Travel agency H.I.S. Co. is eyeing an ambitious plan to build eight more android-staffed Henn na Hotels in addition to the one it opened in Tokyo’s high-end Ginza shopping district on Thursday.
Against the backdrop of a shrinking population and a growing number of foreign tourists, the hotel has found success employing robots as a way to both draw in business and reduce staffing costs.
“Japan does not have enough hotel rooms and we have a shrinking population to staff stores,” said Miura Tatsuki, a manager from the public relations division at H.I.S. “We created this hotel in part to respond to societal issues.”
In addition to its latest addition in Ginza, the company plans to build four robot-staffed hotels in the Tokyo area this year and four others spread among Osaka, Fukuoka, and Kyoto. The company also opened an automated coffee shop, Henn na Cafe in Shibuya Ward, on the same day as the opening of the Ginza hotel.
The “Henn na” name is a play on words, using a Chinese character that means both strange and change.
According to the Mizuho Research Institute’s September 2017 report, by the 2020 Olympics there may be a shortage of as many as 3,000 hotel rooms in Tokyo.
The hotel has already demonstrated the cost-saving potential of employing robotic staff. Originally 30 staff members were assigned to work at the 140-room hotel, but the automated check-in system allowed for the company to reduce the number of staff to seven working on rotating shifts, according to Tatsuki.
With human gestures and blinking eyes, the androids provoke equal amounts of awe and unease. “The robots are quite beautiful, but at first they are a little scary,” said one 30-year-old guest visiting from Thailand.
When guests approach the reception desk, the androids begin speaking in a preset routine to welcome guests to the hotel in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. Customers can then check-in at two nearby kiosks.
“People who come to the hotel are often surprised by the robots, but guests tend to really like the androids and they take a lot of pictures,” said one member of staff of the hotel who had also worked at the hotel’s other branch in Nishi-Kasai district in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward.
The original Henn na Hotel was opened in July 2015 near the Nagasaki-based theme park Huis Ten Boschu, which is operated by a subsidiary of H.I.S.
Tourist groups have become a staple of the Ginza area and locals have coined the term bakugai (explosive buying) as a reference for the shoppers’ liberal spending habits.
“The hotel will continue to adopt the latest technology. The robots do routine work, but humans have to do the creative work. Thinking about new ideas and developing them is the role we have to play,” said Tatsuki.