Are robots and AI the future of the hospitality industry?

In an era of contactless service, meticulous hygiene and social distancing, here’s a look at how artificial intelligence and robots could enhance the future of the hospitality industry.

While human connection forms the bedrock of the hospitality industry, artificial intelligence and automation are playing an increasingly vital role in enhancing guest experience. Over the last few years, the use of robots has emerged as a popular trend. One of the most common examples is of the chatbot, which provides customers with swift, 24/7 online support even when staff are unavailable. With contactless service the new buzzword, robots are poised to play an even larger role in hospitality post-pandemic by speeding up the check-in process to reduce congestion; transporting and delivering amenities; and using high-tech for sanitisation and disinfection. 

Here’s a look at how robot technology and artificial intelligence have been making an impact on the hospitality industry:

Front desk

Established in 2015, Japan’s Henn-na Hotel (meaning ‘strange’) at the Huis Ten Bosh theme park in Nagasaki was the first hotel in the world to be entirely staffed by robots. A humanoid robot in a cream jacket, and two others designed to look like velociraptors dressed in bow ties and a bellhop hat, will help you check in or check out and handle basic enquiries. They’re programmed to respond in several, including Japanese and English.

Concierge services

As contactless service becomes increasingly popular in a post-pandemic world, robots can be used by the hospitality industry to perform simple concierge tasks such as providing weather updates, travel information and assisting guests with bookings. In 2016, Hilton debuted an artificial intelligence-powered concierge robot in partnership with IBM’s Watson programme. Dubbed “Connie” after the company’s founder, Conrad Hilton, the robot could provide guests with hotel information and details about nearby restaurants and tourist attractions. It was based on Nao, a humanoid bot made by French robotics company Aldebaran, and powered by Watson software that helped in natural language processing which enabled Connie to understand human speech.

It also collected travel information from WayBlazer, an IBM partner that uses Watson to provide personalised travel recommendations. At the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas, the four-foot-tall robot Pepper is equipped to detect guests’ gender, approximate age and mood, and tailor its interactions to suit their needs—and even pose for selfies.

Housekeeping and butler services

A few hotels have begun using robots to help with manual work such as luggage collection, transportation of material, and delivery tasks. The Yobot at hotel chain Yotel’s New York outpost automatically collects guests’ luggage when they check in and can handle up to 300 items of baggage a day. Yoshi and Yolanda of Yotel Singapore not only deliver amenities to guests but also bid them goodbye with phrases inspired by films, a fun way to provide the hotel’s “technology ambassadors” with a human touch. At the newly opened Hotel Sky in Johannesburg, three colourful robots-Lexi, Micah, and Ariel-deliver room service and can carry up to 165 pounds of luggage each from the posh lobby to the rooms. 

The Park Avenue Rochester in Singapore has tasked Robie with back-of-house operations such as transporting used or clean linen, waste and bulky room items in between floors. His fellow robot Cobie comes with compartments to hold food, and will send an alert to your phone when she arrives to deliver room service. Mobile robotics company Aethon offers a range of robots designed to automate front-of-house and back-of-house tasks. Its nimble Aethon T4G is stacked with locking bins that can hold room supplies. It’s programmed to send a pin to each guest via text message, which will allow them to unlock each bin. The T4 shuttle carts can be used to automatically pick up, deliver and exchange used supplies such as linens and trash. 

Cleaning and sanitisation

Hotels have turned to high-tech to meet their sanitisation and disinfection demands post-pandemic. Yotel Boston’s newest employee is Vi-Yo-Let, a Roomba-like bot by Denmark-based UVD Robots that uses ultraviolet light to zap germs, viruses and bacteria. While San Antonio-based Xenex has been designing and supplying UV robots to hospitals since 2008, popular hotels such as the Beverly Hilton in California have begun using their services post-Covid. According to CEO Morris Miller, their patented machines can kill up to “22 times more pathogens” when compared with a room cleaned to CDC standards alone.

Bartending 

In 2020, a Tokyo pub run by restaurant chain Yoronotaki “hired” its first robot bartender. Made by QBIT Robotics, it uses four cameras to monitor customers and analyse their expressions with artificial intelligence software, and can pour a beer in 40 seconds and mix a cocktail in a minute. Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas impresses guests with its Bionic Bar that’s staffed by two robot bartenders amusingly named “Rock ‘Em” and “Sock ‘Em”. The movements of the bots have been modelled after ballet dancer Marco Pelle.

When you’ve placed your order via an iPad app, one of the arms will reach out for a bottle of alcohol which is suspended over the bar and whip up a tipple in under a minute. The tech used here started off as a product for a Google event in 2013, and is now being sold by Italy based Makr Shakr. At $110,000, though robot bartenders don’t come cheap!

Not to be outdone by the world’s largest cruise ship, MSC Cruises is set to debut Rob, the first ever humanoid robot bartender at sea. The multilingual bot doesn’t just shake and stir drinks—he can speak eight languages, dance, and oddly, entertain you with space-themed trivia.