Special Report: Are people ready for the robot era?

Robots are moving out of Hollywood and into hospitality, leading the Travel Convention to consider whether we’re on the cusp of a new machine age. By Ian Taylor

Consumers anticipate increasing interaction with robots and are comfortable with the prospect, according to research for Travelzoo.

It suggests four out of five consumers in nine major markets envisage robots playing “a big part” in their lives by 2020, with two-thirds happy to deal with robots in travel.

Richard Singer, president of Travelzoo Europe, reported on the survey on the opening day of the Travel Convention. He said: “The research looked at how people feel about robots, and overall, they feel positive. But there are some quirks. The Chinese are mostly pro-robotics. The French and Spanish have reservations.”

In Singer’s words, “lower-skilled jobs top the list” of roles in which people expect to see robots. “But the French were dead against having robots as waiters or bartenders,” he adds.

He said: “The overall sentiment was that robots will be more efficient and make people’s lives better. People have an idea of robots as the Terminator, but you could have a robot taking drinks or bed linen to your hotel room. We’re talking about automatic processing that does not really need human interaction. There is an impression that check-in is inefficient because you have to queue, and it could be more automated.

“When we set out on the research, we thought the topic futuristic, but these things are already happening. Hilton has the IBM Watson robot. Starwood has butler robots in its Aloft brand. Costa Cruise Line has Pepper the robot.

“The reality now is that it’s a bit of a gimmick.”

However, Singer expects robotics to become much more central. “It will take time, but as costs come down, it will go from being a marketing gimmick and a marketing cost to playing a much bigger part in low-skilled areas such as hotel check-in. Would it work for [Starwood’s] Ritz or St Regis? Probably not, but it probably would work for W Hotels.”

Singer said: “Gatwick’s easyJet bag drop is a good example of automation. There are rows of machines but there is somebody there – technology and humans working together.

“Companies in the leisure sector are investing in this now as a way of differentiation. Longer-term investment will depend on the return on investment, as costs become lower. As the technology develops, costs come down and more consumers see robots, it will become standard.”

He cites American football team the San Francisco 49ers’ stadium as an example, saying: “An app shows you to the nearest car park space and guides you to your seat. You can order a drink from your seat. That is what people in the stadium now expect.”

Singer revealed fresh survey results at the convention: “There is new research with more of a trade angle, looking at how robotics and artificial intelligence will impact on the travel trade.”

So could a robot replace him? He laughs: “You couldn’t replace me.”

How artificial intelligence is gathering pace

May 2015 Starwood Hotels introduces robot butlers on the concierge desks at two Aloft brand hotels in Silicon Valley, California
June 2015 Mario makes his debut at the Ghent Marriott
July 2015 The all-robot Henn-na Hotel opens in Nagasaki, Japan
March 2016 Hilton introduces robot concierge Connie (from Conrad Hilton), using IBM’s Watson AI, at its Hilton McLean Hotel, in Virginia
April 2016 Costa Cruises introduces interactive robot Pepper on board Costa Diadema and AIDAprima

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