Short-staffed hotels look to robots to cope with summer travel boom

Robots like Rosey from “The Jetsons” and C3PO from “Star Wars” have long helped meet the domestic needs of their fictional owners. Now real robots are helping hotels shore up staffing shortages amid a boom in summer travel.

Guests at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Boston can use an app to have Mobi — a rolling robot that’s a little larger than a household trashcan — bring purchases like plush toy lobsters to their rooms as a treat for the kids. The robot pings customers’ cellphones as it arrives at the door.

“Guests just love it,” said Danielle McNally, the hotel’s director of marketing communications. “We dressed him up in a Celtics jersey for the playoffs and in a graduation cap for commencement season.”

Robots are among several tactics — including hiring workers with no experience, raising rates and canceling reservations — hotels have resorted to amid an ongoing staffing shortage and post-pandemic travel surge.

American hotels already have “hired” about 200 robots from California-based Relay Robotics during the pandemic to cope with the shortage, the New York Post reported Sunday.

The rolling bots, decorated with decal bowties and vinyl wraps resembling hotel uniforms, are roughly the size of R2-D2 from “Star Wars” and sport names like Geoffrey and even crack robot jokes on their user screens.

Other hotels are relying more on digital self-service.

“I just checked out on my Hilton app, the same way I checked in and received my room key on my phone app,” economist Warren L. Coats said about his recent stay at the Hilton Portland Downtown in Oregon. “I never saw the check-in counter. I assume that those people are now doing something more productive.”

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Meanwhile, Europe’s largest hotel chain Accor — which owns the Mercure, Ibis and Fairmont brands in more than 110 countries, including the United States — has started hiring young people and migrants without resumes or prior experience to fill 35,000 openings, Reuters reported Monday.

Despite these efforts, hotels have been forced to cancel bookings and raise rates.

Yannis Moati, CEO of New York City-based Hotels by Day, said hotels have canceled 3% of his booking service’s reservations this summer, up from 1% in 2019.

“That’s a very taboo subject. Nobody wants to admit it,” Mr. Moati said, noting the cancellations have cost his company “hundreds of thousands of dollars” and hurt its credibility with customers.

He said the cancellations have come from “overbooking” as hotels, like airlines, were “betting on a certain number of guests not showing up.”

Hotels, like other industries, underestimated summer demand, he said.

“One thing I’ve learned over the years is that we mimic the general trends,” Mr. Moati said.

Rates have increased with bookings. Leading hotel industry market researcher STR reports that the average daily hotel rate for the week that ended June 25 was $157.05, up 17.1% or $22 over the same week in 2019.

During that same week, STR found that 72.3% of the nation’s 9.3 million guest rooms in 70,000 hotels were occupied, only 4.1% lower than in 2019.

“Travelers are going to pay more for their hotel room than they did before the pandemic,” said Alison Hoyt, STR’s senior director of consulting. “Rising labor costs and a lot of unfilled hospitality job openings are still affecting the industry.”

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With hotel rates rising, STR said the revenue per available room was $113.55 for the week ending June 25, 12.3% higher than the same week in 2019.

Ms. Hoyt said “a lot of the same issues” are lingering from COVID shutdowns, which cost U.S. hotels an estimated $108 billion in business travel revenues during 2020 and 2021 combined.

Those issues include the rising cost of supplies – including towels, soap and food – that have contributed to rate increases.

They also include increased labor costs amid the shortage of housekeepers, front desk workers and caterers.

Many hotel workers who were furloughed during the pandemic found other jobs and did not return when health restrictions eased earlier this year.

None of the nation’s leading hotel chains responded this week to a request for comment.

But the United Kingdom-based IHG Hotels & Resorts — which owns 16 brands, including Holiday Inn and Regent Hotels & Resorts — referred The Washington Times to a recent American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) survey on staffing shortages.

The trade group’s survey of member hotels reported last Thursday that the industry has more than 130,000 unfilled job openings.

Among survey respondents, 49% told the AHLA they were “severely understaffed,” with the majority — 58% — reporting housekeeping as their “most critical need.”

To meet surging demand, the survey reported that nearly 90% of hotels have increased wages, 71% have offered more flexible hours and 43% have touted expanded benefits.

From February to June, AHLA said U.S. hotels hired an average of 23 new employees per property — but remained about 12 workers short.

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“With hotels on a hiring spree amid surging summer travel demand, our industry is providing current and prospective hotel employees historic opportunities for good-paying, lifelong careers,” said Rosanna Maietta, AHLA executive vice president of communications and public relations.

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