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Robots in hotels aren’t a new phenomenon, but this is the first one to be powered by IBM’s Watson.

— Deanna Ting

Hilton Worldwide and IBM are collaborating to pilot a new Watson-enabled robot concierge.

Named “Connie” in honor of Hilton founder Conrad Hilton, it marks the first time IBM has developed a Watson-enabled robot specifically for the hospitality market.

Connie uses domain knowledge from Watson and WayBlazer to answer guests’ questions about local attractions, dining recommendations, and hotel features and amenities. Right now, Connie is stationed near the reception desk at the Hilton McLean in Virginia, close to Hilton’s headquarters, and has been in use for the past month. Hilton hasn’t yet set an end date for the pilot program.

The 2.5-foot-tall robot uses a combination of Watson APIs that include Dialog, Speech to Text, Text to Speech, and Natural Language Classifier, to be able to greet guests on arrival and answer their questions about amenities, services, and operations. It uses WayBlazer’s travel domain knowledge to be able to suggest local attractions off property.

This isn’t the first use of robots in hospitality. In 2014, Starwood’s Aloft brand debuted Botlr, a robotic bellhop. Last July, a new hotel that uses robots for nearly all of its hotel operations, opened in Japan. This year, humanoid robots called Pepper will be sailing on two of Carnival Corporation’s ships in Europe this spring.

Hotel guests also appear to be receptive to robots. A new Travelzoo survey of 6,000 travelers in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America, shows that nearly 80 percent of respondents expect robots to play a big part in their lives by 2020, and almost two-thirds said they would be comfortable with robots being used in the travel industry.

Connie’s Brain

Connie is the first hospitality robot of its kind to use IBM’s powerful cognitive system, Watson, and it has some potentially powerful applications for assisting hotel front desk staff, as well as playing a role in meetings and events, says Jim Holthouser, executive vice president of global brands for Hilton Worldwide.

“What artificial intelligence and robotics can do is help us eliminate operational pain points, eliminate customer pain points, and help us surprise and delight our customers,” Holthauser explains. He says Connie can help answer guests’ routine questions about ballroom locations, breakfast hours, pool hours, and the like, freeing hotel staff to engage more with guests, check people in more quickly, and provide a better overall hospitality experience.

He also sees many uses for Connie that relate specifically to group meetings and events. “When you walk into a very large Hilton, and you’re showing up for a meeting, you typically go to the front desk and say, ‘I need to be in this ballroom.’ But with this robot located conveniently across the front desk, it wakes up and it can give you instructions on how to get there. It will help you way find,” Holthouser says. “In meetings, it can also do some very fast research and fact checking so if a question comes up in a meeting like ‘what’s the GDP in China for the last five years?,’ without even asking Connie, it can find the information and bring it back to you.”

Holthouser adds, “Common sense tells me there aren’t many applications for Connie in some of our brands like Hampton by Hilton. But you can picture it in larger Hiltons, or those with convention centers and large meeting spaces where you have a more international clientele.” Connie can be programmed to speak in any language.

Beyond answering guests’ questions, Connie could also play a big role in guest recognition and engagement. Holthouser asks, “When you walk by, wouldn’t it be cool if Connie said ‘Thank you for being a Diamond member’ using face-recognition software?”

For Hilton and IBM, this particular technology isn’t a publicity stunt, Holthouser says. “I don’t think this is about novelty. It’s not trying to be gimmicky. We’re trying to find really solid business reasons to help us do what we do today, but do it better and less expensively and maybe more effectively.” He adds, “Customers are definitely intrigued right now. You just don’t expect to see a robot at a Hilton. There’s a lot of engagement, and lots of smiles and laughs.”

Connie won’t be replacing hotel staff anytime soon, Holthouser adds. “At the end of the day, we are a hospitality company, and it’s a people-serving-people business. We will always need people to deliver hospitality; the motive is not to replace people. It’s really to enable people to do their jobs better and do hospitality better—so the front desk person can check people in faster and anticipate guest needs and give a warmer welcome to our guests.”

And Connie isn’t a plug-and-play piece of technology, either. The more often guests interact with Connie, the more it learns, with the ability to adapt and improve its recommendations. The hotel gets a log of all the questions Connie is asked, as well as Connie’s answers. “You just can’t take the robot out of the box and say, ‘Go to work,’ Holthouser explains. “It’s a lot like training a dog or a puppy. You have to invest time on the front end.”

Using technologies like Connie to enhance guest experiences is something Hilton has been investing in heavily in recent years. Examples include digital check-in with Room Selection, which recently surpassed 10 million users and Digital Key. The hotel company also formed partnerships with Uber to deliver ‘Local Scene’ and ‘Ride Reminders,’ and with Tesla and Current, powered by GE, to expand an electric vehicle charging program.

For now, more time is needed to see just how effective Connie can be in improving the overall guest experience, and offering personalized, customized recommendations and assistance. “Everything we’re trying to do with our digital platform and with technology—it’s all about customization and personalization,” Holthouser explains. “For Connie to work, we need to get to that point, too.”

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