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Robot staff make Japan's Henn na Hotels quirky and efficient

Labor-saving innovation keeps prices low and guests amused

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

TOKYO The name offers guests at the recently opened Henn na Hotel in Ginza their first inkling that they are checking into accommodations unlike any other in Tokyo. Henn na means "strange" in Japanese and is a fitting moniker for a hotel run mostly by robots.

At first glance, the lobby looks like any other, with a front desk manned by three receptionists -- one man and two women. Upon closer examination, however, the latter prove to be extremely lifelike robots, with carefully made-up faces and immaculate hair. They even blink like a human would. The giveaway? Those blinks produce a noise like a camera shutter.

Guests give their names to a human receptionist, then proceed to an automated kiosk where the robots greet them and assist with the process of checking in. These robots speak four languages: Japanese, English, Mandarin Chinese and Korean. They determine which to use based on guests' passports.

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

Guests receive a key card for their room and a receipt. While the key cards at the Ginza location operate in the old-fashioned way, guests at other Henn na hotels have the option of registering for facial recognition access, which allows them to enter their room by simply looking into a camera by the door.

While their decor is on the simple side, the guest rooms boast the latest technology, such as a wardrobe that can remove odors and wrinkles from clothes. Each room also has a smartphone for making 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 door.

The hotel is owned by a subsidiary of Japanese travel agency H.I.S. It is the fifth hotel under the Henn na Hotel brand in Japan, and the first in central Tokyo. H.I.S. aims to expand the chain to 100 hotels in Japan and ultimately open locations overseas.

The Henn na slogan is "the ultimate in efficiency," and the Ginza location certainly lives up to that ideal. Manager Takahiro Nakamura says the 98-room hotel can be run with just seven human staff members, compared to around 30 for a conventional hotel of a similar scale. The robots assume not only front-desk roles but also background duties such as cleaning, drastically reducing the need for human labor and cutting down on operational costs in the long run.

This allows the hotel to offer affordable rates -- deluxe single rooms start at 7,000 yen ($66) per night, while a deluxe twin is priced from 10,000 yen. These rates are reasonable considering the hotel's proximity to such landmarks as the famous Tsukiji fish market.

Ginza has become a battleground for hotel operators looking to cash in on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In January, Hyatt Hotels of the U.S. opened a new hotel in the area, while its compatriot Marriott International plans to open a branch of its boutique Edition hotels in 2020.

As competition heats up, innovation is key to attracting guests. "Hotel operators are coming up with new types of facilities with unique characters and services to cater to guests' lifestyle choices," said Kiyoshi Tsuchiya, director of CBRE's hotel segment in Japan.

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

One example is Ryohin Keikaku, which runs the retailer Muji. It plans to open the country's first Muji-branded hotel in Ginza in 2019.

Like Muji, H.I.S. is a relatively new face in the hotel industry. Founded by Chairman and CEO Hideo Sawada, the company shook up Japan's travel industry by buying leftover air tickets from major tour companies and selling them to individual travelers at a discount.

The technological advances of Henn na Hotels will undoubtedly appeal to some patrons, and they will certainly help in a rapidly aging country, but a question remains: Will customers miss the human touch in what is, after all, the hospitality industry?

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