The hospitality industry has turned to A.I. to deal with labor shortages
That kind of service is standard for many hotel employees, but Alfred, named for Batman’s loyal butler, is not just any staff member: It is one of two robots the hotel uses to serve guests and assist employees with day-to-day duties.
Vaughn Davis, the hotel’s general manager, started building an operating model based around a heavier reliance on technology in 2017, but the lingering labor shortage across the travel industry provided “an opportune time” to deploy robots in the hotel.
“There was not much human capital available during the pandemic,” he said. “So, the robots were a way to supplement that lack of talent available in the labor market.”
The Dream is one of a growing number of hospitality businesses that have invested in robots in recent years. And while travel demand soars as covid rules ease in many parts of the world, robots may provide at least a partial solution to ongoing staffing issues.
“We consider them team members, and they really do help,” said Davis, who noted that the hotel has about half the staff it did before the pandemic. Alfred has been working at the hotel for nearly a year and a half. Geoffrey — named for the butler in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — has worked at the hotel for about six months. Both were made by Relay Robotics.
According to Relay Robotics CEO Michael O’Donnell, a field technician maps the hotel so the robot can operate autonomously. “It’s sort of like those Google cars you see driving around, where they’re kind of mapping the neighborhoods,” he said.
Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys has also brought in a crew of six robots. Two of them run food and assist staff at the hotel’s restaurant, Angler and Ale. Two others vacuum common spaces such as hallways and ballrooms, while another pair clean flooring.
Sheldon Suga, the resort’s vice president and managing director, said he became curious when a colleague in Miami who owns restaurants told him about robots that were helping his servers. Hawks Cay introduced the machines this past June. “Number one, it’s helping to fill some of the labor shortage that we have, but on the other hand, it helps the existing staff,” he said.
Suga said the resort is around 25 percent below “where we need to be” staffing-wise, compared to 2019.
Hospitality expert Anthony Melchiorri said the pandemic has exacerbated an existing labor shortage in the industry, turning it into a “crisis,” and attitudes about robots have shifted.
“Before it was like, ‘We’ll have a wait and see about robots,’ and then it was like, ‘It’s nice to have, I’m the cool kid on the block with a robot,’” he said. “And now it’s like, ‘Can I have 100 robots, please?’”
Leisure and hospitality accounted for 78,000 of 428,000 jobs added in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest increase of any industry last month. However, employment in the sector is still down by 8.5 percent, or 1.4 million jobs, from February 2020.
“Now it’s like, ‘Can I have 100 robots, please?’”
— Anthony Melchiorri
Hotels have been making use of robots as early as 2015, primarily at three-star properties to carry goods, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group. But the pandemic accelerated their interest, particularly as they provided a way to deliver items to guests without human contact.
Now, amid the added staffing challenges, he said, “hotels at more levels, including four-star hotels, now recognize that the robots can be very useful.” The pandemic also saw an investment in robots for disinfecting spaces, which travelers might have seen in airports, train stations and cruise ships, as well.
Those who have employed the use of the robots see numerous benefits to their presence, particularly in the form of added face time with guests. At Hawks Cay, Suga said the robots in the restaurant help minimize the amount staff have to walk back and forth to tables, and they allow other employees who might have previously spent four-and-half to five hours vacuuming hallways “to do other, more guest-facing things.”
Grady Colin, managing director of the Garden City Hotel on Long Island, said that after a Saturday-night wedding, staff can break down tables and chairs, start up a SoftBank Robotics robot and go home. “The next morning, the ballroom’s vacuumed,” which could take one person two hours, he said.
At Philadelphia International Airport, a robot developed by Piaggio Fast Forward can follow personnel to deliver food and some other items via a cargo bin. While it’s not autonomous and was implemented last year as a means to provide safe, contactless delivery, the machine eases some burden on workers, helping carry heavy or large orders.
Travelers also get a kick out of it, said Megan O’Connell, a spokesperson for MarketPlace PHL. “To this day, when our delivery specialists have it, people freak out, they take pictures with it,” she said. “It’s just a very positive thing to have in the airport.”
Melchiorri said he thinks it has to make sense for travelers. “I think people want value,” he said, noting that if guests are paying to stay in a hotel and a robot is costing them time or is less efficient than service they expect, that would be a problem. “If it’s … more efficient, people aren’t going to care,” he said.
Harteveldt said that if robots are used properly, they can “take on the more mundane tasks that have little to no added value of having a human involved,” like bringing towels to a room per a guest’s request.
He added that some clientele might be more receptive to those kinds of technological advancements. For example, older guests may not respond as well, and he does not expect to see the robots embraced for front-of-house use at luxury brands, where “service is a core part of the value proposition.”
However, Relay Robotics counts luxury brands among its customers, including Mandarin Oriental, O’Donnell said.
Melchiorri noted that “labor is the most expensive cost a hotel has.” Robots can have high upfront costs, with some disinfecting bots priced around $125,000. Other robots and companies are more affordable. Bear Robotics, which makes the bots Hawks Cay uses in its restaurant, typically charges $999 a month for a robot-as-a-service subscription, co-founder and chief operating officer Juan Higueros said in an email.
“This breaks down to $2.75 per hour and the robots work on a full battery charge for 12 hours (plenty for most normal operating shifts in a restaurant),” he said. That subscription includes installation, training, maintenance and other services.
While hospitality business operators stress that the robots are simply a supplement and not replacing employees, Harteveldt said that is a reasonable concern. If a robot can do 20 to 30 percent of the tasks a housekeeping employee does, he said, the existing staff will be more efficient, to be sure.
“But what that also means is the hotel will have to hire fewer housekeepers over time,” he said. Hotels might “optimize staffing,” shrinking that part of the staff from 10 employees to between six and eight.
But while robots don’t call in sick, there have been other vulnerabilities: Japan’s Henn Na Hotel previously got rid of low-performing robots. Droids at the hotel also could have also exposed customers to hackers.
Davis said the Dream staff love the robots and were involved from the beginning. They provided early feedback on the idea, and they helped name the droids.
He said a number of hotels in their portfolio are set to add robots. “We are heavily invested in the integration of robotics and artificial intelligence in the service culture in hospitality for the foreseeable and expanded future,” Davis said.