Smart Hotels – chatbots, robots, androids, or just a friendly smile?

Smart digital technology is remaking the hotel business worldwide. No need for a reception desk when the smartphone is your key and your check-in device. Guests and management can together optimize the use and running of the facilities. But is it really all for the good, or are robots and AI:s taking over?

Nothing to declare, heeding for the arrivals hall. And there is your name flashing on a young lady’s tablet. ”I bet you had a safe trip” she exclaims while offering to help you with your bags. Your hotel is just a short cab-drive away during which your hostess tells you which exhibitions you just can’t miss, and since you are a jazz-addict, why not give the Blue Note a try this very evening? ”If you are not already engaged, that is!” Since you have already done your check-in in advance, you can saunter up to your room immediately, but do meet some of the staff first. ”They are all robots and will cater to your every need 24/7, you will be in perfectly safe hands.” A humanoid looking contraption by SoftBank Robotics is looking up at you with blinking LED eyes. The Pepper notes that you are smiling, which triggers its emotion recognition software. ”Please tell me your name so I can remember you! Is it ok if I learn your face?” Fair enough, it might speed up the room service. Before leaving, the hostess is showing the cutest member of the staff: Paro, a furry cuddly little seal cub in case one feels lonely and needs some company. ”No, you don’t need any keys, just use your smartphone to unlock the door. The room has gone out of its energy saving stand-by mode and has already attained your favorite room temperature. The blinds along with the artificial lighting should take care of your jet-lag.”

The digitally enhanced hotel is no sci-fi dream but is already being implemented around the globe. The big players in the industry are leading the installment of digital door locks to be opened by smart phones and dynamic digital signage. Other novelties are intelligent chatbots for bookings, voice-activated controls, state-of-the-art video projections, glowing motion-sensors, aroma features, smart window shadings, LED lighting with customer control of both color temperature and brightness, all to ensure fully customized rooms and an experience out of the ordinary. ”We are creating an extension of your mobile-centric self when you travel,” claims Josh Weiss, vice president, digital product innovation at Hilton, and in charge of the Connected Room concept that has been on trial since last year. ”We give our guests the power to really personalize their stays with us. Over time, Connected Room will continue to adopt new features and functionalities, some that we haven’t even considered yet that preempt and meet our guest’s demands. It really has the potential to be a massive game-changer for the hotel experience.”The Connected Room is an in-house IoT implementation, which is the next step for the Hilton Honors smartphone app. Not just a digital room key, which can control heating, lighting, air con, entertainment options, but also suggestions of leisure activities, cab booking, and possibly also vice control in the future. Hilton’s conviction is that the smartphone will be the one and only remote control for the hotel room.

A similar concept is rolled out in Trondheim where a smartphone app will allow the guest to take control of their rooms when the classic Brittania Hotel in Trondheim reopens now in February 2019. The owner Odd Reitan have spent a staggering one billion on the renovation of the 13 000 square meter hotel. The new system will be integrated with building management and booking system which allows for rooms to be are rented out in clusters, which will reduce energy consumption. ”I believe we will have everything in our smart phones in ten years,” says Taofik Salhi at Siemens AS Divisjon Building Technologies, who have worked on the system for 2 years, ”you will get a link or a QR-code for check-in and room access. There will be no cards, just your phone.” He explains that the system will know when you arrive after having completed the on-line check-in. ”The room will have the right comfort level when you use it, other time it will go in energy-saving stand-by mode. The guests will be able to regulate temperature through the Bluetooth enabled app, along with the settings of blinds, shades, lighting, and such.” The experience will be the prime focus, according to Taofik Salhi, and that requires the right balance between modern technology and a classic hotel with a very special heritage. The Trondheim projects expands on Siemen’s cloud-based, open IoT operating system MindSphere which can provide operators with a digital twin of the real building in order to optimize building management, equipment efficiency, better space utilization, as well as enhanced user efficiency, comfort, and safety.

But will the hotel experience really be better with all these technological advancements, with machine-learning AI:s, and possibly even robots? ”New tech is great, and we love it, but as a guest I want to be in charge,” says Nadia Tolstoy, (the writer’s great granddaughter). Nadia was once responsible in creating the maximalist hip interior for c/o The Maidstone in East Hampton; nowadays she continues her work as interior architect as partner at Tengbom, one of the biggest architectural offices in Sweden. She has worked with Choice, Radisson, Swedish Meeting Selection, as well as Elite Hotels. ”The implementations are often sloppy and hardly thought through: why can’t I update my choice of a small pillow and never a green cover on my profile? Why can’t I turn of an air-con suddenly turned on in the middle of the night? The focus should be to create seamless interfaces which facilitates the interaction between humans and technology.”

These smart solutions are not without other caveats as well. With the Silicon Valley giants harvesting the Internet for user data, the same privacy risks affects the hotel guests, but also the business itself when various start-ups insists on profiting on systems for booking, accounting, and other functions traditionally controlled by the hotels themselves. The risk of hacking is not to be underestimated either. The Romantik Seehotel Jaegerwirt, in the Austrian Alps, had all its electronic room cards frozen by blackmailers who had infiltrated the hotel’s computers two years ago. Last version software and security patches, strong firewalls, and applicable anti-virus programs will of course help, but malware attacks are on the rise and security breaches have happened not just at the White House, but also at Trump’s own hotel brand. The Jaeger Wirt hotel went back to physical keys, and an old-fashioned key surely protected the young exile Rahaf al-Qunun from being abducted from her hotel room by Saudis in Bangkok. ”Privacy is a great concern,” adds Nadia Tolstoy, ”Cap Gemini Consulting’s study shows that 80% of customers worldwide welcome personalized ads, but an even larger percentage are extremely worried how their privacy is affected.”

Some 77% of young people (aged 14-34) in the US, and 67% in the UK, claim they live to travel, according to the cultural strategists at Cassandra. But how can the hotels compete with Airbnb when catering to a young generation? Is it just about a place to sleep, or is it something much grander? The possibility to enhancing customer’s hotel experience and the streamlining of the owner’s management with sophisticated digital systems, along with the aid of artificial intelligence, raises the very question: what is a hotel? For business travellers it is a home away from home, for the occasional guest it might be a portal into new adventures, a way to find the authenticity of another city. When the French architect Jean Nouvel imagined the future hotel at the Milan Furniture Fair many years ago, he showed a room with suit-cases spilling out its content on the unused bed, an unmade bed next to a table with the usual bible and a packet of condoms. He declared that a hotel room is to be discovered and possessed, the hotel is a playing ground where to leave one-self and discover anew, like in his The Hotel in Lucerne. Arata Isozaki and Matteo Thun did opt for interiors triggering all our senses as opposed to the mere digital, truly unique experiences beyond the narratively poor reiterations of modern architecture. How to cater to both homeliness and otherness is an exciting challenge that is facilitated by the integration of the hotel’s many systems in digital solutions. But one can easily be too seduced by the possibilities to reduce staff and automate all systems as in the Henn-na Hotel in the Huis Ten Bosch Park on the outskirts of Nagasaki where human staff is deployed only for emergencies. Here the management is whole bunch of robots and androids. The velociraptors take care of the check-in while happy bellhops run around, and a kitschy tiny robot dolls await you at the bedside.

What happens when the robots break down in the middle of the night, and isn’t it quite important to interact with live humans in whatever functions? The famous Standard Hotel by the High Line on Manhattan goes the other way and implores its guest to ditch their phones and starts to interact with others, something Airbnb will never manage. The lobby has recently been expanded with a virtual Lobby app, which is only accessible after check-in. The virtual lobby allows for chatting, as well as getting together with totally unknown strangers for a stroll around the town. This human connection shouldn’t be mistaken for another Tinder or Grindr, according to the Standard Internationals CEO Amar Lalvani, and it is quite manageable: one can reveal a lot or almost nothing about oneself real identity, all information and chat stories will be deleted after check out for sure. ”The robotization is here to stay,” says Nadia Tolstoy, ”but we definitely need human interaction. You don’t want to have your toothbrush delivered by a robot, you want to be seen and to be talked with. These are basic human needs, and technology is meant to help but not be seen. The concepts WeTime and MeTime should be duly explored: your room to recharge, and the lobby, bar, and restaurant to engage with others and the whole city you are visiting.”

Published in Guest 2019

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