„Hi, I’m Jeeves!“

Guests really like butler robots. They find them cute, practical, and smart. And hoteliers are thrilled about the service opportunities robots offer. Here, a short story about the state-of-the-art technology, start-ups, and hotels where robots are already part of the team.

Text: Karen Cop // FOTOS: iStock,PR

AFemale robot wearing a pastel costume at the reception, a dinosaur as concierge and a personal assistant for each guest – these were three of 243 “staff members” the first robot-operated Hotel Henn-na in Japan employed in 2015. It reminds one a little of Star Wars and, unfortunately, trouble started soon with robot "Churi" reacting to the noise of a snoring guest by persistently asking him what he actually wanted to say. When the “Wall Street Journal” reported in early 2019 that half of the robots had been dismissed for malfunctioning, some negative headlines followed. Still, the move towards butler robots seems irreversible. In more and more hotels, robots are being added to the employee roster: “Mario” in the Ghent Marriott, “Botlr” in the Aloft in Cupertino and Silicon Valley, “Pepper” on Aida cruises or in the Alm Resort in Dienten, and “Jeeves” in seven Munich hotels. We will deal with “Jeeves” later on, but let us look at “Care-O-bot” first, who has been welcoming guests to Hotel Schani in Vienna and the 25hours Hotel.

FutureHotels and the Care-O-bot 4

Development of the Care-O-bot service robot began back in 1998 as part of the FutureHotel project at the Fraunhofer IPA in Stuttgart. The mobile robot assistant was planned from the outset as an “interactive butler” who supports people in activities that were difficult for them, e.g. cleaning and housekeeping. Care-O-Bot 1 was already able to move safely among people. Thanks to its sensors, the robot always kept an appropriate safety distance. The latest generation Care-O-Bot 4 does not only look good with a sleek silhouette and agile movement - it can turn its head 360 degrees! It has also become more social and learned manners. In addition, it seems “obliging, friendly, and sympathetic like a gentleman,” says Birgit Graf, who has played a significant role in the development of Care-O-Bot 4. The sympathetic “Rob” has not only been making a career in hotels, he has also specialized in performing service tasks in nursing homes and hospitals, or in asking customers’ needs in the stores of Saturn, the home electronics chain. “We are offering to support and cooperate directly in an innovative and forward-looking way with hotels that are interested in solutions for their properties,” says Vanessa Borkmann with futurehotel.de.

Jeeves, the robot butler from Munich

Jeeves also emerged from a research project. It has no arms like the Care-O-bot, but resembles R2D2 with its compact stature. Before Jeeves was conceived, Johannes Fuchs and Oliver Stahl, who founded Robotise GmbH in 2016, asked: “Why does a hotel have hundreds of minibars, one in each room, when you can supply all rooms with one minibar instead?” The answer can be found at “Campus of Ideas” in Munich: “Say hello to Jeeves”. Jeeves is the butler’s name in British-American writer P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. Jeeves is sort of a “Gentleman's Personal Gentleman”. But Robot Jeeves is actually a moving refrigerator that makes use of the technology and knowledge developed in the field of autonomous driving. “We want to enter the market with something that is not only a gimmick,” says Sarah Bretzler, Head of Sales and Marketing at Robotise, “but also creates real added value for the hotel industry.” Jeeves is not as cute as the robot “Pepper” in the Alm-Resort Dienten, which resembles a little person, but like a practical household appliance. “A robot easily recognizable as a machine causes less fear and uncertainty in their human counterparts compared to a humanized machine,” Bretzler continues. And Robotise founder Johannes Fuchs adds: “From our findings, arms, head and eyes are not features that make robots more likable to humans. Ironically, service robots, which will be successful on the market in the near future, will not be humanoid robots.” Arms, head, eyes etc. are expensive and unnecessary features.ig.

Man versus machine?

Jeeves can serve snacks and drinks 24/7 without arms, as well as bring towels or other things that guests are reluctant to ask of a human employee when they are in their bathrobe in their room at night. Which boils things down to the essential question: Who does a better job in the hospitality industry, humans or machines? Robotise says it is all about complementing each other. “A machine can travel long distances better than a human being,” explains Sarah Bretzler, reminding us of Amazon. At the online retailer it is robots that are moving the merchandise off the shelves to people. Jeeves is tireless at traveling long corridors, changing floors in the elevator directed via Wi-Fi, at any time of the day. “Boutique hotels and the chain hotel business’ find Jeeves particularly exciting because through smart delivery of minibar items a service is possible, which they otherwise cannot afford. (Bretzler) Jan Heringa, Pre-Opening and Executive General Manager at Leonardo Hotels in NYX Hotel Munich, confirms: “We think Jeeves is ideal when it comes to taking on room service tasks. And also for those little errands: deliver a pillow to room number 210, carry a toothbrush to room 337 or discretely provide condoms in the middle of the night for room 505.” Typically, guests order from Jeeves via the room telephone, the hotel app via smartphone or QR code. Jeeves then discreetly signals his arrival at the guest room door via room telephone or smartphone app.

Guests were thrilled all around, leaving online commentaries like this one for the NYX: “The highlight was the small service robot! He brought us a bottle of Prosecco and Aperol to our room at night!” Sarah Bretzler is delighted: “30 percent of the guests make videos and take photos of him and themselves.”

The robot market is growing

The question remains: How much does it cost for a service robot like Jeeves on a lease basis? The answer is difficult to provide as some of them are still being developed and deployed in field tests in hotels. Sarah Bretzler gives a rough estimate: “Jeeves costs as much as a service employee, minus vacation, sick time, restroom and coffee breaks. On top of that Jeeves works three shifts.” However, even Jeeves needs charging stops in between deliveries at a docking station. One hour of charging supplies Jeeves with enough energy to make six hours of deliveries.

The latest World Robotics Report of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) states that the number of service robots sold has increased by 85 percent. Gudrun Litzenberger, IFR Secretary General: “Based on the 2018-2020 sales forecast, we expect the cumulative volume for the Professional Service segment to be around 27 billion dollars. Her colleague Martin Hägele from the IFR Service Robot Group confirms: “Robots are booming - this applies both to the industrial sector and increasingly to private use as well”.

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