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Robots help keep guests happy and profits up at Japan's Henn na Hotel

The humanoid receptionist at Henn na Hotel speaks four languages, and her dinosaur "co-workers" roar when they are in a bad mood. (Photo by Manami Yamada)

SASEBO, Japan When Japan's first robot-staffed hotel opened its doors, skeptics expected the novelty would soon wear off. But customers have taken to the concept, and a year later, Henn na Hotel is now one of the most profitable in Japan.

The hotel opened in July, 2015. It is part of Huis Ten Bosch, a Dutch-themed amusement park in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, operated by Japanese travel agency H.I.S.

Porter robots carry luggage through specially designed hallways.

The difference between Henn na Hotel and a normal hotel is immediately apparent, as this writer found out on a visit in October. At the front desk, I was welcomed by two robot receptionists, one humanoid, the other a dinosaur. There were no human employees in sight. The dinosaur receptionist seemed particularly popular, judging by the number of guests posing for pictures in front of it.

To check in, the humanoid receptionist instructed me to say my name into a microphone. Once I paid my bill at a machine, I was issued a room card -- but no key, since the locks at Henn na Hotel are controlled by facial recognition technology. Guests register their face using the camera mounted on the door to their rooms.

Each room also comes with its own concierge robot. Called Churi-chan, the 30cm-tall robot sits by the bed and tells guests the time, weather and other information. Its responses are not always on the mark, particularly if you are not facing it squarely when you speak to it. When I asked Churi-chan to turn off the lights, it said, "Uh, what?" Still, after talking with it for a while, the robot grew on me.

MORE THAN A GIMMICK At first glance, the hotel's many robots may seem like little more than a gimmick, but careful thought went into making them useful as well as amusing. Great pains were taken, for example, to determine the optimal width and slope of hallways so that porter robots can carry luggage safely. A balance had to be struck, as wider hallways mean greater safety and comfort for guests, but also higher construction costs.

"Robots keep evolving ever more quickly, while architecture changes at a much slower pace," said Yoshiyuki Kawazoe, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo and an architect who was involved in the design of the hotel. "The biggest challenge was to integrate these two elements, which operate on different time scales, and create new value."

This in-room concierge robot sings old songs on request and answers guests' questions, though not always very accurately. (Photo by Manami Yamada)

Huis Ten Bosch President Hideo Sawada said he is considering introducing even more robots at the hotel. "Robots work hard, even when it is raining. It would be fun if a lawn mower with a built-in sensor could say 'I'm tired' when someone approached it," he said. "It would be impressive if a guest could say to the machine 'Hang in there,' and the machine could reply 'Thank you.' It's easy to install a sensor, so we should try it."

Responses from guests have been favorable. I talked to 10 people staying there and asked them to evaluate the hotel as "very good," "good," "average" or "bad." Eight respondents said "good," and the remaining two said "very good." In a survey by Rakuten Travel, many people who had stayed at the hotel rated it four or five on a scale of one to five.

The occupancy rate of the hotel is about 90% during busy periods. Due in part to a series of large earthquakes that struck Kumamoto Prefecture earlier this year, the overall rate is around 70%, but that is still 15 percentage points higher than the resort hotel average. In its first year, 50,000 people stayed at the Henn na Hotel, and it generated an investment return of 20%, extremely high for a hotel.

LABOR PAINS This hotel also addresses a challenge facing Japanese hotels. The country's hospitality industry enjoys a high reputation among overseas visitors, but its labor productivity remains rather low. According to the Development Bank of Japan, the labor productivity of Japan's food service and lodging industries is only about 70% what it is in the U.S., with long work hours cited as the main reason for the low productivity. In Japan, holidays are concentrated in very specific periods, which creates a massive gap between the amount of manpower needed in peak and off-peak seasons.

Huis Ten Bosch President Hideo Sawada is considering programming lawn mower robots to say "I'm tired" when someone approaches.

Wider use of robots could help manage this gap and provide relief for overworked employees. The thought of robots handling customer service raises eyebrows among many in the hotel industry, but they may not have the luxury of resisting the idea for much longer, as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are expected to exacerbate Japan's shortage of hotels.

"Hen," the first kanji character in Henn na Hotel's name in Japanese, means "change," a reflection of the hotel operator's commitment to continue evolving. And although the character can also mean "unusual," it may not be long before robot-staffed hotels are nothing out of the ordinary.

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