Last week, Starwood's Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, California, added a new member to the service team called A.L.O. (pronounced as "el-oh"). A.L.O., however, is not a traditional employee. It only takes electricity as salary and tweets as tips, and it will work as a "Botlr" (robotic butler) for the hotel.

According to NBC News, A.L.O. is the first robot providing butler service to guests staying in the Aloft Hotel. When guests request for small items, such as toothpaste, snacks or towels, the hotel staff will send A.L.O. on the way for delivery. The 3-feet-tall A.L.O., "dressed in a vinyl-collared butler uniform," will then use Wi-Fi to navigate the hallway and elevator for the task.

At this point, having a Botlr to provide customer service is only a pilot program by the Aloft brand. If it turns out successful, Starwood will place one or two Botlrs in every Aloft Hotel and possibly introduce the Botler service concept to other brands within the hotel chain.

Starwood is funding the start-up Savioke, which develops and builds Botlers. In addition, the hotel chain has an exclusive agreement with Savioke through the end of the year.

So, does it mean hotels can rely on machines to serve humans now? Probably not at this moment, but the time will come soon. Now, let's picture a futuristic hotel where machines serve people:

From a customer's perspective

  • Guests search and make a reservation online or with a mobile device.
  • Guests arrive and check themselves in using a kiosk or a mobile app. They can pick the rooms available on their own, as if they were selecting an empty seat on an airplane.
  • The kiosk or the mobile app will verify the guest identity and form of payment.
  • Guests enter the room with a key issued by the kiosk or with a mobile app.
  • During their stay, guests have access to all hotel facilities such as the gym, pool and business center with a room key or a mobile app.
  • Guests may also request additional amenities and service from the hotel through a mobile app.
  • The amenities will be delivered by a robot, and the service requested will be arranged or recorded in a computer program.
  • Guests check out at the kiosk or with a mobile app.

From a hotel manager's perspective

  • A reservation is received and confirmed in a "mobile service center (MSC)."
  • A kiosk is set up in the hotel, with guest information synced with MSC.
  • Greetings from the manager, as well as the instructions of how to use a kiosk or a mobile app for self-check-in are emailed to the guests 24 hours before they arrive.
  • MSC controls room inventory, showing all available rooms to guests in the kiosk or on a mobile app so that guests can pick the room they like on their own. If the room is not ready at that time, an estimated wait time will be auto-calculated. When the room is ready, the guests will then be notified through text messaging or another form of communications that is determined by the guests.
  • Staff in MSC responds to guest inquiries via texting, tweets, voice calls or through the hotel's mobile app.
  • Staff in MSC can have additional amenities that are requested by guests delivered to the rooms by remotely controlling the robots that are located in the hotel (e.g., the Botlr).
  • Staff in MSC takes care of the guest requests that cannot be completed by machines.
  • Depending on the hotel's occupancy, the hours of labor needed to clean a room will be calculated. The housekeeping and maintenance schedule will be generated with a computer program — likely, the robots can finish most of the cleaning jobs as well; housekeepers are there to ensure everything meets the hotel's standards.
  • The manager may work inside the property or remotely in MSC. They promote the hotel "behind the themes," set the price, "watch" the traffic of the hotel, and make sure all computer programming and robots are working appropriately.

Does this read like a science fiction to you?

The truth is many hotels have already implemented many items that I described above in today's operations. I just wonder if the robotic service concept will work in the hotels with limited service better than those luxury chains that still rely on well-trained staff to provide impeccable service.