Robot butlers, teleportation machines and flying cars – which is the odd one out? It’s not an easy question. After all, each of these technologies would fit seamlessly into an old sci-fi film, along with gamma-ray-repellant helmets and spacesuits seemingly made of tin foil.

Certainly, none of the three sounds like a plausible addition to the hotels of 2015. And yet robot butlers and teleportation machines are very real, due to arrive soon at a hotel or event near you. Unfortunately, the flying cars may have to wait.

The robot butler, otherwise known as Botlr, was designed by robotics start-up Savioke and piloted at Starwood’s Cupertino Aloft in California. Situated near the Apple campus, this hotel is typically used for trial runs of Starwood’s latest gadgets, and this particular gizmo is the first of its kind in the world.

Little more than a cylinder on wheels, with a basin and a lid on top, Botlr does not fit the mould of your classic anthropomorphic robot butler, yet its function belies its appearance: using Wi-Fi and cameras to navigate the hotel, it can perform basic front-desk tasks, such as dropping off a snack to your hotel room. It saves the hotel employee a walk upstairs, and the guest doesn’t even need to leave a tip.

"Botlr was certainly our biggest innovation of 2014," says Brian McGuinness, senior vice-president for Starwood’s speciality select brands. "Guided by the latest robotic technology, it assists the front desk by picking up and delivering guest amenities. Based on the success ofthe pilot, we’re looking to roll out at 100 hotels around the world in 2015 and beyond. Needless to say, we couldn’t be more thrilled to have Botlr on board."

"You put on the 3D goggles and you’re surrounded by video, while the pod provides you with the sensation that you are actually in Hawaii."

As for the teleportation machines, these are regrettably based not on space-time rifts but virtual reality instead. Featuring the Oculus Rift DK2 headset, wireless headphones and a suite of onboard sensory elements, the Teleporter looks similar to a phone booth from the outside. Once you’re inside, however, this immersive new technology from Marriott is more akin to the TARDIS.

"You put on the 3D goggles and you’re surrounded by video, while the pod provides you with the sensation that you are actually in Hawaii," says Osama Hirzalla, vice-president of brand marketing and e-commerce Europe at Marriott. "You step out onto the beach, and you can feel the heat from the sun. You can feel the vapour of the sea splashing your face. If you’re walking down a brick road, it may be wobbly underneath your feet."


Strong views
Recently unveiled in New York, Teleporters have since embarked on an eight-city tour of the US. Next year, they are coming to Europe, to be showcased at Marriott’s rugby events. But no matter where they are in the world, the user is instantly transported to one of two destinations: the top of a London skyscraper or a black sand beach in Maui.

"The pods give the customer a whole different perspective on what those destinations look like and what being in there in person would be like," says Hirzalla. "By giving that sensory experience to millennial travellers, we’re bringing them something that is over and above what they’re experiencing today."

The keyword here is ‘millennial’. Transporter and Botlr have arrived at a time when younger travellers are big business, with hotels pulling out all the stops to lure them in. Already constituting around a third of hotel guests, they will undoubtedly have even more purchasing power in the years to come, and operators are embracing new technology with unprecedented gusto. It’s about shaking any lingering whiff of fustiness and sending a clear-cut message about the sort of brands they want to be.

"Today’s millennial and next-generation traveller is always seeking the latest in technology and innovation," says McGuinness. "They crave new. They’re the ones who are standing in line for the just-released smartphone, and they’re downloading the latest apps. They’re also the ones looking for something innovative in their hotel stay."

"Today’s millennial and next-generation traveller is always seeking the latest in technology and innovation. They crave new."

Starwood’s Aloft brand, the home of Botlr, is often described as the company’s innovation lab. With 94 hotels around the world as of late 2014, the brand was launched in 2008 with the express intention of appealing to a younger, and more forward-thinking, breed of guest. Its hotels are tech-forward from the ground up, with their very infrastructure geared towards experimentation. For instance, alongside the robot butlers, certain hotels are now streaming Apple TV.

Marriott’s newest – and youngest – brand, Moxy, launched in Milan in September 2014. Slated to expand to 150 properties, it has been billed as a boutique hotel concept for the budget-savvy traveller and is targeted at guests with a millennial sensibility.

"This group is tech-dependent, so they look for a hotel that will provide them the environment to stay connected, where they can activate and engage all their platforms and devices," says Hirzalla. "At Moxy, the infrastructure is there to provide multiple wireless connections, so they can continue working and socialising in the same manner they do at home."


Kings of convenience
For marketing purposes, the members of Generation Y are characterised not just by their reliance on digital technologies but also their fondness for instant gratification. So while their parents might value personal attention – even if that means queuing for a while – the stereotypical millennial would rather address their issue immediately than deal with the tedium of the front desk.

"Technology trends point to the existing ‘economy of convenience’ as playing a central role in the lives of metropolitan millennials," says Steven Rojas, corporate digital director at upscale boutique hotel group Morgans.

"These individuals are likely to rely on apps such as Uber and Gett for on-demand transportation, or Alfred and Task Rabbit for digitised personal assistance. Today’s traveller is cultured, savvy and active – constantly looking for the next best thing."

In practice, this means services like mobile check-in are rapidly expanding. Enabling travellers to bypass the hassle of the traditional check-in process and head straight to their guest room, this has moved from being the exception to something approaching the rule.

At Aloft hotels, guests receive a branded card that doubles as a key – the card is activated on the day of arrival, and the guest receives a text message telling them their room number. Hyatt and Hilton offer digital check-in, and Marriott recently rolled out the service across all its brands.

Operators are also looking to engage with mobile apps more broadly. Marriott’s guest services app, currently being piloted at selected hotels, will be fine-tuned and filtered into use over the course of 2015.

"If I’m in the lobby and want to order a glass of wine or schedule a wake-up call, I can do that through the guest services app," says Hirzalla. "You can book a car to the airport for a certain time, or ensure you have a food order or nightcap waiting for you if your flight is late."

"Increasingly, mobile platforms are becoming the focal point of online travel," agrees Rojas. "An excellent case study of innovative work is from Red Roof Inn: in the winter of 2013/14, there were hundreds of trips cancelled every day, leaving travellers stranded across the country. Using an algorithm to target consumers whose flights had been cancelled, Red Roof Inn leveraged Google analytics to own the first Google search following a flight cancellation."


Stay the course
Evidently, operators need to engage with their guests not just during the stay itself, but also before and after they reach the hotel. As travel agents and the like lose clout in the marketplace, this means honing the presentation across all online channels.

"Third-party offline environments are becoming less important to guests – their ability to find the right hotels online is far greater than ever before," says Hirzalla. "From a trend point of view, you see that people are choosing to book with mobile, and that puts a lot of pressure on brands like Marriott to become visible in this space.

"We also encourage hotels, whether they’re business or leisure, to engage with social media. As sites adapt their algorithms, that makes it a continuous cycle of education and training."

As we move into 2015, it is fair to say these changes are firmly under way. Once dismissed as conservative and slow on the uptake, it seems the major hotel players are starting to find their feet. Should they continue to keep pace with digital developments, the millennial dollar is surely theirs for the taking. All that will remain is to pioneer that flying car.