Transforming 2021

Hotels had to adapt to survive. Will those changes stick?

Automation has been in the works for years in hotels, and the pandemic pushed many projects forward. But not everything is going to make sense in 2021.

Hotels had to adapt to survive. Will those changes stick?

Robots and other automations in hotels: A more common sight in 2021?

Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

Pre-pandemic, many would've said they felt like they lived on the road. Staying at hotels for sales trips, work retreats, pitches — not to mention hoarding loyalty points for vacation trips — was the norm. Hotels were homes away from home.

For the last year, travel has been limited to only the most essential, and the hospitality industry has cratered. But with vaccines proliferating, there are signs of life in the travel industry. And several investments that happened before and during the pandemic are likely going to shape the future of hotels.

The front of house

Hotels are all about offering service: getting guests what they want, when they want it. The problem, though, is that someone isn't always available to ferry up a toothbrush to a guest who forgot to bring one, towels to that person who somehow uses every single one when they shower or an omelette at 3 a.m. Hotels have started relying on employees that never get sick or mind dealing with nocturnal customers, by turning to companies like Silicon Valley-based Savioke, which has been building small delivery robots for the hotel industry for the past seven years.

Savioke's Relay robots, which are about the size and shape of a kitchen trash can, can navigate spaces autonomously, delivering things in a sealable container about the size of a shoebox at the top of the bot. Savioke guides the robot through the halls of a hotel once so it can learn how to get around on its own. The company even offers wireless integrations for elevators so the Relays can call for a lift themselves.

Prior to the pandemic, Relay robots took some of the burden off staff who were being pulled in several directions at once. Steve Cousins, the co-founder and CEO of Savioke, said that one unionized hotel in Las Vegas brought in Relay robots, and the staff was concerned about being automated out of a job. It turned out, Cousins said, that the robots were sent out on the most menial of tasks, like delivering the toothbrushes and towels, while the jobs that were likely to pay out bigger tips, like delivering a bottle of Champagne to the presidential suite, were left to the staff members who could provide a bit more of a human touch.

"Everybody always says, 'Robots are going to take my job,' and that's become kind of a meme, but people don't really think through it," Cousins said.

Over the last year, the "contactless" nature of interacting with a Relay robot instead of a person has unsurprisingly been a bigger selling point. One hotel in Canada wanted to make its entire guest experience free of human contact for people still traveling during the pandemic, so it hired Savioke for in-hotel deliveries. The problem is, most hotels have been cutting staff, rather than looking to add. "A lot of our customers furloughed their robots along with our staff," Cousins said.

"COVID shines an interesting light: It used to be that hotel managers and staff would say, 'We're not sure about robots because we feel like people need a personal touch,'" Cousins said. "COVID completely flipped that — personal touch is not what you do these days."

During the pandemic, Savioke has turned its attention to other industries, such as contactless deliveries in medical facilities, but when the travel industry begins to pick back up, so can Savioke's. Cousins said that most customers who paused their Savioke subscriptions during the pandemic have already reactivated their bots and extended their contracts.

Similarly, companies have been pushing to make the check-in and concierge experiences touchless during the pandemic, using tools they'd been investing in over the last few years. Hilton, for example, first introduced a digital key in its app back in 2015. Users can check in and use their NFC-enabled smartphone to unlock their door without having to talk to a human. And other companies, like Kipsu, which provides a messaging service for guests, offer inventive ways for hotels to communicate with guests when they can't meet in person.

The back of house

Other types of automations in the works aren't quite as futuristic as R2-D2 delivering you breakfast, but they could have just as much impact on the quality of service customers receive at hotels — as well as the lives of staff.

While robots might be a solution for delivering things to customers, in many cases, someone still has to call the front desk or housekeeping to actually ask for what they want. That's where companies like Bbot, which offers a QR code system that guests can use to order from hotels on their own devices, can help. Some hoteliers that have been running at a limited capacity during the leaner months of the pandemic have used this time to retool their customer experience, Bbot founder Steve Simoni told Protocol. Adding in a contactless ordering system helps cut down on the number of interactions a server has to have with a customer, which is appealing to many, and likely won't go away in the future. "Everyone gets it now," Simoni said. "This is a whole new way to order and pay."

Simoni said that the company had a high-growth year, as hotels and restaurants have looked for simple, contactless solutions. But moving forward, the way to scale will be to integrate with other systems that large hotels rely on. Bbot is looking to integrate with hotel management software (through an API layer it's working on) as well as other tools like Kipsu, meaning that a customer could have a text message conversation with the concierge, order a burger and have it sent up without having to get out of the hot tub. Bbot's system can also handle different setups in various locations, allowing a hotel to customize the menus it offers at the pool, in-room, at the bar or in the restaurant. "This drives efficiency in the right kind of hotels that can handle it," Simoni said.

There are other instances where backroom automation could improve the hotel experience, such as cleaning. SoftBank Robotics, for example, has been working on Whiz, a small cleaning robot for commercial spaces, and BrainOS is working on cleaning robots of all sizes. But with all these automations, the cost has to be worth the effort, and some are skeptical of the value of complicated implementations.

"It's much easier to have a human waiter," said Thomas Sineau, an analyst at CB Insights who covers retail industries including hotels. "Most of the restaurants have human waiters."

Sineau argued that for many of the deliveries guests want, allowing services like DoorDash and Uber Eats to deliver to rooms could solve food delivery concerns at hotels. "I think from a hotel perspective, it's much easier to let a DoorDash delivery guy go from [Room] 329 and deliver their food rather than having someone get something from the hotel kitchen and get it to the person Wednesday [at] 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.," Sineau said. That being said, you're probably not going to order a toothbrush from DoorDash.

After the pandemic, automation will only make sense where staff can't be the answer. "I think it's just very much dependent on the cost of the worker," Sineau said. "In New York, you're always going to find someone to work the night shift."

For Savioke's Cousins, though, there will always be people who don't want to bother strangers and will search out automated options. Pandemic aside, guests might be less concerned about asking for things if they know the hotel isn't sending an employee.

"Hotel people are pleasers, they want to give you what you want, but some people on the receiving end hesitate to ask, because they don't want to bother somebody," Cousins said. "The robot basically breaks that barrier. If you know that they're just going to send the robot, you'll ask for things."

"It's just a different experience," Cousins said, "that over the last seven years, we see people really like."

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