Guests staying at a Sextant hotel in New Orleans check in without any interaction with a human being. They’re greeted by a virtual concierge visible on a computer monitor but based thousands of miles away. And if they want to wind down from a stressful flight, a shot of Maker’s Mark bourbon from the lobby’s automated booze dispenser will cost them $5 — but if someone isn’t there in-person that day to check their IDs and present them with a special card for the machine, they’re out of luck.
Welcome to the fast-evolving world of hotel automation, where wall monitors and chatbots have replaced in-person interactions with human staff, and third-party tech and services partnerships are a core part of the business model.
For hospitality startups like Sextant Stays, which owns and operates apartment buildings and homes in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and New Orleans that are available for short- and long-term stays, the desire for contactless interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a mission to make larger spaces and premium amenities accessible to guests at lower prices by integrating automated tech and reducing labor costs. Yet, while automation adds novelty and convenience, it opens the door to new technical glitches and introduces unique labor dynamics that go beyond the usual tensions when robots replace humans.
“We don't want to take away all human interaction. We're just trying to rethink traditional hotel cost structure,” said Sextant Stays CEO Andreas King-Geovanis.
Some large hotel chains introduced contactless features during the pandemic such as online check-out and digital room keys, and many use automated systems to enable personalized, digital communications with guests. A minimal number of hotels today have experimented with actual robots to enable check-in and concierge services or to deliver drinks or food to guests. However, hospitality startups like Sextant, Sonder and others are paving the way toward what the broader hospitality industry could look like someday.
“They are a sign of things to come,” said John D. Burns, president of Hospitality Technology Consulting, regarding Sextant Stays.
Note: Sextant Stays did not pay for or subsidize my stay at The Lola. I chose to stay there while in New Orleans in June to observe a computer vision conference, not realizing when booking the room that my stay would involve automated self-check-in and an array of interactions with emerging tech.
Virtual concierge from thousands of miles away
Guests staying at The Lola, Sextant’s historical building near the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, may be surprised to see in the lobby what at first glance appears to be the disembodied head of a woman giving them a smile. A closeup of her face appears on a small tablet-sized monitor. Depending on the robotic hardware used in a given location, the monitor may be positioned on a pole attached to wheels or, in a newer iteration, on a wall.
A virtual concierge (right) greets guests in the lobby at The Lola hotel in New Orleans.Photo: Kate Kaye/Protocol
This is how Sextant presents one of its 10 full-time virtual concierges, all of them based more than 8,000 miles away in the Philippines. She may greet guests at New Orleans properties one day and Miami the next.
Sonder, another hospitality company, operates hotels and apartment-style properties in 40 markets around the world using automated self-check-in and digital tools for requesting room cleaning or other services, but the company does not use virtual concierges the way Sextant does.
“Some of our larger markets and properties, specifically our hotels, may have staffed front desks, and our local teams live and work in the market and are either present or regularly moving across our properties in a given city,” said Deeksha Hebbar, chief operating officer at Sonder.
Sextant’s approach to virtual concierge employing overseas workers is “really quite rare,” said Burns.
For Sextant, it’s all about cost savings, allowing the company to pay a lean concierge staff of 10 people instead of the 30 they’d need on staff in a traditional in-person setup. “That traditional front desk agent — 80% of the time they're not really interacting with people outside of that 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. rush. Our concept was, let's make sure that we're as productive as possible to rethink the traditional hotel cost structure,” King-Geovanis told Protocol.
The company has 90 full-time staff in the Philippines, some of whom do entry-level accounting or marketing-related work if they’re not concierges. They are paid a starting wage of $6 an hour — higher than the 570 pesos, or $10.25, people in Manila make for a full day’s work.
“In 2020 we really started to say, ‘Hey, if people can take phone calls and respond to messages in the Philippines, why couldn't they do entry-level accounting or marketing?’” King-Geovanis said.
The impacts of offshoring labor or replacing humans with automation and robotic tech have been studied for years, but use of virtual workers to replace people in the travel and hospitality industry could have unique implications on tourism-driven economies where jobs are inherently linked to in-person work. And for a culturally rich destination like New Orleans, offshoring labor could change the way people experience a place, removing interactions with the very humans who are steeped in that culture.
“One reason why people travel is to experience the local culture, and this type of system is basically eliminating that experience of the local culture. Eventually over time people will stop expecting that as part of the experience,” said Lisa Kresge, a lead researcher at the UC Berkeley Labor Center who focuses on digital and algorithmic technologies.
“Technology is an enabler but cannot yet completely replace the necessity of human interaction at some level in the hospitality experience,” said Hebbar. “We believe that human service will continue to be a critical part of travel and exploration; technology can serve as a first port of call for simple and quick service, with human service (either remote or in-person) still being important to serve more complex guest needs."
An abundance of emerging tech, few humans
The rooms inside The Lola are decked out with emerging tech, but they’re decorated with a nod to yesterday’s now-fetishized analog machines. Photos on the walls in one room featured closeups of a vinyl record spinning on a turntable and a vintage car. A small beverage fridge in a bedroom resembled a 1950s-era model.
An Orbitz listing for the property notes in special check-in instructions that “A front desk is not available at this property” and “Guests will receive smart lock details,” but it’s not always clear to guests of automated properties that the human staff they expect to be present at a hotel won’t be there. The Sextant Stays website itself does not mention this about The Lola.
“You have to advise people in advance and set their expectations,” Burns said.
Before they encounter the virtual concierge, Sextant guests are asked to validate their identity by uploading a selfie and a photo of their driver’s license, passport or national ID card using software from Sextant partner Superhog. But despite the company’s extreme automation goals, Sextant doesn’t use facial recognition to match the selfie to the guest when checking in, according to King-Geovanis. Instead, he said the selfie and ID data is used by Superhog to verify a guest’s identity to avoid credit card fraud. According to Superhog’s terms and conditions, the company relies on its own partners to check criminal and sex offender databases as a security precaution.
Another security measure: Sextant’s self-check-in system generates a unique code for guests to use to enter its properties. But with additional tech comes additional glitches.
When I stayed at The Lola in June, the automatic locking system was not working, and the building’s front door was left ajar multiple times, creating a security vulnerability. Sextant has security personnel who roam properties in each market, King-Geovanis said.
But all in all, it’s rare to find a Sextant worker physically present in its buildings.
Guests can buy forgotten aspirin or shaving supplies in CVS-branded kiosks or can access a supply closet where extra toilet paper or coffee is stored. Sextant shares revenue from sales of products in the CVS machine, but it pays a fixed rental fee to have it. “It seems to net out about even for us,” King-Geovanis said.
Other devices replace what may have required a call to front desk personnel in the past.
Digital touchscreens provided by GuestView Guide made by Sharp NEC Display Solutions that are affixed to walls in Sextant guest rooms use customers’ booking data to enable personalized welcome messages and let guests click to order $100 mid-stay cleaning services. Noise sensors made by NoiseAware monitor for the sort of loud partying or sounds that can make for a bad night for other guests. The system monitors for sustained, loud noises, but does not record people’s voices, according to the company’s website.
For now, depending on the size of a building or day of the week, between two and eight human beings may be present at any given time to clean the rooms, maintain equipment or check IDs for the alcohol-dispensing machines. The company also has valets and someone at the front desk in its larger buildings with 50 or more units.
Morphing travel expectations and worker dynamics
As automated systems remove some humans from the process of operating a hotel, they are changing what remaining workers are required to do and how they’re managed. For instance, a housekeeping supervisor at The Lola assisted in communicating with the virtual concierge when my room door code was not operable during an early check-in, a task someone in a customer-facing role would usually handle.
“One of the challenges of these efforts to save labor through these technological [systems] is they often ironically create more labor to deal with them than they would otherwise,” Kresge said.
Training employees to take on multiple roles is part of Sextant’s strategy. “We cross-train employees to be multifunctional,” King-Geovanis said. For instance, in its larger properties, valets — referred to as guest service agents — are also trained to perform front desk duties.
Automation is also altering how hotel housekeepers and maintenance workers are managed. Even some larger hotel chains route and schedule room cleaning through automated software. Listings for Sonder and Sextant Stays housekeeping jobs require cleaning workers to be comfortable with use of mobile apps for collaboration and communications, for example.
“They are essentially being managed by a technological system,” Kresge said regarding some hotel housekeepers who now get their cleaning orders from an app. “If the workforce is not unionized, the ability to have recourse or voice concerns about how the system delegated those tasks is practically nonexistent,” she said.
Automation and virtual work are also altering how workers perceive one another. When an air conditioning unit in a room at The Lola was on the fritz, a maintenance tech who was summoned from another Sextant building to assess the equipment referred to the human-yet-virtual concierge as “the robot.”
“One of the challenges of these efforts to save labor through these technological [systems] is they often ironically create more labor to deal with them then they would otherwise.”
“For those workers, they’re not the ones having the conversations with the concierge, so it is in effect a technology in their reality,” Kresge said.
The company itself has referred to its virtual concierge role using the term, noting, “As a Virtual Concierge, you’d assist our guests through Telepresence Robot.”
While we often talk of anthropomorphizing robots by attributing human characteristics to them, the use of “robot” to describe a human concierge reverses the concept. But King-Geovanis stressed the humanity of his company’s virtual concierges. “These are very real people,” he said, noting that Sextant’s leadership team met with all of its Philippines-based employees in Manila in May.
“If you're a maintenance worker, for instance, they haven't had that opportunity [to meet the virtual staff]," King-Geovanis said. "I think ‘robot’ almost makes the service seem a lot colder and dehumanizes. They are real people with real emotions. Our guests actually do interact with them.”
The hospitality industry may need a lot more time before it contemplates such ethical and philosophical questions surrounding automated tech, said Burns. “We do not have the luxury of thinking about these things yet, but the sociology of it is going to become a discussion at some point regarding how robotic versus real-life staff are regarded.”