Hotel robot sparks excitement, criticism

Hotel robot sparks excitement, criticism
“Hubert” delivers items to rooms at a San Marcos hotel. Courtesy photo

A new “employee” roaming the halls of the new Fairfield Inn and Suites in San Marcos is getting a lot of attention — for better or for worse.

“Hubert” is a 2-foot-tall, stainless steel “relay robot” that looks like a trash receptacle, but it actually delivers items to guests’ rooms such as shampoo, drinks and towels.

Hotel owners say that the bot has stolen the show at the hotel, as guests can be frequently seen snapping pictures or taking cell-phone videos of Hubert on its delivery runs. 

“It has been phenomenal, people are following it around, they are using it to see how it works and wanting to know how it gets to the rooms,” said Cameron Lamming, co-owner of RAR Hospitality, which owns and operates the hotel. “There are often two or three kids filming it with their cell phones and following it around.” 

Hubert is guided through the hotel by a series of sensors throughout the establishment. When the front desk gets a call, they log the request into the system, grab the item, put it into Hubert’s “head” compartment and program the room number into its system. 

The robot then rolls to the elevator and can call the elevator and the floor automatically. Once it is out, the robot rolls to the room and sends a call to the guest’s hotel phone alerting them of the robot’s arrival. Once the item has been delivered, Hubert returns to the front desk. 

“It’s efficient, it’s quick and spares the front desk a lot of time delivering sundries to the room and allows them to focus on arriving and departing guests,” Lamming said. 

Lamming said the robot is part of the company’s strategy to introduce automation into the hospitality industry, which has been slower to embrace the trend compared to other branches of the industry, such as restaurants and fast-food establishments. 

“Part of our core philosophy is to try to do things differently to create a different experience at each of our hotels,” Lamming said. “Our intent is not to change any of our operating structure, just to provide a higher level of service.”

But hotel representatives in a recent news release said the ultimate goal with Hubert was to bring technological advantages to the hotel industry that could combat rising wages, a point that drew ire from the union that represents restaurant and hotel workers in San Diego.

“With recent minimum wage spikes, currently $11.50 in San Diego, hospitality professionals are beginning to determine ways to combat rising labor costs. This has forced many restaurant and hospitality professionals to get creative to reduce costs to avoid raising costs too high,” according to the news release. “Currently, we are seeing more technology in these establishments with new devices such as computers that will take your fast food order, iPads that request drink refills and close tabs and self-service beer and wine taps. RAR wanted to bring this to San Diego’s hotel industry, and what better way than with a human-like robot who doesn’t call in sick or take a day off.”

Brigette Browning, the president of the San Diego County Hotel and Food Service Workers Union, called the news release offensive to workers who could be displaced with the rise in automation.

“It’s very offensive that a hotel would be celebrating replacing human capital with robots,” Browning said. “I thought that it was a very obvious marketing strategy by the hotel, ‘Hey, we are getting rid of jobs and replacing them with robots, don’t you think we are awesome?’”

According to Browning, San Diego’s hospitality industry has already been strained post-9/11, when more than 700 of the union’s 3,000 workers lost jobs as the industry made deep cuts. 

Many of those jobs haven’t returned, as hotels have eliminated room service, lunch and dinner menus and mini-bars, Browning said. 

She said that other forms of automation have already had an impact on the industry: some hotels are using apps that allow you to use your phone in lieu of a physical room key. 

Browning said that she thinks the next area where hotels will target cuts is the front counter, and robots like Hubert could accelerate the push in that direction. 

“As with many industries you are going to see less and less staffing as a way for these hotel owners to generate profits,” Browning said. “If you eliminate front desk check-in staff, the remaining staff can act more like concierge and do it with less staffing. 

“I am skeptical about how guests will react to that,” Browning said. “I don’t think the tech is there yet — it’s still a novelty and they are working the bugs out — but I don’t think it is very far away.”

Lamming said that Hubert — named in honor of San Marcos’ reputation as the “education hub” of North County — has not replaced any staff, nor was it ever intended to. 

But he said that the hotel industry has been slower than others to explore ways to become more efficient, and RAR is trying to shed light on that with the addition of Hubert. 

“It is part of our duty to try to bring light to the downside that is hitting us pretty quickly with rising labor costs so that we don’t sacrifice service, but we also have to be profitable to avoid the downsides,” Lamming said. “Hubert in no way changes any of our staffing needs and jobs. It’s just to bring the subject to the table for conversation.”

Carl Winston, the director of the School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at San Diego State, agrees with Lamming regarding the hotel industry’s slow pace to embrace automation, which has already changed the way certain industries do business. 

“I remember when there were gas station attendants and busboys at McDonalds, and you had to go into the bank to get cash,” Winston said. “But as labor costs go up, people and businesses seek advantages to reduce that.”

Winston said that he doesn’t think automation or robots will ever fully replace jobs at hotels. Housekeeping, maintenance and front desk jobs are jobs that might be too sophisticated for robots.

But they could augment and compliment their human counterparts, and in some areas replace them if it helps a hotel to remain in the black.

“I think there will be downward pressure on staffing levels because it gets more and more cost-effective to use automation,” Winston said. “If you can save $20,000 annually by buying a $20,000 robot once, for a hotel owner, it’s not rocket science.” 

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