Considering its international reputation for robotic technology development, it is fitting that Japan can lay claim to the first “robot-staffed hotel” in the world, as recognised by Guinness World Records.
The Henn na Hotel (“strange hotel” in Japanese) debuted at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Kyushu in 2015, with a second opening near Tokyo Disney Resort in Chiba last year. Operated by the travel agency H.I.S., there are plans to expand the chain throughout Japan and overseas with 100 more hotels.
A robot dinosaur greets guests at the Henn na Hotel reception while other multilingual robots, including one shaped like a giant arm, perform baggage, concierge and cleaning services, courtesy of technology developed by robotics and IoT solutions firm Hapi-robo. “Japan is the world’s leader in robotics for manufacturing, but not necessarily in the service industry,” says Hapi-robo’s president and CEO Naomi Tomita. “We aim to make robots for people.”
Another Japanese robot, Pepper, has found a job in the United States, entertaining and assisting patrons in the lobby at the Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas. The small, white humanoid was developed by a subsidiary of Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank. It is capable of interpreting a person’s emotions based on such variables as voice tone, facial expression, body movement and choice of words – and changing its behaviour accordingly.
“From a business perspective, many of Pepper’s partners are considered the early adopters, pushing past any reservations about how humanoid robots could support their business and fully embracing the future.
By working with early partners to solve problems they face, the ‘first adopter’ fear fades when they see challenges being resolved. Pepper is bringing proactive technology to industries that are typically driven by reactive experiences,” says a Mandarin Oriental spokesperson.
Olympic dreams: enhancing Japan’s image
With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, opportunities abound for the country to endorse the government’s “Cool Japan” campaign by showcasing robot technology. Officials at Haneda Airport in Tokyo recently ran a trial with robots that specifically target overseas visitors, their services ranging from baggage carrying to language assistance.
As appealing as today’s robots may be, it is questionable whether they accurately represent the future of robot technology in the hospitality industry. Omri Reis, who works as a strategic planner at advertising agency AKQA Tokyo and has a decade of experience in the Japanese tourism sector, suggests inbound travellers to Japan may see the bots as little more than “a cute novelty”, and will continue to seek interaction with flesh-and-blood locals as a greater priority.
“For the business travel segment, however, it’s more of an important trend since they appreciate the opposite thing – smooth, fast service with less human contact,” says Reis. “That said, it doesn’t have to be robots but any type of automation and digitalisation.” He points to a recent case in which Jinya Connect, a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), switched all its services for one seamless digital dashboard connecting many functions.
“Their system became more successful than the ryokan itself, which demonstrates the need for digitalisation in Japan’s quite traditional hospitality industry.”
While Tokyo may be claiming the lion’s share of Olympic action, Japan’s “second city”, Osaka, is taking the approach of promoting new technology hand-in-hand with business opportunities. The local government has since 2012 run a think tank, The Osaka Innovation Hub (OIH), expressly to facilitate collaborative projects between entrepreneurs and engineers.
Hidehiko Tojo is chief specialist for the MICE Promotion Division at Osaka’s Convention Bureau and says he expects to see more robots and technology becoming incorporated in the MICE industry.
“The registration process has been facilitated by the use of robotics and has already become the norm. However, the MICE industry is about connecting people with people, and is, by definition, highly labour-intensive in its reliance on people on the ground. In order to remain competitive, we need to find a way of decreasing the intensive level of labour required.”
Robots In, Humans Out?
The impact of robot technology on industry jobs is a major area of interest for many. The Tokyo representative for an international hotel chain, in fact, declined to comment for this article due to the fact that anxiety over potential job losses is a sensitive topic. Hapi-robo’s Tomita, however, challenges the view that technological advances and job creation are mutually exclusive concepts for the hospitality sector.
“Technology will change the way we work and free people up to take on more creative jobs, including creating new technology,” he says. In tandem with Henn na Hotel, Tomita notes that his firm is looking at the bigger picture when it comes to the future. “Our robots need energy and power and thus we are looking at cutting-edge technology to produce clean energy for use in hotels. Eco-friendly robots are also good for the environment.”
In terms of developing a comprehensive, industry-wide approach to technology, other countries might do well to follow the lead of the Singapore Tourism Board and its “Smart Hotel Technology Roadmap” initiative. This was developed as a framework to help hotels to work in “smarter” ways by adopting new technology such as facial recognition capabilities at check-in and e-payment wallets.
Rodolphe Lameyse is project director of Food&HotelAsia, a biennial trade event. According to him, the challenges for hotels include striking a balance between innovation and technology to enhance operations, while also maintaining employment. “The level of consumer acceptance of automation replacing human intervention is another critical factor for industry consideration,” he notes.
Lameyse also points out that innovation doesn’t only lie with global chains. SMEs can also drive change and stay competitive by harnessing and incorporating technology into their operations.
In 2016 M Social Singapore, a boutique hotel in the Millennium Hotels and Resorts chain, launched AURA, an autonomous front-of-house robot for deliveries, followed by AUSCA, an autonomous service chef robot prototype in 2017.
Aura and Ausca fulfilled their brief of optimising operations and boosting productivity while enhancing the guest experience, and will soon be rolled out to other properties in the chain.
But while robotic receptionists or dinosaurs moonlighting as hotel clerks provide amusing photo opportunities or hooks for media articles, they remain just a small part of the overall picture. What seems clear is that harnessing broad-based technology is both inevitable and desirable in the hospitality sector. The challenge ahead is how to utilise this technology to the right degree, while still maintaining the human touch and returning a profit.
“The formula is to have the right amount of technological support and not to overdo it – similar to human capital. There must be an adequate ratio,” says Lee Richards, vice-president of operations for Millennium Singapore. “Besides, there are certain things humans can do that robots cannot, and hospitality is about people.”