Can robots solve the hotel labour crisis?

Insight Comment
Hotels are attempting to adjust to having fewer staff. Robots are fun, but not quite the answer. Modernising out-of-date operating systems is the first step towards achieving long-term labour-saving efficiencies.

The first industrial robots were used on the General Motors assembly line in the early 1960s. By comparison, the hospitality industry looks like a late starter in its use of robotics, which is perhaps surprising considering the abundance of repetitive, manual tasks that need to be performed in hotels and restaurants.

Pre-Covid, several hotel groups started using physical robots to collect and store luggage, deliver items to bedrooms, or even serve guests at reception. They tended  to have cute names like Connie, Yobot, Cleo and Dash. On Royal Caribbean cruise ships, two robots mix and serve drinks.

Such initiatives have no doubt attracted new guests and delighted young children, but the motivation has largely been publicity rather than efficiency. On the Royal Caribbean, for instance, a human bartender could serve drinks five times faster than the robots.  

Since then, the pandemic has intensified two challenges for hospitality: a severe labour shortage and, as a consequence, spiralling labour costs.

So what does having fewer staff actually look like? Yes, we can have fewer people at the front desk thanks to contactless service, but behind the scenes the carrots still need to be chopped and the phone still needs to be answered.

John Burns, president, Hospitality Technology Consulting, said: “We’re going through a re-evaluation of who matters and how we find and keep them. We’ve tried to pay the least we can to essential workers. The housekeeper was one of the least respected people in a hotel. They weren’t seen as a strategic asset. That changed when we couldn’t get enough of them and we had to turn away sales because we had rooms we couldn’t clean.”

Is it time for hoteliers to take another more serious look at robots as a possible solution?

Robot cleaners using 3D sensors and AI object recognition are now widely available for domestic use. Reviews suggest that they can vacuum perfectly well but are not much good at mopping. Similar machines are used to vacuum or wax the floors of large hotels and convention centers, but they need to be operated and supervised by humans.

Terranow, a Germany-based company, offers an innovative hotel room sanitizing product that claims to halve labour costs. The product, CleanCoat, sanitizes rooms for up to a year by applying a coating of the naturally occurring chemical titanium dioxide. The annual coating reportedly costs $2,500 per room and requires rooms to be emptied of all furniture first.

Burns highlighted another area of housekeeping where design and technology could help: “Making beds is very hard work and can easily lead to back injury and absenteeism. This could be solved by putting the mattress on a movable pedestal. The housekeeper presses a button and the mattress comes up two feet and it is infinitely easier to fit the sheets.”

Moving on from the bedroom to the kitchen, robots that flip burgers appear to be having more success than those that make pizzas. US burger chain White Castle is rolling out Flippy 2, a robot chef developed by Miso Robotics, to 100 locations this year. In contrast, Zume, a California-based tech company, abandoned its pizza-making robot business and pivoted towards food packaging and delivery logistics.

Kevin Edwards, business development director, Alliants, commented: “While we may be happy to eat a frozen pizza at home that has largely been made by machines, we do not want to eat the same pizza made by a robot when we go to a restaurant.”

“Apart from the limited gimmick/publicity value, for most of the industry the development of such technology is a lost cause. There is an art and history to making pizza and human hands are necessary to make it special. The same goes for many aspects of hospitality and this is how operators deliver exceptional experiences.”

“A proud housekeeper will tell you there is an art to turning a room. As of now, a robot cleaner can only go so far, and a human is still required to perform the finishing touches.”

In the end, it appears that the key to tackling labour shortages and costs is more about the correct deployment of business models and operating systems rather than robots, design or anything else.

The success of Airbnb and the serviced apartment sector has given investors and operators new ideas about staff/guest ratios and flexible real estate. Many hoteliers converted their suites into apartments during the pandemic, and innovators like WhyHotel, Sonder and The Student Hotel are blurring the lines between hotel, serviced apartment, and student /senior accommodation.

Daniel Johansson, director of development and acquisitions at the Cheval Collection of serviced apartments, observed: “Our team members are focused on delivering a high-end service experience, but without crowding the guest. The staffing model can naturally be a little leaner for serviced apartments, especially where you have a high proportion of longer staying guests.”

He added: “I don’t think we are at the robot stage just yet. However, the best use of technology is hugely important and helps to create efficiencies in operations and the guest journey.”

With the number of hotels adopting cloud-based connectivity still relatively low, moving away from archaic systems is the indispensable first step towards achieving greater efficiencies.

Edwards at Alliants commented: “You’ve got great team members who are expected to use technology from 1980 and we’re making their jobs ten times more difficult to engage with the customer. Most of our work isn’t really about driving the flashy tech in front of the guest; it’s actually about resolving the issues back of house and sorting some of these archaic systems out. There shouldn’t be this fear of all these interfaces. This is something the airlines sorted out 20 years ago.”

Once hotels have made the transition to the cloud, there is no shortage of labour-saving SaaS applications that can be deployed with no hardware required.

In many ways, the most powerful piece of technology available to hoteliers continues to be the one that guest brings with them: the smartphone.

The labour-saving benefits of a largely digital and contactless guest journey have been highlighted during the pandemic. They include:

  • Automation of time-consuming admin frees up staff to deliver real hospitality and be ambassadors for the hotel and the destination.
  • Keyless, paperless and contactless businesses are not only more efficient and have lower overheads but are also good for the environment.
  • Opportunities for cross-selling and upselling by texting in real-time via a guest messaging app.
  • Captures digital records of customer data and can deliver real-time statistics and analytics.

Richard Valtr, founder, Mews, said: “Nobody remembers filling out a form. There is nothing additive about admin. If you automate that, you can focus on the value and the value is having an interesting conversation with the guest.”

According to a NYU survey of 525 hoteliers, the adoption rate of labour-saving tech such as guest messaging, self-service check-in, automation tools, mobile keys and digital payments, ranged from 70% to 50%, with the percentages expected to increase in 2022.

Fred Novella, managing director asset management, Global Asset Solutions, said hotels can be wonderful varied places to work and the sector would benefit from showing that more and being more welcoming and flexible to its employees: “Don't be strict with the schedule. Agree with the staff that when the workload is low, they can take leave earlier.”

He added: “We will see more of a shift in staffing between the different segments of the hotel sector, with ultra-luxury being more people-oriented and salaries increasing, delivering that more personal service. All other categories will have to use automated AI services to cut costs or just to face the shortage of affordable staff.”