In 2015, a hotel opened in Sasebo, Japan that was something of a test case to prove an idea of its owner Hideo Sawada, founder of the low-cost international travel agency H.I.S. Co. Ltd. The Henn na Hotel (“Strange Hotel”) would demonstrate how minimizing manpower in an establishment and replacing many of the staff with robots would make the place the most efficient hotel in the world. The fact that it sort of compensates for Japan’s decreasing population is a bonus. Almost four years since its debut to local and international tourism, the ideal seems to have hit a snag.
As of 2019 H.I.S. has eight Henn na Hotels operating across Japan, with a total number of 248 robot staffers between them. But as The Daily Mail puts it, the chain has very recently been forced to cut that number by half following complaints by clients and because, ironically, these workforce-reducing automatons tended to need looking after by more people than they were meant to replace. As a human Henn na Hotel employee, who has worked there for three years, puts it, “It’s easier now that we’re not being frequently called by guests to help with problems with the robots.”
The menagerie of robot staff that the Henn na Hotel chain “employs” range from approximately human-looking to more off-the-wall creatures that live up to its Henn/Strange name, like tabletop dolls and dinosaur desk clerks. Reality has hit this novel concept hard because they run the risk of breaking down or, because their vaunted features have become less so. The Churi doll in every Henn na Hotel room was supposed to answer guest questions and take requests for human staffers to fulfill. Unfortunately her question-answering capability has become stunted and limited in info compared to smart speakers like Alexa or Siri.
It is no wonder then that the Churi dolls were the first to be removed from Henn na Hotels. Also being considered for retirement are some of the automated baggage handlers which sometimes broke down in snow or rain, and the iconic velociraptor concierge that talked guests through the hotel check-in process. One sobering fact about this is how quickly the robots, pretty cutting-edge in 2015, were obsolete in less than five years. Replacing them with updated versions also turned out to be more expensive than simply…hiring humans to pick up their work. Where does this leave the Henn na Hotel brand, cited in Guinness World Records as a first because of their robot staff? Only the future truly knows.
Image courtesy of The Verge