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I, Robot: Welcoming the Hospitality Digital Age in the Midst of the Pandemic

At our time and age, the absence of masks and negligence towards the social distancing norms on part of the hotel staff may cause much distress among its guests. Yet, three employees at Hotel Sky, Johannesburg, behave as if the word “pandemic” did not exist in our collective vocabulary. Turns out, it does and this is precisely why they were hired.

Lexi, Micah, and Ariel are the newest addition to the concierge team, helping out with small tasks like carrying luggage or taking an order, with one significant difference – they are robots. As much a this could be interesting news back in 2015, for example, when Tokyo’s Henn’na Hotel became the first one worldwide to be fully staffed with machines, it hardly makes the headlines these days – and why should it, aren’t we all relatively accustomed to their presence in hospitality by now?

Yes and no. Turns out, Hotel Sky, which opened just this year, is the first one on the continent and one of the very few to employ robots in the developing world, which in turn drives a significant amount of concern from the public, given South Africa’s sky-rocketing unemployment rate – 30.8% according to the latest state of the nation address, one of the highest on the planet. However, Paul Kelley, Hotel Sky Managing Director, explains that the property has no intention of replacing human labor with machines, but rather assist people at completing menial tasks, such as delivering luggage (Lexi, Micah, and Ariel can lift up to 300 kg), room service orders and sharing useful information. Moreover, the hotel guests are allowed a complete freedom of choice – they can either prefer to be assisted by people or manage their whole stay electronically through their phones interacting only with the robots. Needless to say, such an option comes in handy if a client exhibits mild forms of COVID-19 symptoms, in which case machines are dispatched as a precaution.

Another useful perk Lexi and others can offer is a quite advanced facial expression recognition system that allows management to analyze the guest’s experience so far and determine its negative aspects, if any, on the early stage to allow for preemptive conflict resolution – something many hotel employees, used to hearing guests complain, would probably be very appreciative of. One way or another, the two essential questions remain: what will happen to the labor markets with the advance of modern technologies in the developing countries, and will the average guest appreciate a robotic experience, or would she continue longing for the venerable “human touch”?

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