I was in the elevator heading up to my room at Hotel EMC2, a boutique hotel in downtown Chicago, when one of the hotel’s most popular staff members — Leo, a robotic butler — methodically cruised on in before the doors shut. Stenciled on his machine body is a dapper tuxedo and bowtie. Leo, of course, was on duty, likely carrying a toothbrush or extra towels or bottles of water to a guest’s room. Although it’s possible he may have just been summoned for the “wow” factor that comes with having a droid show up at your door.
“It’s like R2-D2 is providing room service!” another hotel guest quipped as Leo joined us in the elevator.
EMC2’s robotic butlers Leo and Cleo are certainly hits with guests. More than half of the hotel guests request deliveries from the robots during their visits, which keeps the robots busy, Mark Shouger, the hotel’s general manager, tells me.
The robots are among the many geek-chic surprises that are thoughtfully threaded throughout EMC2, a 195-room Autograph Collection hotel in Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. The theme here is art-meets-science, and EMC2, which opened in 2017, was designed with whimsy touches throughout. The restaurant’s name is Albert, a nod to Einstein. The hotel boasts a collection of more than 12,000 science books. Hallways are filled with digital art, and each room has a brass horn where you can set your phone in a slot so that it will amplify the music you’re streaming.
Beyond amenities, the hotel has a partnership with Project SYNCERE (Supporting Youth’s Needs with Core Engineering Research Experiments) and when guests book rooms directly with the hotel, Hotel EMC2 makes contributions to help support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in underserved Chicago communities. The hotel has been providing an annual commitment of at least $90,000 a year to these programs.
I stayed at Hotel EMC2 while celebrating a girlfriend’s birthday back in February, weeks before the coronavirus pandemic shifted our way of life in the United States, temporarily halting leisure travel. During my stay, the whole robotic room service experience was something that was novel and quirky. Sharing an elevator with a robot butler was certainly deserving of an Instagram story.
The robots are a fun way to supplement service, Shouger told me. But are they the future of hospitality? He wouldn’t go that far.
“Personalized attention and care for guests, by humans, will never be replaced by robots,” he says.
Other hotels have been using robots as a way to impress guests with a quirky and fun amenity, while also freeing up staff members to do other tasks. Over the past few years, hotels across the country have been using robots to do everything from provide front-desk concierge services to hauling luggage to delivering snacks.
I’m curious if more places will begin employing robots like Cleo and Leo. As we begin tip-toeing back into travel, will the hospitality industry begin relying more on robots to help provide room service, check in guests or deliver food in an era of social distancing?
It’s a trend I like. I like it a bot, actually.