Hotel guests open the door to a robotic butler

If a guest is staying at the Aloft hotel in Cupertino, Calif. and asks for a comb or a late-night snack, the guest may be surprised at who -- or what -- brings it to the room.

The Aloft Hotel in the Silicon Valley city has been using an autonomous robot as a butler, delivering small items that guests might have forgotten to pack, like toothpaste or a razor, along with snacks and candy.

The robot, dubbed Butlr, has worked out so well that another one of the hotel chain's properties has begun using its own robot and a third has plans in the works to adopt another.

"At the Aloft, we strive to be different than any other hotels," said Derrick Agas, front desk supervisor at the Aloft in Cupertino. "We're in the middle of Silicon Valley where it's pretty much tech central, so we try to do the newest and greatest things. This came out of that."

And that, according to Agas, is giving the hotel an advantage.

In an area where they're catering to a tech-savvy customer base, having a robot calling its own elevator and traveling the hallways making deliveries is only a plus.

"The Aloft hotels serve a very specific, trendy and high-tech audience," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "I think that this chain was the perfect place to start with a robotic butler. I think it serves as a differentiator, for sure, with their audience. If consumers warm up to it, it could keep them coming back."

An Aloft hotel in Newark, Calif. has begun using its own robot and a new property in Sunnyvale, Calif. is expected to get one when it opens for business.

The robot is made by Savioke, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company that designs and builds robots for the services industry, including offices and elder care.

The SaviOne, a wheeled robot shaped similar to an upright cylinder, is being piloted at Aloft, according to Savioke's website.

The robot uses a tablet that hotel staff can use to punch in a security code -- to keep mischievous guests from trying to use the robot for unofficial purposes -- and to punch in the guest's hotel room number so it knows where to go.

After that, SaviOne uses a Wi-Fi connection to call the elevator and heads to the guest room. When it gets to its destination, it calls the guest on the room phone to announce its arrival.

Whatever the robot is delivering is carried in an enclosed hatch on top of the bot.

When the guest opens her door, the hatch opens and she can take her toothbrush or snack.

"People love it," Agas told Computerworld. "One family was staying here and their daughter really wanted to see it work. She loved it so much she wrote a letter. When she walked up to it, I opened the door so she dropped the letter inside and I hit the shimmy button so it did a little dance for her. She had the biggest smile on her face."

After a year of use, Agas said he doesn't know of any customers who have complained about the robot or been freaked out about being served by an autonomous machine.

Instead, guests often take videos of the robot and selfies with it.

Butlr, though, isn't just serving and amusing hotel guests. It's also giving human staffers a break from making small deliveries so they have time to do bigger jobs.

"We usually have two people at the front desk and now we don't have to send someone to a room when someone needs something," said Agas. "It helps us."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Review, noted that there's a definite novelty to using the robot at the hotel, but it also offers a higher availability of service for the business.

"In choosing between two similarly located, similarly featured hotels, this could make a difference for them," he said. "If this improves service and lowers cost, then we'll see more hotels trying out robotics."

Moorhead added that for an enterprise like Aloft hotels, using robotics could be a major business differentiator. And that, he said, is a smart strategic move.


Sharon Gaudin

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