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Computer Says Hello

Issue 9 - 2018
Words by Jenny Coad · Illustration Joey Yu

Robot room service? In-room Alexa? Jenny Coad wonders if technology is enhancing the hotel experience – or taking the soul out of travel

Issue 9 - 2018
By Jenny Coad · Illustration Joey Yu

Robot room service? In-room Alexa? Jenny Coad wonders if technology is enhancing the hotel experience – or taking the soul out of travel

How would you feel if your room service order was delivered by a robot? Awkward? Affronted? Amused? If you’re still in your dressing gown, fresh out of the shower or simply too jet-lagged to hold a conversation, finding a robot at your door could actually be a relief.


A robot, after all, won’t mind if you aren’t feeling up to cheery chat, your hair is a mess or your towel is slipping down dangerously. You can relax and return to bed with your chicken club sandwich, dignity intact. You also won’t be left with that uncomfortable feeling that you haven’t tipped enough. Perhaps robots really are the future.


Certainly they are being employed in hotels across the world to engage in repetitive tasks or even greet guests. Pepper, a 1.2m-tall humanoid robot with big Disney eyes by SoftBank Robotics, works in the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas as the hotel’s “Technical Ambassador”. Pepper’s job is to answer questions about the hotel, give directions and tell stories, but it can also dance or pose for a selfie.


Meanwhile, New York’s LUMA Hotel introduced the first robot butler to Manhattan at the end of last year. Alina, a Relay robot made by Savioke, designed to “deliver food, amenities and a powerful guest experience”, “walks” at human pace and is able to wirelessly operate the hotel lift and bring bits, bobs or birthday cake to your room. Unlike Pepper, Alina has no pretences to be human and looks more like a de- humidifier with flashing lights. The hotel, however, describes Alina as “shy yet friendly” and encourages guests to share their #AlinaMoments on Instagram, which does make you wonder if robots are just a gimmick, albeit a money-saving one. Given our increasing obsession with social media, who can blame hotels for trying to cash in on the selfie business. Most of them have Twitter and Instagram accounts and are swift to respond to public praise or complaints. Sometimes making the case online can be more effective than a chat with reception.


Robots are a novelty for now but it’s already standard for hotel guests to order room service or make a spa booking via an app. If you know what you want, it can be more convenient than picking up a phone and working through a series of options.


Of course it would be madness for hotels not to keep up with the emerging technologies we’re becoming accustomed to living with at home. Many of us, for example, have welcomed virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant into our lives and they’ve quickly become members of the family. They’ll switch on Radio 4 in the morning, tell us what the weather is doing, or plot our day’s travel while we’re still under the covers. Marriott is running a pilot scheme with Alexa in ten of its hotels this summer. Such a service should be particularly useful for business travellers who are breezing in and out and could do without the hassle of working out how to turn down the air conditioning temperature or switch off the floor lighting at night. The hotel group is also planning to give guests the option to design their own rooms. So you could Feng Shui things as you please, and really make it a home from home.


But how much technology do we really want or need when we’re travelling for pleasure, on holiday? Personally I think it depends on the context. In buzzing, innovative metropolises like New York, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong or Las Vegas, experiencing the latest technology is exciting and feels in keeping with the ethos of such constantly evolving cities. In rural Tuscany or Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, robots would be an anomaly. Even iPads seem a touch invasive. Yes, we’d probably all like wi-fi, even if it’s intermittent, but why look at an illuminated screen when you could be admiring the view? I’d certainly rather order an Aperol spritz from a vintage poolside telephone than try to swipe right on a sun-cream-greasy screen.


Part of the joy of travel is chatting to people face-to-face, trying the odd phrase in the local language, getting to know the staff and hotel-owners. Some, like Kevin and Louisa Begg at Estancia Los Potreros near Córdoba, Argentina, host in the most traditional way, dining with their guests. While Riccardo Baracchi, who, with his wife Silvia, owns Il Falconiere in Tuscany, discusses his passions – hunting, falconry, wine – over an aperitif. There’s no better way to learn about a place.


Feeling part of the family when you’re staying in a hotel is a very special thing indeed. It’s what makes us patrons for life, returning again and again – not just because we love a place, but because we love the people.


It’s impressive when staff anticipate what you want – a lime soda and then a gin and tonic – without your needing to ask, or remember how you like your eggs each morning. It’s an art. If that was all simply recalled electronically it wouldn’t be nearly as impressive. And when does knowing what you want and storing a vast database about your preferences become a touch... creepy?


Then of course there’s the notion that holidays represent an escape, a chance to leave behind our day-to-day cares. These days, we’re so technology- weary, we’ll travel to places specifically to escape our bad habits. Digital detoxes, mindfulness holidays, remote cottages and sleep clinics are popping up all over the place to cure our addictions. “I’m out of the office and will NOT be checking my emails.”


It’s a tricky balance. Hotels must be seen to move with the times – while still retaining their power to transport us.

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