Robots at your service: Your face is the room key in Alibaba’s futuristic FlyZoo Hotel

From unlocking one's room door to providing amenities, China's FlyZoo Hotel promises guests a high-tech stay

No one is manning the reception desk at Hangzhou's sleek FlyZoo Hotel - and that is completely normal.

In fact, guests rarely interact with staff at all during their entire stay here. Amenities are sent to the room by roving robots, while bespoke cocktails at the bar are mixed by a robotic arm.

This is, after all, a hotel unlike others. Owned entirely by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, it is, as its nickname Future Hotel indicates, one that taps heavily on new technologies in overhauling traditional hotel processes.

It is not the first high-tech hotel in the world, of course. Robots serving various functions have been deployed at other hotels in locations such as Japan and Singapore, with varying degrees of success.

But FlyZoo - derived from its Chinese name, which is a pun for "it is a must to stay here" - is much more than that. It has digitally transformed almost every aspect of its operations - from check-in and check-out procedures to concierge services.

This reporter stayed at the 290-room establishment for three nights last week and, for the most part, was impressed by how efficient many of these high-tech innovations turned out to be.

Alibaba declined to reveal how much money was invested in building the place.

FlyZoo, which opened in December last year, is a test bed of sorts for Alibaba, whose headquarters is situated just down the road. If things go well, these new ideas could be marketed and sold to other hotels.

Already, Alibaba has partnered global hotel chain Marriott International to trial facial technology check-in procedures at two Marriott outlets in China (one in Hangzhou and the other in Sanya).

When this reporter tried out the same type of check-in procedure at one of FlyZoo's self-service kiosks, a problem popped up.

As the system currently recognises only those holding Chinese national IDs, a staff had to help with registering a foreign passport.

The hiccup aside, this reporter could still make full use of the hotel's facial-recognition technology for the rest of the stay.

As soon as the scan of your face is completed - a procedure done on the spot and which takes seconds - your face becomes the key to unlocking everything from the hotel room to the gym doors.

Even using the lift to access the room floors takes a quick scan of the face, as does signing in for breakfast every morning.

For someone who usually misplaces the hotel key card, the system, which worked smoothly each time, proved to be fantastic.

Guests who prefer the old key card can still choose that option. Having your face scanned everywhere you go is after all a matter of concern for those who are worried about giving up too much of their personal data.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, an Alibaba spokesman insisted that the hotel takes data security "seriously and has strict measures in place to protect our guests".

He added: "The purpose of using facial recognition is solely to provide our guests with a more convenient hotel experience.

"Any images of our guests are immediately erased from our system after their stay with us. We also provide guests with the option to opt out of the use of facial recognition."

Another convenient piece of innovation is the voice-assistant option in each hotel room, which controls everything from drawing the curtains to dimming the lights to switching off the air-conditioner.

The smart speaker - Alibaba's Tmall Genie - can answer general questions about Wi-Fi passwords and restaurant opening hours, as well as go through the movie catalogue on the television and whittle down films with a specific actor or director in seconds.

The voice assistant worked perfectly with each command, until you attempt to ask questions in English.

For now, the system is available in only Mandarin - albeit a friendly female voice with a sense of humour to boot ("I thought I knew everything, how could I not know the answer to this?") - but there are plans to upgrade it with other languages in the future.

Getting the roving robots to send fresh towels or bottled water to the room can also be problematic when demand is too high - these robots move slowly, cute as they are.

A housekeeper showed up at this reporter's room door out of breath with a requested bag of toiletries, explaining that she was worried that the wait for the robot would be too long.

Such teething problems are minor for now, but it does raise the question: Is being smarter always better?

Without giving specific details, the Alibaba spokesman said that through the automation of routine work, the hotel staff are then "able to focus more on our guests instead".

Perhaps, only time will tell.


Other smart hotels in the region

SINGAPORE

Copthorne King's Hotel, M Social, Yotel, Hotel Jen, Sofitel Singapore City Centre

At least 10 hotels in Singapore have robot staff, such as M Social in Robertson Quay, Yotel in Orchard Road and the two Hotel Jen outlets - in Somerset and Cuscaden Road.

Hotel Jen's Jena and Jeno robots deliver guests' orders to their rooms, as do M Social's Aura robot, Yotel's twin robots and Sofitel Singapore City Centre's Sophie and Xavier robots. M Social and Copthorne King's Ausca robots cook eggs at breakfast.

In 2017, the Singapore Tourism Board announced a Smart Hotel Technology Road Map, part of a larger effort to keep the hotel industry competitive and sustainable.

According to reports, hotels here turned to automation as it frees up manpower to deliver better and more personal service, such as recommending where to go in the neighbourhood.

Indeed, the lack of customisation is perhaps one of the problems with choosing to go robotic.

A Straits Times story published last year quoted an M Social guest, who said the eggs cooked by Ausca tasted similar to those done by a human chef, but he would have liked to customise his order by asking for less oil or more pepper.

JAPAN

Henn-Na Hotel

The name translates to Strange Hotel and attracted a lot of hype for being one of the first robot-staffed hotels in the world, when it opened its doors in Nagasaki in 2015.

Photos of the hotel reception area went viral on social media as the three staff manning the check-in counters were all robots - one designed to look like a woman, while the other two looked like dinosaurs.

Since then, the hotel has run into a series of technical problems and reportedly cut its 243 robot staff by more than half earlier this year. The cost of maintaining these robots was too high and the machines were prone to break-downs or mishaps. For example, the receptionist robots could not answer basic questions and in-room voice assistants mistook snoring as voice commands.

SOUTH KOREA

Vista Walkerhill, Hotel Novotel Ambassador Dongdaemun

High-tech South Korea has made use of smart technology in several of its hotels, including these two hotels in Seoul. Both employ state-of-the-art voice-assistant technology in their rooms, with Novotel's Giga Genie smart speaker understanding voice commands in Korean and English. When The Straits Times' South Korea correspondent Chang May Choon tested the system last year, the voice assistant understood her commands even when she spoke in Singlish.

Yip Wai Yee