A fledgling line of robots has begun to fill jobs at short-staffed hotels — and labor groups are sounding alarms.
A handful of hotels across the US – from the Mandarin Oriental in Boston to a Holiday Inn Express in Redwood City, Calif. – have begun turning to robots to provide guest services usually performed by human employees.
Need an extra towel? Forget your shampoo? Order takeout from Uber Eats? A robot with a name like Alfred, Jeffrey, Alina or Mobi will deliver — not with a knock on your door upon arrival, but typically with a ping to your phone.
The rolling bots are decorated with decals like bowties and wear vinyl wraps that resemble hotel uniforms. They even crack jokes on their digital screens. (What do robots do on the holidays? Recharge their batteries. How does a robot eat M&Ms? In megabytes.)
Labor unions don’t find the idea of robots working at a hotel funny, much less robot jokes. Organizers fear the budding army of automatons, which currently numbers at least 200 nationwide, is threatening to grow and replace dues-paying members. The issue is bubbling up in the hospitality industry even as it has lately sparked division in other sectors amid a nationwide labor shortage. That includes talks between port operators and West Coast dock workers whose labor contract expired on July 1.
“We are not going to stop new technology,” said D. Taylor, International President of Unite Here, which represents 300,000 hospitality workers across the US and Canada. “But the question is, are you going to be part of the process or run over by it?”
Units from Relay Robotics of Campbell, Calif. are about the size of R2-D2 from “Star Wars.” In addition to quirky names, the robots come with lidded storage bins on top where items can be locked while they glide through the lobby and hallways. Sensors prevent crashes with guests and housekeeping carts.
Adding robots to the payroll has become less far-fetched as hotels face a severe labor crunch as the pandemic wanes and tourism resumes. Proponents of high-tech strategies note that the hospitality industry lost 1.3 million jobs over the past two years, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Some 49% of hoteliers say their properties are “severely understaffed,” according to the trade group.
“We are operating right now with 40% less human capital than we had before the pandemic,” said Vaughn Davis, general manager of the Dream Hollywood hotel in Los Angeles, which has added two Relay robots – Alfred and Jeffrey – to the property since September 2020 to offset the shortage.
“There are people who simply don’t want to work in hotels anymore,” Davis added.
The Dream Hotel Group, which has 30 properties in the pipeline around the world, plans to lean into robotics for its future hotels, according to Davis. “The majority of our new properties will have robots, which are becoming part of our service culture,” he said.
Relay’s robots cost about $2,000 a month to lease. Rival Bear Robotics, a Redwood City, Calif. firm that focuses primarily on the restaurant industry, introduced a model this year called Servi that’s also aimed at hotels. The five-year-old firm has raised $112 million altogether — including $81 million in March.
“We are also looking at developing vacuuming robots that can clean the hallways,” Relay Robotics CEO Michael O’Donnell told The Post.
It’s not clear how many hotel properties have installed Bear’s room-service robots. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Unions pose a significant hurdle for adoption. In New York City, where the New York Hotel and Gaming Trades Council holds significant sway over the industry, there appears to be just one property – the 130-room Luma Hotel in Times Square – that has a room service robot supplied by Relay.
O’Donnell conceded that gaining a robotic foothold in cities like New York is a challenge.
“We have been more successful in non-union hotels,” O’Donnell said. “We have to figure out how to engage the unions,” he added, suggesting that his company’s robots might one day pay union dues or even share a percentage of the leasing fees with unions.
Unite Here is trying to throw a wrench into the industry’s adoption of robots and other technology that it deems threatening to its survival. In labor contracts with hotels in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Boston and Hawaii, the union requires 180 days notice before new technologies are implemented, Taylor said.
“During COVID, hotels were not going to spend the capital on robots, but as the industry recovers we will see it more,” Taylor predicted, pointing to front desk clerks, room service employees and doormen as the most at-risk jobs.
“Automation is often listed as a promising innovation for cutting labor costs in the hospitality industry,” said Rich Maroko, head of the New York Trades Council. “But anyone who understands the job of a room attendant understands that no robot or technology could possibly replace a human.”
“I know how to get staff,” Taylor adds. “Pay more.”
For now, some hoteliers view the robots as a novelty to delight their guests, O’Donnell said, pointing to the Mandarin Oriental’s robot, Mobi, who was hired in 2020.
Mobi joined the luxury property’s staff at a time when guests wanted more “contactless interactions,” spokesperson Danielle McNally said. “But we’ve kept him on board because he’s become an entertainment fixture.”
But other properties that are strapped for labor are using the robots to help with hard to fill night shifts where there might be just one person working at the front desk.
“We have just scratched the surface of what we can do,” Davis said.
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