The hotel of the future? Despite the robots, it’s mostly the same

August 13, 2014, 7:02 PM UTC
Yotel Yobot and child
Yotel Yobot and child
Courtesy: Yotel

The first thing I noticed upon entering the lobby of the Yotel, a micro-hotel near Times Square in Manhattan, was the robot in the room. Behind a pane of glass stood a towering white mechanical arm, the kind you’d find on an assembly line. Its name, the hotel’s general manager Claes Landberg tells me with an air of pride, is Yobot.

“You ask the Yobot for a bin, you put your luggage in, and it puts it back in the bin. It gives you a receipt, you come back and scan it, put in the code, and it retrieves the luggage for you.” This process of storing luggage, a task previously reserved for front desk staff, takes the lumbering Yobot an excruciatingly long time. Is this really all it does? “We also use it for when we have holidays or anything,” Landberg says. “We dress it up.”

I watched a few puzzled guests poke at the Yobot’s touchscreen, and I wondered: Is this the future of hospitality? The industry has been slow to change in the face of technological advancements, aside from perhaps an e-mailed statement of charges or use of an iPad, and for good reason. How do you introduce technology without undermining the comfort and human relationships upon which hospitality is based?

One place this battle is playing out is the hotel front desk, which is beginning to resemble an airport check-in counter. At the Yotel, six kiosks greet guests upon arrival for check-in. “It takes about 60 seconds,” Landberg says. If you know how to use the thing, that is. Inevitably, some guests do not, which is when Yotel employees swoop in as technical support. “It’s not like we completely leave you alone,” Landberg reassures me. “We still have staff.” The kiosks are an effort to make the check-in experience more personal, he says. Let the machines do the busy work so staff can focus on the guest experience.

Kevin Crawford, a traveling musician at the tail end of his Yotel stay, was dubious. “Check-in was a little over-complicated,” he says, leering at the kiosks with one eyebrow cocked. “There are always guys here to help, so I just wonder why don’t they just have the guys check you in?” The Yobot was fun, he says, but its sluggishness was “a bit ridiculous.”

Starwood Hotels & Resorts (HOT), which owns almost 1,200 hotels across the globe, is also working to improve check-in. The luxury chain is testing wireless devices called beacons that communicate with your smartphone through the company’s app to tell the front desk staff who you are. “If you look at the most impersonal experience today at a hotel, it’s at check in,” says Chris Holdren, senior vice president for the company’s digital efforts as well as Starwood Preferred Guest, the company’s loyalty program. “This takes away that impersonal first touch and makes it personal from step one,” he says. An Atlanta company called Itesso takes it a step further with a Google Glass app that would let Glass-wearing staff recognize guests’ faces. For customers who don’t want to interact with the front desk at all, Starwood is piloting a smartphone-based room key at two Aloft Hotels, one in New York and one in Cupertino, Calif. Guests can check in remotely and waltz right up to their room. And, not to be outdone by the Yobot, the Cupertino Aloft will soon get its own robotic bellhop named “Botlr.”

Another area ripe for innovation is the hotel room itself. In some ways, and by design, all rooms are alike. Yet anyone who has ever searched aimlessly in the dark for the light switch knows that they can be slightly and annoyingly different. “How easy is it to figure out how to open and close drapes in a hotel room?” laments Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University. “Which end do you go to? Why couldn’t we have a mobile device or a wand to open the drapes, close the drapes? Or at night if someone wants to get up and doesn’t want to reach around and try to find the light switch, how about if when you put your feet on the floor, floor lighting comes on?” It’s these slight, even mundane details that could benefit the most from a touch of smart technology.

A hotel with attention to these details does exist. Hanson need only cross town to visit the CitizenM Times Square, where guests can control a room’s lighting, blinds, and temperature with a Samsung tablet computer. (The hotel calls it a “mood pad.”) CitizenM Amsterdam promises to remember your preferred settings to have the room just the way you like it, “removing the traditional feeling of anonymity from the hotel experience.”

The Yotel provides for some personalization, but not much. Landberg shows me around a 170-square-foot room, which it calls a premium cabin, with a bed that retracts at the touch of a button to create more space. He points to a sensor that turns lights on when guests walk into the room and adjusts the temperature when they’re gone to conserve energy.

There is reason to be wary of all this technology, of course. If the in-room gadgetry breaks, innovative hotels may find themselves jeopardizing the one thing customers value most: comfort. No one’s going to care that they can unlock the door with their phone if they can’t get the “smart” lights to turn on, or if the thermostat thinks it’s 30 degrees cooler than it actually is. “For us, technology is about enhancing your experience and not becoming the main reason for why we have a business,” Landberg says. “We’re still hoteliers at heart. It’s all about the guest experience.”

I ask Crawford, the musician, if he felt he his stay at the futuristic Yotel lacked anything. After a long pause, he says no. “I got everything I need, to be honest. I just want a good, clean, quiet, functional hotel.”