With tourist numbers surging and labor in short supply, a new hotel chain is making its mark with a staff of robots.
Henn na Hotels of Japan is using robots—some resembling humans, others resembling dinosaurs—as front-desk staff, porters and cleaners. It is an audacious move in a business that’s long relied on the human touch.
“We think that the number of people who can work for hotels will be less and less because of the population decline,” Yasuhiko Hoshi, associate director at HIS Hotel Holdings, tells the Innovation Group. “We reached the idea that hotel employees can be replaced by robots.”
The Henn na Hotels group—henn means strange in Japanese—is owned by Japanese travel agency HIS. The first branch opened in 2015 near a Nagasaki theme park operated by the company.
The fifth Henn na Hotel opened this month in Ginza, Tokyo’s glitzy shopping district, ahead of an anticipated shortage of hotel rooms leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. Muji, another mold-breaking brand, is also opening a hotel in Ginza in spring 2019, above its home decor and clothing store.
Hoshi says that HIS plans to open seven more Henn na Hotels in Japan this year and is also looking at expanding abroad.
At the 98-room Tokyo hotel, a skeleton staff of humans works in rotating shifts to keep costs low. Room rates start at 8,000JPY (US$75) for a single room and 14,000JPY for a twin room, significantly less than most hotels in the area.
Guests are greeted in Japanese, Chinese, Korean or English by androids at the front desk, based on their passports. They then check in at nearby kiosks and are given room key cards.
The robots can take a little getting used to. “The robots are quite beautiful, but at first they are a little scary,” a 30-year-old guest from Thailand told the Japan Times.
For years, Japan has been a leader in replacing humans with machines, from automated factory workers to food vending machines to domestic helpers. The innovation is driven by necessity. Due to Japan’s low birth rate, the country’s population shrank by almost a million people in the five years between 2010 and 2015, when the population stood at 127.1 million.