Rage against the machine: lessons from the world’s first robot hotel

Ross Davies 14 October 2019 (Last Updated January 30th, 2020 09:31)

When Japan’s Henn-na “Strange Hotel” opened in 2015 it drew headlines by replacing human workers with robots. But with tales of malfunctions and general ineptitude, many of the droids have been given the boot. Ross Davies takes a look at what went wrong for the hotel.

Rage against the machine: lessons from the world’s first robot hotel
Guests do value the likes of IoT and automation – as long as it makes their stay that bit more comfortable. Credit: Jessica via Flickr

Without so much as the promise of a last pay check, or a decent reference, a velociraptor was laid off in January.

The dinosaur had been working the reception of a hotel in western Japan for the best part of four years, but things had not worked out. It had long struggled to carry out even the simplest of duties – such as checking in guests – until its employer had been left with no alternative but to make the cull.

In case you’re wondering, the raptor in this case is a robot; the establishment, Japan’s Henn na, or “Strange Hotel”, cited as the world’s first robot hotel since its opening its doors in 2015.

The fanfare that greeted the Strange Hotel four years ago – it was officially recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the first of its kind – has soured into ridicule. The Sasebo branch of the hotel, run by travel agency H.I.S, has been forced to let go more than half of the 243 robots that started out on its books.

Inept dinosaurs aside, other redundancies included “Churi”, a tulip-shaped doll-cum-robotic room assistant, primed to respond to a host of voice commands of occupants. Only Churi, it seems, was the poorer cousin of Siri or Alexa, unable to answer even the most basic of voice commands. One guest, a heavy snorer, complained of being woken up continuously throughout the night because his heavy breathing alerted the hapless assistant.

The hotel’s concierge robot was also decommissioned due to similar comprehension problems. Attempts to book a taxi or flight schedule enquiries were commonly stonewalled.

High maintenance: The problem with robots

The droids had been brought in to bring down costs at the hotel; instead they have increased. Rather than create less work, they have made more. Such ironies prompt the obvious question: are hotel robots more trouble than their worth?

In the case of the Strange Hotel, the answer appears to be a resounding yes. Yet, one can understand H.I.S.’s reasoning behind the deployment of robotic systems – especially to attract foreign tourists. Visitors to Japan need only use a smart toilet at Narita Airport to come away with the perception of a technologically-progressive country – robot hotels play into the same narrative.

However, the marriage of technology and hospitality is a complex and nuanced one. A good guest experience is ultimately predicated on efficiency and comfort. It is remiss on the part of hotel groups to assume that robots – simply by dint of their definition – automatically tick these boxes.

“Unfortunately, some hoteliers are turning to technology to give them a differentiating factor, creating a PR story,” says James Hacon, a commentator on the hospitality sector.

“You only need to see videos coming out of Japan – where human-mimicking robots guide guests to rooms or deliver room service – to see how slow and clunky they are. I’d suggest they are actually detracting from the customer experience.”

Subtler application: Why AI needn’t be gimmicky

Digitalisation might be here to stay in the hotel sector, but there needs to be method behind its application, suggests Hacon. The shift towards smart technology has undoubtedly paid dividends for hoteliers, with regards to cost-cutting and improving the guest experience, but it needn’t be so conspicuous – others may argue gaudy – as dinosaurs at the front desk.

“When technology works best is when it is tried, tested and seamless to the guest, reducing or removing a problem, or making life easier, not slower,” adds Hacon. “App-based check-in and digital checkout are great examples of time-saving initiatives.

“Device-driven room service delivery could also catch on, but it doesn’t need to be in the form of a robot with eyes. Likewise, some major cruise lines are already using robot-arm bartenders, which I can see catching on in hotels. Saying that, where we’ll most probably see technology really take off is behind the scenes, from social media to Alexa-style voice controllers and guest systems.”

This is not to say that hotels should entirely rule out artificial intelligence (AI). There have been more successful, and subtler, uses of robots in the industry. Some Yotel and Aloft properties in the US make use of droids to deliver mail and room-service, while in 2016 Hilton introduced a robotic concierge that appears to have drawn more positive publicity than negative.

For the likes of Tim Warrington, owner of West Midlands-based Service Robots, which provides robots receptionists and waiters to hotels and events, there is clear appetite in the market for robotic technology.

“Robots are playing a huge role in hotels and hospitality,” he says. “Room service is a huge area where they can play a role, as well as serving drinks and food.”

People power: Why customer experience is sometimes best left in human hands

Countless surveys undertaken by the hospitality sector in recent years have indeed revealed that today’s guests do value the likes of IoT and automation – as long as it makes their stay that bit more comfortable and, most important of all, personalised. Human interaction, whether it be with the concierge or receptionist, remains valued by many.

Bearing this in mind, hotels shouldn’t invest in AI purely for the sake of boosting their state-of-the-art credentials. Technology has its place, but some hotel functions, for the time being, are safest in human hands rather than robotic claws.