fine for sorting luggage (such as in such in the Yotel in New York City). These industrial-strength machines must be separated from humans (in this case by a pane of glass) to prevent possible injuries, but robots are also attractive for delivery purposes. Amazon has been considering a drone delivery system for some time, but is there a robotic delivery option that could have a place in hotels? Cousins, and Savioke, seem to think so.

In August of 2014, Savioke began testing a robotic butler service in an Aloft hotel in Cupertino, Calif. Nicknamed 'Botlr,' by the hotel (Relay by Savioke), the robot is designed to move autonomously through the hotel on its own, and comes with a storage unit that allows it to deliver items from the front desk to guestrooms on request in as little as five minutes' time. Cousins said that robot was designed with five rules for navigation: Don't hit anybody or anything, move gracefully, don't get lost, ride the elevator and come back.

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"Right now the main purpose of a robot in your hotel is to create a value proposition," Cousins said. "You don't have to get dressed to answer the door [for the Botlr], and you don't have to tip it. Guests love it, so now the question is 'how can we monetize this and turn it into a competitive advantage for hotels that have it?' It certainly gives a bump to RevPAR (revenue per available room) because there aren't many of them, and guests want to see them."

Any fears of robots replacing human jobs in a hotel can be cast aside for now, as engineers were able to construct a $400,000 machine capable of folding guestroom towels -- in 25 minutes. However, the technology for these machines is evolving, improving their wayfinding and lowering their costs as time passes.

A lot of consideration also goes into the development of the robot's overall look, as the robot must be made to fit your brand. According to Cousins, the Botlr was given electronic blinking eyes, but no face, in order to appear endearing without being scary. Additionally, the robot's height was chosen as it is short enough to be accessible to those in wheelchairs, and not tall enough to be intimidating.

Lastly, Cousins noted how guests and staff seemed to treat the robot with human qualities over time. "Almost always someone holds the elevator door in it, even though the robot controls the doors on its own," Cousins said. "I even kept a $1 bill as a souvenir -- someone did tip the robot."

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