The Robots Are Coming

Are High-Tech Hotels Alluring or Alienating? - Wall Street Journal

Excerpt from Wall Street Journal

As hotels rush to incorporate cutting-edge technology into the guest experience, travelers are split: While some are turned off by robots and text-based ‘hospitality,’ others love the cool efficiency of a futuristic home-away-from-home.

When Daniel Politeski, an engineer from Vancouver, Canada, approached the check-in desk at the Henn-na Hotel, near Nagasaki, Japan, two staffers were waiting to serve him: Should he approach the young woman in a cream business suit or her colleague, who bore a close resemblance to a Tyrannosaurus Rex?

He went with the T-Rex, not just because interacting with a dinosaur seemed novel, or because he liked its bow tie, but because it was the one that spoke English. The young woman took no offense at being bypassed; she, like her reptilian co-worker, was a robot.

They’re not the only ones. 

At the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner in Virginia, which houses a sort of a R&D division for the Hilton hotel group and always has about 30 experiments under way, guests can interact with Connie. Named for Conrad Hilton, the chain’s founder, this 2-foot-tall robotic concierge is stationed at the reception desk. Like the love child of Siri and Jeeves, he uses cognitive reasoning powered by IBM’s Watson system to answer basic (for now) questions about the hotel’s services. He’ll tell you how to find the gym or when the bar will mix its last mojito.

At the Aloft hotel in Cupertino, Calif., guests who request a toothbrush or razor from the front desk will find Botlr, a short, poker-faced servant-on-wheels, delivering it to their door. Neither Botlr nor Connie care if you stiff them on a tip.

Although these robot-staffed hotels might suggest “Fawlty Towers,” whimsically recast with C-3PO and R2-D2, some travelers take a darker view. Mr. Politeski likened the female attendant at the Henn-na Hotel to Pris, the murderous android played by Daryl Hannah in “Blade Runner.” Do such experiments portend a grim future where classic models of hospitality have given way to cold efficiency and technological novelty for novelty’s-sake? Not necessarily. 

While the robots are a relatively new development, the intent behind them is not. Hoteliers have long used expensive, cutting-edge advances both to attract guests and streamline service. “Hotels have always had the resources to innovate and incorporate new technologies into their buildings long before the costs came down enough for the less affluent to acquire them,” said Molly Berger,author of “Hotel Dreams: Luxury, Technology, and Urban Ambition in America 1829-1929.”


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