On the 400-acre grounds of the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki, Japan, stands the newly opened Henn-na Hotel. An animatronic velociraptor will greet you at reception, facial recognition software authenticates your face for keyless entry to your room, and robots deliver your luggage to you from the lobby.

Meanwhile, in central Munich, there sits an equally unusual new opening. Using a cloud-based PMS, digital check-in kiosks and in-room tablets may not interest sci-fi enthusiasts to quite the same extent, but Hotel Buddy, a new budget hotel that some are calling the world’s ‘first staffless hotel’ is almost certainly a more realistic vision of the future of hospitality. And there’s not a velociraptor in sight.

"It’s really difficult for the hotel industry to capture that space between technology and hospitality," says founder Johannes Eckelmann, who also serves as CEO of Cocoon Hotels. "It’s very challenging to keep up with the latest devices. But technology makes it easier to optimise administrative processes that reception staff usually has to deal with, so instead they have more time to be the perfect hosts." Or, they can be eliminated altogether.

What is now a tech triumph was initially borne out of ease and necessity; factors that are fundamental to the hotel’s USP.

While Buddy isn’t quite ‘staffless’ – it operates with one manager and four members of housekeeping on site – the hotel certainly achieves Eckelmann’s dual goals of lowering overheads and offering attractively high-tech budget accommodation. But is a hotel with minimal staff desirable for the guests?

"It’s a good question," the hotelier replies. "I think today’s tourists are very happy to stay in a top location, but within a limited space. And not everybody wants a luxury hotel."

Eckelmann knew the concept of a low-staff budget hotel was about to have its moment when he began developing the Buddy blueprint two years ago.

The room rates of high-end properties continued to rise, and guests were becoming increasingly canny to the fact that higher prices didn’t necessarily mean better value or more amenities. With all rooms consistently priced at €66 a night and his property located a stone’s throw from München Hauptbahnhof, the city’s major train station, the hotelier believed attracting guests would not be an issue.

"If you can offer the same great quality product, more or less, customers have only to decide on the price," Eckelmann says. "With our Cocoon hotels, people are not only concentrating on the rate; they also see the value that they get for it and think ‘We identify with this product’. And that’s what people want."

Come here, Buddy

When Eckelmann was approached to consider a new venture in the form of updating a run-down bed and breakfast in a seven-floor commercial building, he saw that it was the perfect location for such an undertaking. He agreed with the owner to use four floors instead of the initial two of the B&B, equalling 75 rooms in total. "And then we saw the windows and the window access, and we asked ourselves whether we could provide an even more compact and functional product than a normal hotel room would offer," he explains. What is now a tech triumph was initially borne out of ease and necessity; factors that are fundamental to the hotel’s USP. Technology complements the Buddy’s functionality instead of being shoehorned in for novelty’s sake. However, the decision to provide a pared down service was also influenced by the difficulty the German hospitality industry currently faces in recruiting enough hotel staff.

"We had problems getting the right people and I know others in the industry had the same problem; I even learned that one company had to delay the opening of a property because they couldn’t get the staff," he explains. "In Germany, the unemployment rate is pretty low, so employing people to work in a hotel at the weekend and in shifts is definitely a challenge." Instead, Eckelmann developed a way around the need for these employees, without diminishing guest satisfaction, "And that’s how the Buddy culture came alive."

This absence of hotel personnel leaves a gap to be filled by the guest as the orchestrator of their own comfort. Although Hotel Buddy is an important step forward in hospitality technology, it also represents growing industry recognition that guests require autonomy and simplicity over a short visit.

"Hotel Buddy is designed for a stay of one or two nights ideally, that’s all. So people are dropping in every day; people arrive in the evening – especially business people. Typically, they come in from their business meetings at 8-9pm; they check in, drop off their luggage, go off to eat something and then return to bed. In the morning, they often have to get up very early to catch their next flight."

Brief encounters

According to Eckelmann, it is for these brief occupants that Hotel Buddy was conceived; they don’t require numerous staff to wait on them, and they prefer carrying simple tasks out themselves, rather than deferring to others.

"They just want the main amenities – they don’t want to queue at reception to be checked in, they’re busy," Eckelmann says. In this case, the main amenities are a 10-15m2 room with a desk that folds out of the wall, a small sofa and queen-size comfort bed with an electronically adjustable headboard. There is also a coffee machine, air conditioning, sound-proofed walls and a full bathroom with shower; a more than adequate set up for a short stay.

The Buddy Tablet is the core of the hotel’s functionality; a portable device that facilitates every need that a member of staff would ordinarily assist with. If contact with a human is required, guests can use the tablet to chat remotely to the receptionist of the Hotel Deutsches Theater just up the road.

"With our digital system and the in-room Buddy Tablet, guests don’t have to wait; they have everything that they need at their fingertips," explains Eckelmann. They’re also offered a free breakfast of coffee and snacks in the morning. We didn’t want to waste space on a breakfast room so we used space in the reception."

Out of the cocoon

Ecklemann has worked with tech company hetras since the first Cocoon opening in 2007. Together they developed Hotel Buddy as a limited hotel product to offer guests more autonomy and more efficient service, underpinned by the hetras cloud-based PMS.

"We are able to reduce the labour cost to a minimum and our administrative procedures are reviewed and checked wherever possible so they can be optimised," Eckelmann says. "We have a 24-hour support service in case anything happens to our technology; if anything is not working fine, we need to have somebody who can log in and deal with the problem."

We are able to reduce the labour cost to a minimum and our administrative procedures are reviewed and checked wherever possible so they can be optimised.

With a clean, modern set-up designed to facilitate guests’ total ease of use, Eckelmann had to implement an equally unique and striking decor throughout Hotel Buddy; strong, bright block colours illuminate the hotel, giving the limited space a reassuringly sunny and vibrant feel.

"People have to see that the Buddy is something extraordinary and new," says Eckelmann. "Just using normal colours and implementing a normal room layout would not be appropriate for the product, or our effort to be innovative. At first, everyone told me to think of the old wooden traditional Italian room, and I said ‘No, I don’t want that, I want this to be something special’."

So is the Buddy destined to follow the route of the Henn-na Hotel and start implementing humanoid robots? It seems not. Eckelmann is aware dispensing with housekeeping or maintenance staff is a tall order, but is confident that automation will not eventually eclipse luxury; after all, hospitality is built on human interaction.

"We have to communicate with the guests and we have to be in contact with them," he concludes. "They don’t want to have a rapport with a machine; they want to connect with a real person."