If hospitality managers aren’t sold on the idea of automation, Todd Montgomery hopes that will change Monday evening when they meet Relay, a robot butler employed in dozens of hotels.
“This is really, really exciting,” said Montgomery, executive-in-residence at Oregon State University-Cascades. “This is just the start.”
Montgomery, who teaches a course in service automation, and OSU engineering and robotics professor Bill Smart arranged the demonstration with Relay, created by Savioke of San Jose, California. The event coincides with the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association’s annual convention, taking place Sunday and Monday at the Riverhouse on the Deschutes Convention Center in Bend.
Montgomery believes the hospitality industry’s current labor shortage goes beyond historically low unemployment rates and reflects a fundamental attitude shift among employees that work should be meaningful. The only way to solve the labor shortage, he argues, is to automate mundane, routine tasks.
While automation is typically seen as a threat to human labor, a chief concern of the hospitality industry is how it will be perceived by customers who expect personal interaction. Savioke says Relay not only saves time and money, but hotel guests are reacting positively to the robot, whose job is to deliver items to guest rooms.
The 300-room Residence Inn at LAX has 725 reviews on TripAdvisor.com, and 150 of those feature the robot, said Hiren Mowji, director of sales at Savioke. “Of course, all those reviews are five-star reviews,” he said.
Montgomery said the robot’s friendly design is one reason he reached out to Savioke a year ago to request a demonstration. OSU-Cascades is expecting more than 100 of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association’s annual meeting to attend, along with local hospitality executives and students.
Savioke has more than 100 Relay robots in the field, and more than half of those are in hotels, Mowji said. None are in Oregon yet, but the company is close to inking its first contract here, he said.
Relay is also being used in hospitals, where it delivers medicine, and logistics businesses.
Smart, who studies robot-human interaction and worked with Savioke CEO Steve Cousins at a robotics startup company, said he’s looking forward to meeting Relay.
“I’ve not seen it in the flesh,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of technologies that led up to it. It’s very different seeing one of these things for real than seeing a photograph of it.”
Most of Smart’s work has been applied in industrial settings, where he said people and robots work together to create a safer, more efficient environment. At a foundry in Portland, for example, a robot will pick up and move a 500-pound metal casting.
“How do you combine the skills of the robot with the skills of the human to make the system work better?” Smart asked. He acknowledges, however, there are industries where the main goal of automation is to replace large numbers of human workers.
“Now is a terrible time to go to truck-driving school, I think,” he said.
Savioke argues that Relay is saving hotel owners money and making employees happy. The robot leases for $2,000 a month, and since it can be used for almost 1,000 hours, that works out to an hourly cost of $2.10, Mowji said. The robot may eliminate the need for an extra front-desk employee, or it could simply free a houseman to interact with people in the lobby, he said.
Hotel workers reportedly welcome the Relay robot because it’s like a toy, he said, and it helps them avoid the unpleasant aspects of making deliveries to guests at odd hours and various states of undress.
“It’s awkward for both parties if you think about it,” he said.
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