Room Service by Robot and Other Ways Tech Is Changing the Hotel Stay

Xconomy National — 

More days than not, Michael Colaneri’s home is a hotel room. So innovations like “geolocation” sensors that automatically unlock his room door and adjust the thermostat when he’s nearby make the constant change easier—sometimes.

“My experience has been exceptionally inconsistent,” he says. “When it’s worked, it’s really great, cool, and so efficient to the point where they’ve spoiled me rotten. … When it doesn’t work, it does more damage than not having it at all.”

Colaneri has a particularly insider view of how digital technology is disrupting the previously analog hotel room. He’s the vice president for retail, restaurant, and consumer packaged goods at AT&T. The hotels he stays in are oftentimes his customers. “I work with all the major flags [big chains], and the term that’s used is ‘frictionless experience for the customer,’” he says. “The consumer’s proficiency using and expectations for technology has grown at an enormous rate.”

Of course, hoteliers have long used software and other technologies to help run reservations, staff scheduling, and other administrative functions. But increasingly the focus is on the guest’s room and seeking ways to anticipate wants and needs while reducing the need for human interaction.

Some of this is just a matter of hotels catching up with the times. People are increasingly living in smart(er) homes that feature digital controls of temperature and lighting settings and refrigerators that can alert us to spoiling food—not to mention Alexas and Google Homes that can respond to our voice commands—so it can be hard to adjust to hotel rooms that still feature technology a decade or more old.

Hospitality is rooted in ‘home,’ because hotels are giving a service that is unlike any other,” said Sri Beldona, a professor at the University of Delaware’s business school, who has researched the subject. “They have to be intertwined with the customer’s lifestyle. How has technology penetrated this lifestyle?”

Some hotels—largely in the higher-priced spectrum—are looking to adapt technologies to make the customer experience as efficient and personalized as possible. Hotel keys embedded in a smartphone app enable guests to bypass check-in counters. Updated analytics on preferences allows room service to already have that sundowner cocktail in place as a guest arrives back to the room after the workday. Smart TVs connect to their personal Netflix or Spotify accounts, or room service orders can be placed from an individual’s smartphone.

SnappyScreen, a New York startup, has developed an automatic spray tanner for resort pools that, along with providing sun protection, can help hotels market spa services or items in the golf club’s pro shop.

In Las Vegas, meanwhile, Caesar’s Entertainment has rolled out what it calls its “24-hour Concierge,” an artificial intelligence-enhanced textbot that enables guests to request services—room service orders, additional pillows, and the like—from their mobile devices. The hotel’s front desk agents, as well as what Caesar’s calls a “specially trained universal agent team” provide full-time backup.

This past summer, Amazon began its Alexa for Hospitality program in a small number of Marriott, Westin, St. Regis, Aloft, and Autograph Collection hotels. Guests can use Amazon devices to make room service orders and housekeeping requests, as well as perform functions like setting an alarm or turning lights on or off.

“So many of our guests use voice technology in their home, and we want to extend that convenience to their travel experience,” Jennifer Hsieh, vice president for customer experience innovation at Marriott International, said in a press release.

In addition to making hotel stays more home-like for guests, using such technologies can help to reduce labor costs—or at least redeploy employees away from rote tasks like bringing a guest a shaving kit because they forgot theirs at home. Also, all that ordering via Alexa or a hotel’s app results in valuable data that can be used to target guests with other services they might like.

“The hotel space is going through a pretty aggressive transformation,” says David Koretz, founder and CEO of Plum, a wine-appliance company. “The smartphone killed all of their in-room revenue. Now, it’s changing their fundamental interaction with guests.”

Koretz founded the Miami-area startup Plum three years ago, and sells a two-bottle appliance that has a motorized needle that is injected into the cork, simultaneously extracting wine while also injecting argon gas to prevent oxidation.

“Every one of us has had this moment when we wanted a glass of wine but we didn’t want to open the bottle,” he says. “Or you went ahead and had those two extra glasses and end up paying for it the next day, or you just go without and you waste the rest of the bottle. All of those experiences suck at some level.”

Plum says the wine stays fresh for up to 90 days. While Plum’s device is available to individual consumers to buy (for a price of about $2,000), Koretz says he decided last year to focus on the hotel market. Plum’s device can now be found at hotels such as the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley—establishments that cater to business travelers. “When you get off a five-hour flight, you don’t want to go sit at a bar,” he says. “You want to relax in your room and catch up on e-mail.”

But, typically in rooms, “you have a little dorm fridge; the same screw-cap wine that is somehow $50 a bottle,” he says. “Or you’re waiting 45 minutes for room service.”

In May, Plum raised $10 million in a Series B funding round led by Las Olas Ventures, with plans to use the investment to place the device in as many as 50 hotels in 2018.

At a growing number of hotels, guests placing a housekeeping request might be answering their door to a robot. Companies such as Savioke (with its robot, Relay) and SoftBank (with Pepper) are working with hotels to deploy service robots to meet a number of customer needs. Savioke, which raised $15 million last year from investors such as Intel Capital, first rolled out its Relay robot two years ago in California. (In addition to the hotel market, Savioke last week announced it is partnering with Swisslog Healthcare to use the robots in hospitals.)

As my colleague Bernadette Tansey wrote then, a Relay dressed in athleisure wear roams halls at the Rising Star Sports Ranch in Mesquite, NV, while Relays named Cleo or Leo make deliveries wearing black tails.

And Chinese tech giant Alibaba announced it is launching a robot designed for the hospitality sector next month. Like its other robotic siblings, the Alibaba robot features innovations such as autonomous navigation and sensors in order to mimic human abilities. “The robot will be the ultimate assistant for hotel guests who want everything quickly and conveniently at their fingertips,” Lijuan Chen, general manager ofAlibaba A.I. Labs, said in a press release.

While hotel companies have begun to embrace tech innovations, AT&T’s Colaneri says one big obstacle to making the most of these tools is the fact that most of these disparate systems don’t talk to each other, and there is no way to bundle these products into a turnkey service. Therein lies a big opportunity.

“There is no standard in the industry,” Colaneri says. He points to the myriad of vendors he saw at the HITEC conference, a gathering for hospitality technology professionals, in Houston in June. “The smarter ones will be sharing a booth in the next year,” he adds.