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ROBOT APPLICATIONS IN THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY

We live in an era of rapid change where the dynamic, highly competitive hospitality business (hotel) environment, along with ever-changing guest preferences, and the constant emergence of new technologies all compel hospitality organisations to constantly reorganise and reinvent themselves.

And, robots are changing how the hospitality industry perceives service, whilst artificial intelligence (AI) is leading to innovation and automation across many industries.

“Science fiction has come alive, thanks to AI and the rise of technology. Robotics in the hospitality industry is creating a buzz as well as anxiety”, said Mr. Wang Swee Lee, an independent consultant and technology advisor in the hospitality, healthcare and senior citizen home industries.

He also has over 42 years of experience in telecommunications, information technology, multimedia building intelligence, smart control technology and AI.

Service robots continue to permeate and automate the hospitality sector. These technological innovations can radically change current service provision and delivery practices, and consequently, service management and marketing strategies.

They also offer hospitality businesses a novel point of differentiation, from greeting guests, at the reception desk to service delivery robots, the robotics industry is developing robots to support customer service processes, which will improve the quality of hotel guest experience.

The current wave of smart technologies in hospitality is service robots, a system-based autonomous and adaptable interfaces that interact, communicate and deliver service to hotel guests.

Also, the spread of COVID-19 has boosted the implementation of service robots in the hospitality industry as hotel guests become more sensitive to the risk of infection from interpersonal interactions.

To overcome this, intelligent robots help to greatly reduce interpersonal contact, thus reducing real and perceived risks of virus transmission, which tends to increase guest loyalty, with them having a greater preference for robot-staffed hotels due to safety concerns. Also, with the current global situation where suitably skilled labour is expensive and difficult to find, robots can complement these setbacks by performing the repetitive tasks in hotels.

“Robots enable hotels to be more efficient and save costs, whilst providing guests with quality service, since they don’t need to pay robots a monthly salary. Also, robots in hotels and restaurants can serve as a pull factor by encouraging especially children to urge their parents to return to that hotel, just like how some fast food outlets have play areas to attract children”, said Wang.

Kinds of hospitality robots

Such robots include:-

Guest ambassador robots placed at the hotel’s entrance where they verbally greet and welcome guests into the hotel and accompany them to the reception desk. Besides their pull-factor especially for children, these robots also provide guests with information directory assistance and display the hotel’s promotions on its large display screen and also serves as a chatbot.

Room guiding robots which accompany and guides guests to their rooms. These usually include chatbot features.

Luggage delivery robots which deliver guests’ luggage to their rooms. These would have a platform like a trolley on which the luggage is placed. These can also incorporate room guiding functions whilst they accompany guests to their room. They greatly help to complement the role of hotels’ concierge staff, especially during peak periods, thus saving hotels on having to hire additional concierge staff to cope with peak period occupancy, some of whom would be underutilised during low periods.

Room service delivery robots which automatically deliver food or other items such as an electricity socket adaptor plug, extra blankets or pillows to the door of guest rooms. They usually have three shelves upon which meals ordered are placed, such as one meal for the father, one for the mother and one for a child. These usually have doors which guests have to open, such as by scanning a QR code on their screen with an app on their smartphones.

They also must be able to telephone the guest’s room to inform them that their order has arrived. With integration with the hotel Property Management System (PMS), the telephone call can be in the guest’s native language. Once the guest has taken the food from the robot, they press a button for the robot to return to its home base or it will return to base automatically after a predetermined time-out.

Disinfection robots which automatically sanitize large areas of hotels in less time, thus reducing the need for manual labour whilst improving efficiency.

Floor cleaning robots which help save a hotel’s housekeeping team from having to perform time-consuming tasks such as vacuum cleaning of hallways and common areas, thus allowing hotels’ staff more time to focus on more detailed cleaning tasks such as disinfection and deep cleaning to meet higher standards of cleanliness which guests now demand, whilst also providing guests with visual proof of the hotel’s commitment to their health and safety.

Laundry collection robots which transport the bins of soiled laundry on each floor at a pre-determined time each day and deliver them to the hotel’s laundry room or to a specific area for the laundry cleaner to collect. Such laundry collection robots would go under the laundry bin, lift it up and automatically transport it to the destination.

Restaurant service robots in the hotel’s restaurant which delivers guests’ orders to their tables. Such robots which serve as waiters, incorporate intelligent multi-function capabilities such as to verbally greet guests, greet guests on their birthday, intelligently navigate around the restaurant, automatically return dishes and so forth.

Vision of the future

There currently are manufacturers of hospitality robots in the United States, Europe and many in China but most of those available in the market operate on a standalone basis and each type performs specific tasks.

For instance, hotel staff have to manually key in the room number, such as 1202 into the robot for it to go to that room, such as to deliver food.

“My vision is for different robots, each performing their respective tasks to be integrated into the hotel’s front office system (PMS) and smart room control system, said Wang.

This would enable the guest ambassador robot to not only greet guests but also using facial recognition to recognise them the regular guest by reference back to their guest record in the front end system and to greet them by name.

It can also serve security functions by recognising blacklisted persons entering the hotel, within the hotel premises and persons engaged in some suspicious activities within the hotel and alert security staff.

With COVID-19 and more recent infections such as Monkeypox arising, such robots can also help hotels protect their guests by reading their body temperature. Such robots can speak to the guest and politely inform them that it has to read their temperature to detect whether they have a fever.

Such robots can also detect whether or not guests and staff are wearing a mask, automatically spray and disinfect areas against viruses and verbally broadcast anti-epidemic warnings.

“Companion robots are currently quite widely used in hospitals, as well as in some high-end hotels”, said Wang.

Within hotels, companion robots would be the master robot in the room which interacts with the guest and is also integrated into the hotel’s property management and smart room control systems.

It accepts and executes the guest’s instructions, such as to open or close the curtains, turn on or off lights, lower or raise the room temperature, and when instructed to clean the floor, it will instruct slave cleaning robots in the room to clean the floor. The companion robot can also detect when the guest has left the room and command to cleaning robots to clean the floor.

Need for integration

A robot which is instructed to go to say Room 1202 on the 12th floor of the hotel will have to take the lift, where it can be cut off from WiFi, 4G or 5G signals especially if there is no access point inside the lift. These radio signals are cut off when the lift doors close, and the robot can be confused and not know what to do next.

Without integration into the hotel management system and centralised administrative dashboard, hotel staff will not know where the robot is, but with integration, they will be able to know where it is stuck, its battery level and so forth on their administrative terminal (dashboard), and act to remedy the situation.

“These are setbacks which must be resolved. Also, people are concerned about the maintainability of robots, so they must be designed to be simple and easy to install, maintain, monitor and control”, said Wang.

They must also be integrated with all hotel applications such as the lift and the restaurant ordering system, not only the property management system. If the robot is integrated with the lift application, it can instruct the lift through the property management system which floor to go to.

With the current trend towards robots being able to communicate over 4G and 5G cellular networks besides traditional WiFi, it must be able to fall back on one of these signals if the others are cut off. Also, robots’ sensors must be able to detect the level of floors so that they do not topple over.

Different designs

The several kinds of hospitality robots are designed according to their function., though they may share a common base with the same electronics, wheels, software, machine intelligence, display, WiFi, 4G or 5G connectivity, battery and so forth.

All manufacturers design robots to save costs on their molding which is very expensive since there are different kinds of molds, so to save costs they need to standardise on the design of the base unit with a standard touchscreen at the top, with different designs of their middle portions according to their respective functions.

“For instance, a delivery robot would have the same base and touchscreen and a middle part with trays to carry food, whilst the middle part of guest ambassador robots would have humanoid features or a cosmetically nice-looking shape, whilst a luggage delivery robot would be like a trolley, since it would look odd for a food or luggage delivery robot to greet guests as they enter”, said Wang.

Language problem

Another limitation of current hospitality robots is that they only speak in Chinese, English or both but to achieve wider international acceptance, they need to speak and recognise a wider number of languages which international guests speak.

“For instance, if a guest speaks Spanish, hotel staff can instruct the robot to speak Spanish through the front desk system, which will delight the guest and encourage him or her to return to the hotel the next time. This would be an additional business attraction of hospitality robots in addition to their other benefits”, said Wang.

Cost still an issue

However, right now the cost of hospitality robots is still on the high side, with robots costing from US$3,000 to US$8,000 each depending on the function.

“If unit robot costs come down, coupled with a younger, more tech-savvy generation of guests and guests who want to minimise their physical contact, adoption of robots by the hospitality industry will grow very fast and this will see a big market development, including in hospitals and in commercial operations”, said Wang.

As the volume of demand for robots increases, unit prices will drop, and Wang foresees robots costing from US$2,000 to US$5,000 each depending on function within the next five years, which makes them much more affordable.

So where are hospitality robots currently used and what is their adoption like in Malaysia?

“Lots of hotels in the U.S. already use robots as well as some in China, whilst some coffee shops and restaurants in Malaysia already use robots, especially to serve food”, said Wang.

Right now, hospitality robots in Malaysia are primarily business attractions, since Malaysia is not at the stage where they save on labour costs, unlike in the U.S. and Europe where labour costs are high, and this is still true for Malaysia, even with the shortage of labour as hotels open up again.

Also, the unit robot prices are still unaffordable for smaller hotels in Malaysia, where robots cost from RM13,351 to RM35,603 each, especially when hotels need several of them to be worthwhile, which is too much for hotels which are tight for money right now.

Robots also have lots of sensors and one of the one of the costs is for the maintenance of the robot.

“For hospitality robots to be successful, their price must go down and they must be integrated into the hotel management system and not standalone. If these two criteria are met, robotics in hotels will develop very fast, and their adoption will spread to other industries such as hospitals where there are infectious diseases and where ultraviolet -C sanitation was used to kill bacteria, mould, yeast and viruses since the late 1800s”, Wang concluded.

About Wang Swee Lee

Wang, holds a BSc degree (1st Class Honours) in Computer and Control System from the U.K., as well as professional accreditations and memberships such as C.Eng, FIMA, C.Eng, MinstMC, MMIM, MMNCC.

In his long career, Wang served as Chief Executive Officer at Siemens Malaysia Private Communication Division, a member of Siemens AG, Germany Private Communication Asia-Pacific regional management board, as Senior Vice-President with Siemens China where he brought Siemens hospitality communication solution to No.1 in the China market, led a team to develop and implement the command-and-control centre application for the 2008 Olympic games in Qingdao and installed professional dispatching systems at most major airlines in China.

After he retired from Siemens, Wang joined Cotell Intelligent Technology (Shenzhen) Co. Ltd., in China, where he spearheaded the development of guest centric hospitality communication terminals, connectivity devices, electrical faceplates, integrated smart guest-room controls, robotic, artificial Intelligence and software applications.

His guest-room telephone design had created a breakthrough in the global market and his mission was to provide a series of guest-friendly communication devices, applications and solutions to the global hospitality market community, which can enhance their organisations’ performance and improve guest loyalty.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wang turned his attention on new normal contactless smart technologies for the hospitality, healthcare and senior citizen home sectors. He also provides consultancy and advises on the new technology to suit the latest market development.