China’s Alibaba Is Shaping the Future of the Machine-Driven Hotel
FlyZoo Mobile App
Imagine being in your room within one minute of arriving at your hotel. FlyZoo, a 290-room hotel located close to Alibaba Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, a 170 kilometers southwest of Shanghai, promises just that. It is powered by Fliggy, Alibaba’s on-line travel platform. The experience begins with FlyZoo mobile app. Select the floor and the room view and book. If you’re a local Chinese guest, check in via the app, which will also scan your face. Foreigners can check in upon arrival at one of several kiosks in the lobby.
Rather than keys and cards, FlyZoo uses facial recognition in the elevator and at the room to open doors. Inside, command Tmall Genie, Alibaba’s voice technology, to adjust the temperature, lights, and curtains. Ask Genie what the Wi-Fi password is, although it’s unthinkable a password is even needed for a future hotel. The room is minimalist — think of the predictable white capsule — and bereft of a personal note from a person at the hotel, if there is one. So forget niceties like flowers or bottled water. Ask Genie for water, and it’ll be delivered by a one-meter tall Alibaba robot, which can also drop off fresh towels, new pillows, and laundry.
Head to the hotel restaurant and order food via the FlyZoo app. Taller robots will deliver it. For drinks, a bar manned by a large robotic arm offers more than 20 different cocktails. Your face will give away how much you drank, with the charges going straight to your room bill. And what is Alibaba without some shopping? Take a photo of the chair or pillow in the room, and add them to the shopping cart on the app. Check out and pay through the app. Heaven forbid if you forget the passport: The room locks as soon as you’ve paid.
“As smart technology is reshaping industries, the FlyZoo Hotel represents Alibaba’s endeavor to marry hospitality with technology, and ultimately inspire and empower the tourism industry to embrace innovation,” said Andy Wang, CEO of Alibaba Future Hotel Management, the division that oversees the hotel project, on Alibaba Group’s news website, Alizila.
Motivation for FlyZoo
FlyZoo leverages technologies across Alibaba’s ecosystem, suggesting that the e-commerce giant wants to be a technology provider to hotels, as opposed to being in the hotel business itself. Aside from leveraging Fliggy for user experience design, it uses Alibaba’s Damo Academy for artificial intelligence, data analytics labs, and robotics, and Tmall Marketplace for marketing.
Fliggy already collaborates with Marriott International on a facial recognition pilot for Chinese guests, starting with two Marriott properties in Hangzhou and Sanya. Alibaba competes with other Chinese e-commerce players, including Baidu and JD.com, for a bite of the huge hospitality market. Baidu, for example, is collaborating with InterContinental Hotels Group to introduce Smart Rooms that are powered by artificial intelligence, starting with two InterContinental hotels in Beijing and Guangzhou.
JD.com, meanwhile, has partnered with brands such as Sheraton and Wanda to furnish rooms with products on its platform and their QR codes so guests can buy and have them delivered to the hotel. At press time, Skift was unable to reach Wang for further details on its aims for FlyZoo and the hotel’s first-quarter performance.
Hotel Opened December 2018
The hotel opened on December 8 with a rate of $205, rather pricey for Hangzhou. However, it’s not clear whether it’s attracting only Alibaba staff and domestic guests. It’s not listed on any of the major online travel agencies, nor are there any reviews. A TripAdvisor spokesperson in Singapore said it’s not listed yet on the platform, either internationally or locally in China, which indicates that no one has felt compelled to review.
New Hotel Category??
Cetin Sekergioclu, who introduced in-room robots, check in kiosks, and egg-cooking robots at M Social Hotel and Hotel Jen Orchard Gateway in Singapore when he was working with Millennium Hotels & Resorts and Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts, respectively, does not believe all hotels will look like FlyZoo in the future.
However, Sekergioclu, now CEO and founder of Upgrading.cc, believes the Alibaba-style hotel can inspire a new niche category, “whatever it will be called, perhaps AI/machine-driven hotels?” “What we may see in the future is that beside full-fledged Alibaba-style hotels, other hotels will pick and choose the beneficial AI functions to use in their properties, such as facial recognition, voice recognition, big data, digital key, kiosk check-in, based on their hotel category and branding.
Human Touch with AI
“Above all, I believe human touch is essential during the customer journey where personal attention/focus will always be necessary regardless of any hotel category. AI/machine may augment the customer experience while delivering more efficient and better cost management for a very targeted audience.”
As an example, he said the robots at M Social and Hotel Jen are suitable for the hotels, which are lifestyle products, hence the customer experience is extremely positive. “They enable staff to focus more on providing personalized service and the hotels to schedule manpower more effectively. For example, the in-room robots can take care of the night-shift duties.”
Allan Taylor, CEO for Boost, a mobile learning solutions provider for the hospitality industry, agrees. “Some of the technology that they use will stay, other technologies will fall by the wayside. Ultimately it will provide a good testing ground for what works and what doesn’t, which is a good thing.”
Added Taylor, “Technologies such as facial recognition could play a very useful role in the hotel of the future. We already access our smart devices using this technology, and I do not see any reason why we can’t open our hotel room doors with it as well. I would be interested to see how the check-in process could also be sped up using facial recognition also, as well as the security benefits this could bring [although question marks have been raised about the risk of data breaches].
“The app concept is good and provides the guest with more control. We are already able to choose which seats on the airlines we travel on, so it is only a matter of time before we should be able to choose exactly which floor, the room direction, and even a room theme. Any technology that is guest-facing must be of the highest quality. If the Tmall Genie smart assistant works as advertised, then life will become much easier for the guest, with requests and questions addressed easily and efficiently.”
But he is less convinced by the robots. “We have already seen this tried in some Japanese hotels yet most of the robots they initially employed have been fired. There are good reasons for this, outside of the novelty factor, guests simply prefer human interaction especially when it comes to F&B service. We have not developed robots that are sufficiently flexible and robust enough to replace a human in this context. However, obviously I have not experienced the Alibaba-made robot yet.”
Japan’s Henn na Hotel in Nagasaki made headlines early this year with its announcement to fire more than half of its 243 robots following complaints from staff and guests. Guests said their robots would wake them up, thinking snoring sounds were commands. Staff said they ended up working overtime to repair robots that stopped working. The hotel said it would use robots only in areas that were effective.