Robot housekeeper vacuuming hotel room
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By Robin Roberts

Robotic vacuums? Self-cleaning toilets? An autonomous cart that delivers linens (and uses the elevator)? Software that assigns room cleaning based on guest preference? Sounds more like sci-fi than AI, but futuristic technology and artificial intelligence (AI) is already a reality, whether we like it or not. And what’s not to like? Anything that makes the hard work of housekeeping easier, more efficient, more economical and more sustainable is surely a welcome addition to the team. And, with ongoing staff shortages, more automation and tech can help fill the gap left by the loss of all those human workers. 

“The hospitality industry was already dealing with staffing shortages before the pandemic,” says Bryan Michalis, head of Strategic Initiatives at Canary Technologies. “The massive changes in the labour market post-COVID only exacerbated these shortages. A recent McKinsey report revealed that the travel-and-tourism industry lost 62 million jobs in 2020 — and labour supply and demand continue to remain out of balance.”

Michalis says that, with travel now soaring and staffing shortages persisting, hoteliers need to do more with less. And any advances in modern tech can help them do more to streamline procedures and lessen tedious administrative work, freeing them to focus more on guest relations.

However, while Michalis says he’s not seeing widespread adoption of robotic vacuums (although Travelodge in the U.K. introduced RoboVac Buddies two years ago) and other revolutionary technology in North America just yet, he does see digital solutions specifically for housekeeping on the rise.

Let’s get digital

Before the digital age, housekeeping staff really had no way to know if guests had left their room. Now there’s an app for that. Canary’s Contactless Checkout alerts housekeepers that a room is vacant, allowing them to prepare rooms for the next guest up to three hours faster.

Sharon Alexander, director of Rooms, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, says, “Through handheld REX devices, our housekeeping associates are able to receive and provide real-time updates, allowing them to prioritize rooms based on guest needs or arrival times. Our IVR system (interactive voice response) allows associates to report deficiencies and request guest supplies directly from our engineering or housekeeping departments, which improves response times and minimizes unnecessary travel.”

Other software, such as Alice Housekeeping, can also improve productivity through automatic room assignment, board creation, and task management. It can also let the whole department know which rooms are available for cleaning, which ones need inspection, and how the team is performing.

Nuvola’s features are similar and include cleaning scheduling based on guest preference, monitoring staff time spent in each room, and the ability to report items that guests left behind.

Brands such as Hilton, the Drake Hotel and Fairmont San Francisco have introduced an interactive, in-room tablet from the Hotel Communication Network, which allows guests to communicate directly with the hotel to order room service, request housekeeping and report issues. It also has a Room Ready function that alerts housekeeping staff when guests have checked out.

Sara Park, director of Housekeeping at the Chelsea Hotel Toronto, says the property uses the Opera Operation system, which also allows staff to monitor changes in room status, as well as create room attendants’ daily assignments. 

Cleaning UP

Cleaning products, too, have undergone a revolution since the pandemic and are more efficient and less harmful to the environment. “We understand housekeepers have a lot to deal with everyday, so having fewer solutions means making fewer decisions, leading to more consistent cleaning results,” says Samer Loubieh, senior Marketing manager for Ecolab. “We achieve this through multi-purpose products that streamline the process and what [staff] need to stock on the cart.”

He points to the newly introduced Rapid Multi Surface Disinfectant Cleaner, a 4-in-1 solution — disinfectant, cleaner, glass cleaner, and surface deodorant all in one — which has a faster kill time, he says, on viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 and Norovirus.

Econo-Clean also offers a highly concentrated multi-surface, all-in-one cleaning product that says it improves effectiveness and efficiency by up to 70 per cent. And it doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals, instead using sodium-based agents that clean up just about anything.

Apple Cleaning Supplies’ Azure glass and surface cleaner is biodegradable and carries the ECOLOGO seal of approval, certified to reduce environmental impact.

“[Also], we recognize that housekeeping is very manual and can cause staff to use excessive bending and reaching to get the job done,” says Loubieh. “Our housekeeping tools are designed to take on more of the work to reduce the strain on the housekeepers’ bodies,” referring to the company’s Housekeeping Tools Complete Tool Kit, which includes lightweight tools that are interchangeable with the same pole to minimize trips to the housekeeping cart.

Sustaining sustainability

Today’s travellers continue to be more environmentally conscious and are increasingly opting out of unnecessary daily room cleaning, which can also waste resources with excessive laundering. Most hotels are onboard with that, driven by their own green schemes. Some even encourage guests to minimize their environmental impact by offering hotel credit or loyalty points.

In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, an AHLA survey showed 86 per cent of travellers support optional housekeeping and feel more comfortable with it. An unforeseen consequence, however, is that now rooms are often dirtier, requiring housekeeping staff to spend more time cleaning, which can accrue additional cost.

Last year, released results of new research that showed 76 per cent of travellers say they want to travel more sustainably; 43 per cent are willing to pay extra for options with a sustainable certification; 67 per cent turn off the AC in their rooms when they’re not there — up 29 per cent from 2022 — and 77 per cent turn off the lights; and 60 per cent re-use the same towel multiple times — up 25 per cent from 2022. Overall, 74 per cent believe we all need to make more sustainable choices to save the planet.

Reality Meets Hospitality

In the end, is all this R2D2-type tech for real or simply pie-in-the-sky sci-fi? Based on a recent report by Skift Research, which showed the hotel industry in particular has shied away from this kind of automation despite its availability, only 11 per cent of hotels and 25 per cent of hotel rooms worldwide have adopted software or use in-room technology. 

Still, a report by MarketsandMarkets Research expects tech, such as hotel robots, will grow from $79 million in 2020 to $338 million by 2025, driven by the need for efficiency and cost. Cleaning robots, for example, can vacuum 10,000 sq. ft. on a single charge and don’t require lunch breaks. They also don’t mind being exposed to sometimes harsh chemicals and will cheerfully immerse themselves in a cloud of disinfectant sprayer mist that cleans and sanitizes bathrooms.

As for the concern that robots will completely replace humans, experts emphasize that this type of automation will in fact allow those humans to do their job quicker and better, leaving them to engage in the all-important work of running their hotel and interacting with guests.

Additionally, robots aren’t perfect. They can only do one basic thing — mopping, vacuuming, delivery or clearing hallway room-service trays — whereas a staff member will often have to oversee and sometimes go over areas that they missed, or respond to specific guest requests that they won’t understand. 

But they’re still enough of a novelty that they do impress guests. And they won’t quit if they find a better gig down the road. 


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