Fully-automated hotels in Japan and the US are using robots to replace porters and other staff servicing rooms but not everything is going to plan, writes
Japan's position as one of the world’s most automated countries will no doubt have intrigued the thousands of visiting Irish supporters following our team’s exploits during the Rugby World Cup.
As the birthplace of much of the technology we all now take for granted, Japan continues to push the boundaries in showcasing many of the changes we may soon accept as normal on this side of the world.
According to research from the International Federation of Robotics, representing 50 members from more than 20 countries, Japan is the world’s number one industrial robot manufacturer and delivered 52% of the global supply in 2018.
Those rugby fans who stayed in hotels across the country will have noted how, in some instances, the Japanese vision of accommodation bears a stark contrast to Ireland.
In 2015, an entirely robot-run hotel, the Henn-na Hotel — which translates as “strange” — offered lodgings where service was undertaken by automatons in everything from arrival to check out.
Reception robots capable of speaking multiple languages, including Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean, were assisted by porter and concierge robots that carried luggage and dispensed information.
Daily tasks such as window-cleaning and vacuuming are also automated, assisted by facial-recognition room locks, in addition to motion sensors for power usage, air conditioning and entertainment systems. Some rooms even had a robotic assistant on permanent standby to impart local tourist tips and possible outings.
“The idea is not to be strange or weird, but about transforming and evolving,” said Hideo Sawada, founder and chairman of the hotel’s parent HIS company, at the launch.
Having robots in charge of the reception and everywhere, we aim to make it the most efficient hotel in the world.
The 100-room hotel used more than 140 robots throughout it facilities, overseen by a small number of human employees who monitor the overall operation. Yet, while automation is predicted to become more commonplace over the next decade, it may follow a more gradual process than previously expected.
Earlier this year, the Henn-na Hotel announced it was halving its robotic workforce and re-positioning more human employees into pivotal areas of the operation. While robots will continue to carry out daily cleaning and delivery tasks at the hotel, experience has proven that such android activity still needs to be carefully considered when employed in direct contact with the public.
At the Henn-na reception, robots were frequently unable to decipher guests’ requests, resulting in regular confusion and lengthy queues, while porter robots often had difficulty with proper distribution of luggage and repeatedly broke down as a result of exposure to rain and climatic factors.
In addition, the in-room assistants could only deliver the most basic of information and, in some cases, mistook the snoring of guests for questions — and then awakened the slumbering customer to repeat the request. A less invasive and better-received demonstration of future hotel automation opened two years ago in New York.
Operating on a similar principle of ‘less staff, greater technology’, the Public New York hotel offers no doormen, porters or concierges to greet the arriving visitor at this 367-bedroom, 28-storey tower on Chrystie Street in Lower Manhattan.
Guests are greeted by so-called public advisors dressed in black t-shirts and clutching iPads to help visitors navigate the digital check-in. Having already booked your room through your smartphone, the mobile doubles as guests’ room key, complete with dedicated code and digital wallet, throughout the stay. There is no reception desk, nor is there anyone to carry your luggage — which helps to keep standard room costs to a reasonable €180 in a city noted for outrageous overnight fees.
The compact rooms are kitted out with 50-inch Apple TVs, an online food ordering system, plentiful USB ports and triple-glazed wall-to-ceiling windows, complete with electronically operated blackout shades and ultra-fast wifi comes as standard.
Owner Ian Schrager, co-founder of the legendary Studio 54 nightclub in the 1970s, and who later collaborated with designer Phillipe Starck on a string of upscale boutique hotels like The Hudson, Paramount and Morgans, describes Public as “a place where we don’t tell people how to use the space, they tell us”.
Technology is a key element of Public’s operational ethos, delivering economic efficiency combined with entertainment variety.
“People don’t care about getting their coffee served in fine bone china on a linen tablecloth — they want great coffee, but delivered fast and hot, not waiting 45 minutes for room service and at $25 (€23) a pot. Guests care about being made to feel comfortable, and being treated with respect and that they have a good experience.”
Pitching his latest venture at the Airbnb and Uber generation, Mr Schrager clearly intends Public as the first salvo in disrupting the mid-market accommodation sector.
“Great style and service delivered at a reasonable price point is what its all about for today’s savvy traveller, and all the better if you can add in a visually provocative element. It’s about simplicity as the ultimate sophistication,” he says.