A black robot on wheels moves along a hotel corridor, calls the elevator, and waits. When the lift arrives, the family using it wishes to come out. The robot politely withdraws, and only when the last guest exits, it enters and ascends to the ninth floor. When it gets there, it gets off and skillfully navigates its way to the door of one of the rooms. It stops and calls the phone inside the room. The guest emerges, opens the small compartment in the robot’s mid-section, where they can find the towel they had requested from room service just a few minutes earlier. Mission accomplished.
This may sound like a futuristic fantasy, but such a robot is already in use at in Tel Aviv, in the NYX hotel from the Fattal chain in Israel. In the coming months, further robots will be added to other Fattal hotels.
Other technological innovations are also in operation, such as a hotel with no reception desk, operating through remote check-in, or keyless and cardless doors to rooms, smart control systems that remotely operate the air-conditioning and WiFi in the room, and a hotel food delivery system, with robots making deliveries from a nearby restaurants. Some of these have already been integrated into hotels, with others in advanced stages of development.
The travel-tech field was, perhaps ironically, significantly boosted by the coronavirus pandemic, which crippled foreign travel but bolstered local tourism. The pandemic stopped international travel and shut down borders, sharply decreasing hotel occupancy and causing a massive cancellation of flights. The entire tourism industry was rendered completely inactive for months, losing billions of dollars. However, crisis also breeds creation, and many companies tried to find ways to innovate.
Even before the crisis, hundreds of start-ups in Israel and around the world were trying to bring hi-tech to an outdated tourism industry. The crisis accelerated some of these projects, with others were adapted to the current reality in an an attempt to retain some semblance to the past. Whereas before the crisis hotels in Israel were in no rush to jump into the digital world, with most hotels preferring the true-and-tried method of a reception desk and personal contact with guests, in the wake of the pandemic they realized that tourist operations, including flights, hotels, car rentals and attractions, could not return to normal without adapting to the new situation, mainly in terms of hygiene and the maintaining of social distancing. This understanding led to innovations meant to make the process of going on vacation one with the least possible human interactions, with the minimal rubbing of shoulders with other guests while waiting in line or in common areas.
A digital tourism experience
One of the practical inventions, specifically geared to minimizing physical interactions, is the technology developed by Duve (formerly Wishbox), a company that has developed a platform for managing many client experiences without the need for talking to reception clerk or hotel employees. It enables, among other things, the filling out of an online health questionnaire that is sent to the hotel, as well as checking in online, which renders obsolete the need to wait in the reception area after arrival, or for payment on departure, with the option of ordering hotel services or tours of nearby attractions with no face-to-face contact.
- ‘The Big Money Is Here’: The Arms Race to Quantum Computing
- Why Every Democracy Should Fear Israeli Spyware
- 'Israelis Are Champions at Agriculture and Tech, but We Have No Service Awareness'
“Our goal is to manage a vacation in a personally-adapted fashion, getting rid of any bureaucracy. This means scanning corona-related and personal documents, handling payments and check-in online, so that you don’t need to go through reception. You can order transportation, if required, and find trips in the area, all through WhatsApp or mail, conducted in the guest’s language, all done before arrival,” explains David Mezuman, the co-founder and CEO of Duve. The Israeli company has raised $5 million so far, and is about to launch another fundraising round. Duve works with more than 50 percent of Israeli hotels, including the Brown chain, Prima Tel Aviv, the Orchid chain, the Setai, the Crowne Plaza in Tel Aviv, the Mamilla and David Citadel hotels in Jerusalem, as well as with hotels in more than 60 countries, including global chains such as Urbanica in Miami and Olympic in Holland.
According to Mezuman, one of the advantages they offer is flexibility. “Everything is adapted to the guest, be it their language – a guest from Germany will get his information in German – or a specific need. A vacationing family will get totally different offers than a couple on a romantic getaway. Thus, for example, if I’m in the Brown in Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem with my partner, I’ll get information about romantic restaurants or venues with a happy hour in the area. If I came with my family, I’d get offers for guided tours in the Nahlaot neighborhood and the market, with recommended attractions for children. The system is connected directly to the hotel’s core systems, so we know in advance who is coming, their ages and purpose of vacation. That way we can adapt recommendations for them, without a need for filling long questionnaires.”
A remote-control hotel
Andrey Iontel, the CEO of the Smart Hotels chain, searched for ways of overcoming one of the main problems in this area - a manpower shortage. There are currently 30,000 people working in the hotel business in Israel, a sharp decline compared to the pre-pandemic period, in which 42,000 people were employed in this industry. There is now a dire shortage of workers in this area, mainly in menial jobs such as kitchen work and housekeeping. Hoteliers claim that the shortage stems from the fact that Israelis are not interested in blue collar jobs.
The Smart Hotel chain has six hotels, all of them with under 70 rooms, located in Jerusalem, Tiberias and Mitzpeh Ramon. All of them have limited staff. “Finding workers in outlying areas of the country is almost impossible. I’d find myself getting up in the middle of the night, going from Jerusalem to Mitzpeh Ramon in order to solve a problem in one of the rooms,” relates Iontel.
Searching for solutions led them to build a smart hotel which needs almost no human workers - the Even Derech hotel in Mitzpeh Ramon, which opened in 2020. “The corona crisis began just then, and I spent the entire time thinking about what I could do to make things more efficient. Even Derech has only 40 rooms, and most services are operated by guests or by remote control,” explains Iontel.
“We control the air-conditioning in all the spaces, including guest rooms, with a centralized remote phone service, delivering keys through a box, updating the status of room cleaning, with a hotel team controlling the WiFi remotely, and even playing background music. The hotel only has three permanent staff members, a host and two cleaners.”
“Since the team is small and I’m not there in person all the time, it was important to provide remote solutions. Furthermore, I wanted to make use of the fact that I have another hotel nearby, the Ramon Suites. It has 50 rooms and a slightly larger staff. That’s why we set up a centralized system that kicks in upon guests’ arrival. The guest receives a code for the elevator and a coded key, with no need for a physical key. They open the door with this code. If they have any questions or requests, they can get a reply by phone. For example, if they wants to lower the AC temperature but cant get the air conditioner to work, I can connect through my mobile phone to the system and can change the temperature in their room. If I can’t solve the problem, the system directs the guest to reception in the other hotel, and they help them from there.”
Iontel says he’s found solutions for casual guests as well, ones who have not booked in advance. “The guest enters the hotel, dials 0 using a phone in the lobby, and goes to reception at the other hotel, where they take the reservation and encode a key for him.”
He says that these systems save on manpower, solving many technical functions on which personnel wasted much time in resolving in the past. “Today, a receptionist or hostess knows that their main function is hospitality, giving guests a localized experience. They will therefore invest time in communicating with guests, giving recommendations for excursions and attractions, instead of dealing with technical issues such as check-in, or with bureaucratic jobs such as photocopying passports, filling forms and handing over a key. Finding providers and solutions, using technologies for operating the hotel, was our initiative, and we realize that this has economic implications. On one hand, technology requires investing money. On the other hand, it saves on other expenses.”
Following this local success, Iontel now wants to introduce this technology into the other hotels in the chain. “It’s possible for us, since this involves hotels meant mainly for people who come for a short rest, or for an overnight stay, wishing to travel and see the country the rest of the time, and we put an emphasis on the small things that make all the difference in that experience.”
Enter the robots
Making systems more efficient and using existing personnel and resources is what drove the Fattal chain to employ the smart robot as a pilot. They then discovered that alongside its functionality, the robot also serves as an attraction in its own right for their guests.
“Last November we began an innovative pilot with the robot, which was developed and manufactured by Electra for the NYX hotel in Herzliya,” says the CEO of Fattal hotels in Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem, Yaakov Sudri.
“We dressed the robot up in the company’s uniform, put a bowtie on them, and now sent it out to check guests in, order an elevator, accompany guests directly to their room, as well as calling for services if guests need things like towels, shampoo or a robe. The robot takes on these missions, with data provided by reception or housekeeping, taking the item to the room. The guest opens the robot’s compartment, takes what they ordered, and the robot returns to its station until it is called again.”
The robot can currently handle 300-400 calls a month, and the hotel anticipates reaching 2,000 calls a month soon. Sudri says he was surprised by the robot’s capabilities, as well as by the positive responses he’s received.
“The robot evokes a lot of interest among guests. Some of them are very impressed, while others are shocked – all of a sudden, they see a robot wearing a bowtie, stepping back to let them step out of an elevator. It’s a gimmick, but over time it’s become a practical service that makes the service more efficient. So far, we have one such robot, but in light of its success we’re going to order another one. At the same time, we’re continuing to develop the capabilities of this robot. We want to add another function: If a guest has a birthday, the robot will go to their room to sing Happy Birthday and give them a gift.”
Israeli guests are excited by this gimmick - if only because you don’t need to tip it - but obviously, the main question is whether this technological solution will eventually reduce the number of staff, reducing job opportunities in the tourism industry.
Sudri claims that there is no concern in this regard: “It’s an addition to existing manpower. We have amazing staff that hosts guests in a professional manner, and the robot blends in, and is not there at their expense. The truth is, I can’t remember a period in which it was so difficult to recruit workers, and the robot allows us to make services we provide more efficient.”
When asked about savings, he explains that it’s difficult for now to quantify overall costs. “Operating it costs almost nothing. Since this is a pilot, there isn’t a fixed price yet. Obviously, if we use robots in most of our hotels, it will come with a cost, but it will be beneficial for the hotel in terms of cost-benefit considerations. We’re very aware of the importance of technology, and we have a whole division devoted to information systems and digital.”
There are people already thinking about the next stage of employing robots in the tourism industry. The GrubHub company is trying to build an advanced fleet of deliveries to hotels, operated by robots.
“We are in the process of developing a delivery system using robots,” says Ami Palgi, product team lead at GrubHub. “It’s a bit futuristic, but the technology already exists, and we’ve incorporated it on two campuses in the U.S. as a pilot. This is a robot with four wheels, with a large compartment that can maintain heat or cold, taking food from a restaurant to the customer who made the order.”
When asked how such a service will work with robots, Palgi says that: “There will be a fleet of robots that knows how to take food from a hotel restaurant or ones working with the hotel, up to the location the customer is in. In terms of costs, it’s cheaper than hiring delivery people, saving money for customers since they don’t need to tip. That’s why students love it.
"One of the most significant feed-backs we received was that people today look for less interaction with a delivery person, preferring the robot. It’s super-popular on campuses in which we held the pilot, and I believe this will be the case in hotels as well. It’s going viral.”