Need Towels? The Front Desk Is Sending a Robot Right Up

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By Justin Solomon

Look out, Rosie the Robot, Starwood Hotels' (HOT) Aloft brand has a taskmaster of its own.

His (or her?) name: ALO (pronounced "el-oh"), the chain's first Botlr (short for robotic butler.) Standing just under 3 feet tall, ALO comes dressed in a vinyl-collared butler uniform and will soon be on call all day and night to fulfill requests from guests.

Forget your toothpaste? Need more towels? How about a late-night chocolate bar? All guests of the hotel have to do is call the front desk, where staff will load up the Botlr with requested items, punch in the guest's room number and send it off to make the delivery, navigating hallways and even call for the elevator using WiFi.

At the Aloft in Cupertino, California, ALO is being fine-tuned for the Aug. 20 official launch of this pilot program. If successful, the Botlrs will appear in nearly 100 properties. "I think there is a chance that this could go enterprise-wide based on a successful pilot," said Brian McGuinness, senior vice president for the Aloft brand.

Helping People, Not Replacing Them

According to a study at the University of Oxford, 47 percent of U.S. employment is at risk of being replaced by computerization, but Starwood says these robots are not intended to replace any employees. Rather, they are there to free them up from small tasks, leaving them more time to deal with customers face to face. "It is certainly not replacing our staff but it is augmenting our ability to service our customers," McGuinness said.

"We applaud Starwood's program, which follows a long tradition of innovation in our industry," said Katherine Lugar, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

The Botlr was designed and built by Sunnyvale, California, start-up Savioke, which in April announced a seed round of funding of $2 million from investors, including Google (GOOG) Ventures. Company CEO Steve Cousins said he sees a huge market for service robots. "There are all these places, hotels, elder care facilities, hospitals that have a few hundred robots maybe but no significant numbers and we think that's just a huge opportunity," he said.

Starwood Hotels, which is funding the pilot, has an exclusive deal with Savioke through the end of the year. The robots' cost was not made available, but Cousins said they will become more affordable as supply costs come down. The business model will be leasing the robots and charging a service fee, he said. "It's going to come in at a few thousand dollars, it's not going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars; it's not going to be tens of thousands of dollars," he said.

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