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Short-staffed hotels are hiring robots as unions beat back


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 supply guest services normally performed by human employees.

Need an additional towel? Forget your shampoo? Order takeout from Uber Eats? A robot with a reputation like Alfred, Jeffrey, Alina or Mobi will deliver — not with a knock in 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 vacations? Recharge their batteries. How does a robot eat M&Ms? In megabytes.)

Labor unions don’t find the thought of robots working at a hotel funny, much less robot jokes. Organizers fear the budding army of automatons, which currently numbers at the very least 200 nationwide, is threatening to grow and replace dues-paying members. The problem is bubbling up within the hospitality industry whilst it has these days sparked division in other sectors amid a nationwide labor shortage. That features talks between port operators and West Coast dock staff whose labor contract expired on July 1.

“We aren’t going to stop latest technology,” said D. Taylor, International President of Unite Here, which represents 300,000 hospitality staff across the US and Canada. “However the query is, are you going to be a part of the method or run over by it?”

Alfred delivers sundries and other items to hotel guests’ rooms.Amanda Akiki

Units from Relay Robotics of Campbell, Calif. are concerning the size of R2-D2 from “Star Wars.” Along with quirky names, the robots include lidded storage bins on top where items will be locked while they glide through the lobby and hallways. Sensors prevent crashes with guests and housekeeping carts.

Adding robots to the payroll has turn out to be less far-fetched as hotels face a severe labor crunch because 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, in response to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Some 49% of hoteliers say their properties are “severely understaffed,” in response to the trade group.

“We’re operating without delay 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 individuals who simply don’t need to work in hotels anymore,” Davis added.

Vaugh DavisVaugh Davis is the overall manager of the Dream Hollywood hotel in Beverly Hills.Dream Hollywood

The Dream Hotel Group, which has 30 properties within the pipeline world wide, plans to lean into robotics for its future hotels, in response to Davis. “The vast majority of our latest properties can have robots, which have gotten a 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 totally on the restaurant industry, introduced a model this 12 months called Servi that’s also aimed toward hotels. The five-year-old firm has raised $112 million altogether — including $81 million in March.

“We’re also taking a look at developing vacuuming robots that may clean the hallways,” Relay Robotics CEO Michael O’Donnell told The Post.

It’s not clear what number of hotel properties have installed Bear’s room-service robots. The corporate didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Unions pose a big hurdle for adoption. In Recent York City, where the Recent York Hotel and Gaming Trades Council holds significant sway over the industry, there appears to be only one property – the 130-room Luma Hotel in Times Square – that has a room service robot supplied by Relay. 

Robot Alina recharging against the wall at the Luma Hotel Times Square.The Luma Hotel Times Square is believed to be the one property in NYC that has a room service robot.Lisa Fickenscher

O’Donnell conceded that gaining a robotic foothold in cities like Recent York is a challenge.

“We’ve got been more successful in non-union hotels,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve got to determine engage the unions,” he added, suggesting that his company’s robots might in the future pay union dues and even share a percentage of the leasing fees with unions.

Unite Here is attempting 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 latest technologies are implemented, Taylor said. 

“During COVID, hotels weren’t going to spend the capital on robots, but because the industry recovers we’ll see it more,” Taylor predicted, pointing to front desk clerks, room service employees and doormen as essentially the most at-risk jobs.

Hotel robotsLabor groups are watching the robot trend warily, fearful that they’ll eventually replace some hotel staff.Dream Hollywood

“Automation is commonly listed as a promising innovation for cutting labor costs within the hospitality industry,” said Wealthy Maroko, head of the Recent 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 do know get staff,” Taylor adds. “Pay more.”

For now, some hoteliers view the robots as a novelty to please their guests, O’Donnell said, pointing to the Mandarin Oriental’s robot, Mobi, who was hired in 2020.

Mobi joined the posh 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 turn out to be an entertainment fixture.”

But other properties which can be strapped for labor are using the robots to assist with hard to fill night shifts where there is likely to be only one person working on the front desk.

“We’ve got just scratched the surface of what we are able to do,” Davis said.

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