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Business trends

At Tokyo's Henn na Hotel, robots run the show

Company opens fifth such hotel, with plans for 100 throughout Japan and beyond

Female robots welcome a guest at the reception desk of Henn na Hotel in Tokyo's Ginza district. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- A new hotel opened Thursday in Tokyo's upscale Ginza district. The name, Henn na Hotel, offers guests their first inkling that it is like no other in central Tokyo. Henn na means "strange" in Japanese, and indeed the property is unique. It is run mostly by robots, and a few humans.

Before the opening, the Nikkei Asian Review took a sneak peek inside the hotel owned by Japanese travel agency H.I.S.

At first glance, the lobby looks no different from others, with a front desk manned by three receptionists -- one male and two female. But upon closer examination, the two females prove to be robots and very lifelike ones at that, with silicone skin, carefully made-up faces, immaculate hair and eyes that blink even when no one's looking. The giveaway? Those eyes make shutter-like noises when they blink. 

After giving their names to a human receptionist, guests are asked to proceed to an automated kiosk where the robots greet them and assist with the process of checking in. Impressively, these robots can speak four languages -- Japanese, English, Mandarin Chinese and Korean. Cleverly, they determine which language to use based on the guests' passports.

Following the robot's instructions, guests receive their room key card and a receipt from the kiosk. The key card operates in the old-fashioned way. Guests at other Henn na Hotels can register instead for facial authentication and enter their rooms by simply looking into a camera by the doors.

The rooms are plainly decorated but equipped with the latest technology, such as a wardrobe that can remove odors and wrinkles from clothes. Every room also has a smartphone that guests can use to make free international calls. The phone is preloaded with Tokyo city guides and also works as a remote control for the air conditioner, lights, TV and even the room door.

Henn na Hotel Tokyo Ginza opens on Feb. 1. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

This is the fifth such hotel by H.I.S. under the "Henn na Hotel" brand in Japan, and the first within central Tokyo. The company is aiming to expand the chain to 100 hotels in Japan and ultimately overseas.

Indeed, it does conform to its slogan of "the ultimate in efficiency." Manager Takahiro Nakamura says this 98-room hotel can be run with just seven human staff members, unlike conventional hotels of the same scale that require around 30. The robots not only assume front-office roles but also back-office preparations and cleaning, drastically reducing the need for human labor and cutting operational costs over time. 

This allows the hotel to lower charges for the rooms too -- from 7,000 yen ($64) per night in a deluxe single room and from 10,000 yen for a deluxe twin room. These rates are reasonable considering the hotel's proximity to the famous Tsukiji fish market and the Ginza district known for its high-end boutiques.

Ginza has become the battleground for hotel operators that are fighting to offer more accommodation facilities ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Last week, American hotel chain Hyatt Hotels Corp. opened a new one in Ginza while its peer Marriott International is planning to open its boutique property Marriott Edition in 2020.

But Ginza is akin to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, New York, and its land is the most expensive in Japan, which poses a challenge for hotel operators. "Offering lower room rates to fill in empty rooms has been a popular practice among Japanese hotel operators, in contrast with some international hotel chains that tend to keep their rates relatively high to retain their brand value," said Kiyoshi Tsuchiya, director at CBRE's hotel segment in Japan.

Given the competition, innovation is key to attracting guests. "Hotel operators are coming up with new types of facilities with unique characters and services to cater to the guests' lifestyle choices," Tsuchiya said.

Ginza is at the forefront of this new trend. Ryohin Keikaku which runs the merchandise brand Muji, plans to open a Muji-branded hotel in Ginza in 2019 -- the first of its kind in Japan. The hotel will be located above the new Muji shop that occupies seven floors.

Like Muji, Henn na Hotel's operator H.I.S. is a relatively new face in the hotel industry. Founded by Chief Executive and Chairman Hideo Sawada, H.I.S. changed the game in Japan's travel industry by selling leftover air tickets that it had bought from major tour companies to individual travelers at lower prices. The company also revived Huis Ten Bosch, a Netherlands-themed resort in Nagasaki Prefecture that previously had been struggling financially.

Sawyer serves a cup of coffee at Henn na Cafe in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward.   © Kyodo

On Thursday, along with the launch of the Ginza hotel, H.I.S. opened Henn na Cafe near Tokyo's Shibuya Station. The cafe has a robot barista named Sawyer that grinds, brews and serves its signature Authentic Drip Coffee for 320 yen. The robot performs other tasks, including washing the coffee maker and asking customers whether they fancy a nice cup of coffee.

Cafes, like hotels, are labor-intensive businesses. Thanks to Sawyer, the cafe only requires one human employee to replenish the beans and deal with any technical glitches, unlike other cafes of the same size, which usually have two to three counter staff, according to H.I.S. The company is considering opening more Henn na Cafe branches across Japan.

There is no doubt that the technological advances offered by H.I.S. will appeal to some and certainly help in a rapidly aging country, but a question remains: Will anyone miss the human touch in what is, after all, the hospitality industry?  

Nikkei staff writer Hiroki Obayashi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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