The Value of Robotic Room Service
IndustryView | 2014
In August 2014, robotics company Savioke revealed a robotic butler, or “botlr,” designed to deliver small items (e.g., toothpaste and razors) to guests. Named SaviOne, the botlr is billed as a way to free staff from performing menial tasks. However, the question of whether guests will accept and embrace robotic hotel service in lieu of real staff members remains uncertain.
The SaviOne botlr navigating the halls of the Aloft Cupertino hotel. (Source: Savioke)
To learn more about the potential value this technology can have for hoteliers, we conducted a survey to gauge respondents’ interest in hotel service robots like SaviOne. We collected nearly 400 unique responses for each of five questions, for a total of 1,944 respondents. This report outlines our most important takeaways.
We were surprised to learn that respondents were almost equally split on their excitement level for robot services: 31 percent said they were very excited by the idea, while 33 percent said they were not at all excited. Meanwhile, a combined 36 percent said they were minimally or moderately excited by the prospect of robotic hotel service.
One reason for the almost even split among these three opinion groups could be simple demographics: older individuals are generally less interested in using new technology than their younger counterparts.
However, according to Emmet Cole, an analyst at Robotics Business Review, the varied results could also be a reflection of the novelty of consumer robotics in general.
“It's difficult to read too much into surveys on consumer robotics at this point in time, because the technology is so new and humans and robots are only really starting to interact with each other in recent years,” he explains.
Excitement about hotel robots may be split, but interest in using such technology isn’t: 56 percent of respondents reported some degree of interest in using these services, and 22 percent said they were “extremely interested” in doing so. Still, 44 percent of respondents reported no interest in using robotic services.
Exactly what people find unappealing about robots is a question for another survey, but research suggests that some may perceive robots to be potentially malevolent, or even dangerous. This, combined with recent news coverage on spy drones and other similar technology may raise both safety and privacy concerns.
To contrast the image of an unfeeling or unsafe robot, Savioke Strategic Ambassador Izumi Yaskawa says the botlr was specifically designed to put those who interact with it at ease.
“We’re really conscious of the human interface with the robot, so many edges or sharpness on the robot’s exterior has been nullified…It’s a very gentle, round contour,” Yaskawa explains. “It interacts with little sounds and little movements, like a puppy or a child.”
As for privacy concerns, the botlr does not contain any cameras that could snap photos of guests, according to Tim Smith, a public relations representative for Savioke. The robot does record which items are delivered and at what time, but no identifying information on the guest is ever requested.
In addition, the appeal of certain consumer robots already on the market may help increase the adoption of service robots in hotels. For example, the Roomba, an autonomous vacuuming robot made by iRobot, has a highly attached user base, with 80 percent of owners saying that they name their devices. Likewise, PARO, a therapeutic robot resembling a stuffed animal seal, has shown to bring comfort to nursing home residents.
Robots could potentially be created to perform a variety of hotel tasks. However, our survey indicates most respondents (51 percent) prefer a delivery robot. As for the other half of respondents, their preferences are split: 26 percent prefer assistance with check-in/check out, 18 percent prefer being offered dining/activity options and 5 percent prefer room service meal delivery.
It’s possible that respondents prefer automated item delivery and check-in/check-out because of a preference for self-service in general. According to research conducted by the Harvard Business Review, most customers prefer self-service over interacting with an employee; a finding supported by the ever-increasing rise of self-checkout kiosks in stores, airports and hotels. In fact, the Aloft Cupertino adopted automatic guest check-in/check-out machines (the second most-preferred robot service) long before the botlr.
Conveniently, what respondents prefer robots to be used for aligns with what they’re most capable of doing. According to Smith, current technology limits most robots to performing repetitive tasks in predictable environments, such as hotel delivery.
However, even if most people wanted a robot that delivered room service meals, it’s unlikely that a robot could do the job as well as a person. For example, an employee can intuitively understand a complaint that food is cold, or offer a personal recommendation for their favorite local restaurant. Robots, at least for now, cannot.
“Robots can only do a couple of things really well … we want to nail delivery,” Yaskawa explains.
Drilling deeper into guests’ interest in using robotic hotel services, we found that interest level varies significantly by age. Younger demographics report the most interest, with approximately one-third of respondents age 18-24 and 25-34 reporting an interest in using robotic hotel services.
For each of the older age groups in the survey, however, including age 45-54, 55-64 and 65 and up, interest level peaked in the single digits.
This data suggests that hotels with a younger target clientele could help attract new guests by offering robotic services. According to Yaskawa, the mid-range hotel market, a popular choice with younger travelers, is exactly what Savioke had in mind when designing SaviOne.
“In high end hotels, the guests want to have people waiting on you,” he explains. “SaviOne fits better with the business model of mid-range hotels, so that’s the kind of location that we’re looking for.”
Appealing to the younger consumer played a major part in deciding to debut the botlr at Aloft Cupertino, says Brian McGuinness, the global brand leader for Starwood Specialty Select Brands. Created by Starwood in 2005, the Aloft hotel brand was created with the younger, digital-savvy business traveler in mind.
McGuinness also notes that guests at the Cupertino location, which is based in the heart of Silicon Valley, are especially receptive to new technology. “Our guests are always seeking the latest in technological advances and hospitality trends, so we’re thrilled to have them experience the botlr firsthand,” he says.
Next, we wanted to learn how guests’ interest in robotic services would impact the decision of which hotel to choose. We found that the 18-24 and 25-34 age groups, often collectively referred to as millennials, reported the highest likelihood of choosing a hotel with robotic service, with 27 percent of 18-24 year olds and 50 percent of 25-34 year olds indicating this technology would affect their decision.
For the other age groups in our sample, a hotel with a robot largely had either no effect, or even a negative effect on hotel selection.
Millennials also reported feelings of excitement surrounding a hotel robot, with 28 percent of 18-24 year olds and 27 percent of 25-34 year olds reporting that they found a hotel with a robot very exciting. The data is nearly opposite for older ages, with 25 percent of 55-64 year olds and 32 percent of those 65 years or older reporting that hotels with robots as not exciting.
What millennials like is of particular interest to the hotel industry because they travel more compared to other generations for both business and pleasure. They also report spending more freely on hotel expenses when paying with company funds. In addition, the sheer size of the demographic, at 77 million individuals, or about a quarter of the entire population of the U.S., makes the preferences of this group impossible to ignore.
In addition, millennials are also more likely to post on social media when on a trip: according to a survey by Chase Card Services, 73 percent of millennials post on social media at least once a day while traveling.
Hotel service robots offer a unique opportunity for guests to share their hotel experience with their social media followers, and according to Yaskawa, guests are usually happy to engage. “I’ve seen people come up after the delivery and take photos of the robot or record video as the robot is navigating around the hall,” he says.
To that end, the Aloft Cupertino is maximizing the social media appeal of botlr by asking hotel guests to Tweet about the botlr using the hashtag #meetbotlr in lieu of tips after a delivery.
Looking at how respondents feel about botlrs broken down by gender, we found that 54 percent of men and 46 percent of women report being excited about robotic hotel service. According to Cole, “These findings reinforce a well-established truism in the technology space—that, in general, men express more excitement about technology than women do.”
However, the slightly dampened excitement level of women in comparison to men may be due to the fact that women feel less comfortable with this technology than men. Among respondents in our sample, 41 percent of women said they were comfortable with robot services, compared to 59 percent of men. The reason for the split may be a matter of privacy concerns, with women being more concerned about potentially being photographed or recorded by a robot.
Technology with subtle recording capabilities, such as Google Glass, combined with highly publicized cases of women having personal photos posted online without permission have brought the issue of privacy and technology into the spotlight. So, even though the botlr does not contain any video recording equipment or cameras, the perception that it could may influence comfort levels.
Our data indicates that millennials are currently the population segment most excited about hotel service robots. Thus, it seems that hotels catering to this demographic seem poised to benefit the most by adding robotic services.
This technology also provides opportunities for efficiency benefits, as staff can spend less time delivering items and more time interacting with guests in other capacities. According to McGuinness, this was the primary objective in mind when deciding to introduce the botlr at Aloft Cupertino.
“This new technology enables our hotel associates to make more time for what they do best; provide exceptional and personalized service for each and every one of our guests,” he says. In fact, the initial success of the botlr pilot program has Starwood looking to introduce a botlr at nearly 100 of its hotels around the world in 2015 and beyond.
As for other hotels interested in adding a botlr, Savioke is offering an early adopter program for select hotels starting in 2015.
To find the data in this report, we conducted a five-day online survey of five questions, and gathered 1,944 responses from random consumers within the United States. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood their meaning and the topic at hand.
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