After staying at a Henn Na or the FlyZoo hotels, your regular lodging will seem merely serviceable. Here’s a look at Japan’s Henn Na and China’s FlyZoo futuristic hotels.
Japan’s Henn Na Hoteru or Henn Na Hotels, owned by H.I.S., are renowned for high-tech features. In English, the hotel’s name roughly translates into “Strange” or “Weird” Hotel.
At the Henn Na near the Kansai Airport in Osaka, guests will find a hot springs facility, and a lobby that mimics being underwater. But most cool? The front desk is staffed by robotic dinosaurs.
“The dinosaurs are somewhat gimmicky,” admitted Jay Allen of the website Unseen Japan, but “Henn Na has used the concept to push other technology and innovations that benefit travelers by offering a ‘futuristic’ stay experience.”
Allen points out that Henn Na Hotels feature state-of-the-art equipment in rooms, including a steam closet (for steaming clothes and killing bacteria), a smartphone with local internet connectivity for roaming the city, and an AI-powered, in-room remote control, for guests to call home, stream videos, control the room’s lighting and serve as a remote for the TV.
A new Henn Na Hotel in Tokyo Ginza was built specifically for business travelers, and at the front desk, guests are greeted by humanoid “female” robots. The robot staff not only greets guests, but checks them into their rooms. The robot speaks English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese, and can smile, blink and move her arms.
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For the Ginza-located hotel, each room also features a 4K television, as shown in the hotel’s promotional video. Robots are assigned tasks such as cleaning the windows and floors, but humans make the beds and handle communications.
In August, a new Henn Na Hotel in Tokyo Tawaramachi in the Suginami City area opened with a holographic staff, a holographic ninja, a dinosaur, as well as an anime character.
A tablet-like device adjusts the lights, and not just dark to light, but offers a “mood preset” that includes such choices as “relax,” “focus,” “sunset,” “spring,” as well as set the temperature, and stream movies. Guests can also order off an interactive menu.
“Japan faces a rapidly aging and dwindling population and is constantly seeking technology to enable businesses to do more, with less staff,” Allen said.
“Japan faces a huge influx of tourists, including an expected rush for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” he added. “This means it needs staff who can speak multiple languages; not just English, but Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian and other languages. This personnel crunch, combined with an increasing need for foreign language support can, in some cases, be met more quickly and cheaply with AI and robotics.”
Linguistic diversity is an issue in Japan and the current dinosaur robot staff are limited to Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean, but “is likely to change as AI technology evolves,” Allen said.
“One of the hot new gifts of the year in Japan is a robot bear called Koupen-chan, which responds contextually to phrases from its owner and offers expressions of support and sympathy. I can see this technology evolving to the point where the robots are no longer a gimmick, such as with Henn Na, but are offering full-on interactive assistance in a variety of spoken languages,” he said.
China is leading the way in automation, with unmanned shops and restaurants. China’s 291-room FlyZoo hotel, owned by Alibaba (yes, the same popular e-commerce business), is keyless and cashless. It opened in Hangzhou at the end of 2018. Wheeled robots greet and serve guests. There is no front desk, nor are there any plush couches or chairs in the hotel lobby.
Chinese nationals go to one of several kiosks to check in. Foreigners are approached by a human staff member (in a uniform more than a little reminiscent of a retro flight attendant’s). They are called “ambassadors,” coined by Alibaba CEO Andy Wang. “Ambassadors” assist guests and take their photo. Guests can choose the floor and the way their room faces. Elevators operate, and hotel room doors open by facial recognition.
In a CNBC profile, Wang said guest photos are only used for the duration of the guest’s stay and then disappear upon check out.
FlyZoo’s promotional video shows “Tmall Genie,” a voice-activated, Alexa-like and sized tech tool on the nightstands in each room; guests can speak into and order water, ice, room service, as well as open the curtains, turn on the TV and dim the room lights. Robot butlers, made by Alibaba, do most deliveries, with the exception of soups, irons and ironing boards.
In the hotel eatery, every table has its own QR code, to scan onto the app. The bar operates in the same way, tables with individual QR codes, but at the latter, you’re served by a quick-moving robot bartender.
Cold food-and-drink distribution fridges (consider them super cool, tech, vending machines) are locked, but open with an app on a smartphone. Once you choose your item, the app knows exactly what you’ve picked up and charges you for it through your app.
The fitness center’s floor is like a massive computer screen, and images in front of you offer coaching. There’s a Dance Dance Revolution-like exercise, and instead of standing on a pad, the floor indicates which moves to make.
The hotel employs a human housekeeping staff (who access your room via the “old-school” key card). Alibaba has an association with Marriott (which also encompasses the Ritz -Carlton and the W Hotels), but Marriotts in China are only in the “considering” stage in regards to eliminating front desk staff.
According to a press release, the hotel was developed by the company’s online travel platform, Fliggy, Alibaba’s AI Labs, and Alibaba Cloud technology with the goal “to leverage cutting-edge tech to help transform the hospitality industry, one that keeps the sector current with the digital era we’re living in.”