Robot Shop

Short-staffed hotels are hiring robots — and labor unions are pushing 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 provide guest services usually performed by human employees.

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

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

“We are not going to stop new technology,” said D. Taylor, International President of Unite Here, which represents 300,000 hospitality workers across the US and Canada. “But the question is, are you going to be part of the process or run over by it?”

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

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

“We are operating right now 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 Geoffrey – to the property since September 2020 to offset the shortage. 

There are people who simply don’t want to work in hotels anymore,” Davis added.

Continue Reading: NYPOST

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