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Not all jobs in the travel industry can be replaced by a robot — yet

A traveller enters a hotel. She does not see any people behind the reception desk. Instead, a robot takes her name, checks her in, and hands over her room key. Another robot takes her suitcase and escorts her to her room, which has just been cleaned by yet another robot.

Is this the future of hospitality? Many pundits have suggested so in recent years, as the cost of robotics falls compared with that of hiring staff. But events in Japan give pause for thought. The world’s first robot-operated hotel opened there in 2015. But only four years later, it is replacing many of its robots with humans.

The Henn na Hotel (“Strange Hotel”) got a slew of publicity and an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records as the first robot hotel. It was not just futuristic: its owners hoped to compensate for labour shortages by employing robots to store luggage, mix cocktails, clean rooms and even dance in the lobby. “In countries that suffer from a decreasing population, we think there is a future in robot hotels,” said Ayako Matsuo of Huis Ten Bosch, the company that runs the hotel, about their original thinking. She claimed that the reduction of labour costs could make robots a “superior” option for hotel staffing.

But when the robots were put in place, things went wrong. The concierge struggled to answer guests’ questions. The dancers in the lobby broke down. The luggage-carriers could not climb stairs or go outside. A question-and-answer robot could not handle anything beyond basic inquiries — and responded to at least one guest’s snoring by waking him repeatedly to tell him it could not understand what he was saying. Rather than saving labour, the robots actually required the hotel to increase staffing in order to assist and repair the struggling robots. So the hotel recently decided to lay off more than half of its 243 robots.

Elsewhere in the travel industry, however, the general direction of travel is towards greater automation. For instance, Gatwick Airport near London is planning a trial this summer of a robot that will automatically park and retrieve the cars of those flying from its terminals, following similar trials in France and Germany. And more hotels are installing automated check-in machines to cut queues in the lobby.

In the hotel world, Ms Matsuo believes the future remains a robotic one. The lesson she learned from the struggles at the Strange Hotel is not that robots were a mistake. It is that “it is important to separate the services performed by robots and the services performed by humans.” Robots, she noted, might not yet be able to guess what guests want in the way that human hotel employees can, but they have abilities that humans lack. Guests come from all over the world, and even the best-educated workforce cannot respond to customers in dozens of languages as well as a robot can. Robots may not be staffing hotels by themselves in the imminent future. But their importance in the hospitality industry will surely continue to grow.

This article originally appeared in Medium.