Success in hospitality is inevitably linked to cost-profit optimization. And technology in hospitality is the response to this need. Some hoteliers fear that the frequency with which new hospitality technology hits the market can impact the quality of the guest experience they provide and often dismiss many of the innovations employed by others. However, this more conservative approach to innovation rarely pays off for the hotelier.

A key challenge is to determine how the technology can help without impacting the customer experience.

An example of this was Henn na Hotel in Japan. Certified by Guinness World Records as the first hotel with working robots, the Henn na Hotel was the brainchild of Hideo Sawade, a Japanese travel tycoon and opened in 2015.

Reports had indicated that there may be a shortage of as many as 3,000 hotel rooms in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics and it was thought that robot-staffed hotels may be part of the solution to this problem.

Hotels in Japan incorporated the latest technologies at the time. From reception to room service and from security to cleaning, many of the services at these hotels were provided by robots. Some robots resembled human employees in a weird, but accurate way. Others were friendly dinosaurs who could speak to you in Japanese, English, Chinese or Korean.

Guests arriving at the hotels may be checked in by a robot. Another robot may transport suitcases and escort guests to their room, which had just been cleaned by a robot. Face recognition technology may open the bedroom door and turn on the AC automatically. Even the wardrobes were powered by technology and when guests hung their clothes, the wardrobes cleaned and ironed them automatically using TrueSteam™ technology.

Many pundits suggested at the time that this would be the future of hospitality as the cost of robotics was much lower than the cost of hiring and training staff. The concept had potential, service was quicker with robots, productivity increased, and they completed systematic work more quickly and worked without getting tired.

However, complaints from customers showed that they missed the human interaction and found the experience quite isolating. The robots annoyed guests, as they were unable to understand different accents, non-preprogramed questions and unusual terminology and would often break down. Guests complained their robot room assistants thought snoring sounds were commands and would wake them up repeatedly during the night.

Even staff complained – they felt that a large percentage of the robots were more adept at creating work for their human counterparts than they were at reducing it and failed to reduce costs.

After four years, the Henn na Hotel reduced its 243-robotic workforce by more than half and returned to more traditional human-provided services for guests, though it still maintained a number of robots in areas where it found them to be effective and efficient.

However, despite the challenges, robots have come a long way since then, and the hospitality industry is becoming increasingly automated as technology and connectivity improve. The hospitality robots market is expected to grow to $3.08 billion by 2030, according to a report by Allied Market Research.

This growth is being driven by the growing need for efficient and cost-effective solutions, as hotels increasingly turn to robots to improve operations and enhance the guest experience. Replacing humans with technology may have significant consequences, as well as some unintended legal consequences if technology fails to operate properly. The challenge is for the hospitality industry to enhance the customer experience rather than replace human interactions.