IBM’s Watson is ready to shake up the travel industry—and Hilton has taken first dibs at a robot-centric partnership. Today, the hospitality giant announced a pilot program featuring a two-and-a-half foot tall robot called Connie (named after Conrad Hilton, the company’s founder).
Connie—billed as a concierge-in-training in an introductory video—will stand on a platform near the front desk, where he will answer questions from guests using the artificial intelligence and natural language processing software that made Watson so famous to begin with.
“Technology exists to help us improve and mitigate customer pain points,” explained Jim Holthouser, executive vice president of global brands at Hilton. “Connie is an experiment to see how artificial intelligence and robotics can improve the experience for both our guests and team members.”
To that end, the diminutive robot will relieve team members from having to answer questions that come up repeatedly—such as directions to a ballroom or the time that breakfast service wraps up. He’ll be programmed to help them in a way that’s efficient and endearing, leaving visitors delighted and lightening the load for hotel staff.
Connie is making his debut today at the Hilton McLean in Virginia, a property that often plays host to international business travelers and convention-goers. This, says Holthouser, is the best type of hotel for the robot assistant—a place where the operations are already complex, the facilities are sprawling, and the audience is built largely of road warriors who have already seen it all. “You don’t need Connie’s help in a 100 room Hampton Inn,” he added.
One of Connie’s most practical, and perhaps unexpected, applications is serving as a translator for international guests. “At McLean, we see lots of guests from Asia,” says Holthouser. “So for those who are Mandarin-only speakers and don’t have an easy way of interacting with staff, Connie fills a real gap.” Other things he can do include acting as a fact-checker in business meetings, or simply providing local recommendations for travelers that are new to the area.
But of course, there’s a learning curve when it comes to technology in hotels. “One thing that we have learned is that you don’t take the robot out of the box and say, ‘Okay, time to go to work!’” joked Holthouser about the (artificial) learning process. “Connie learns fast, but you have to teach it. The more it interacts, the more efficient it becomes at giving you a quick and accurate response.” Among the things Connie has learned so far: a couple of languages that reflect the guest demographics at McLean, directions to every ballroom in the giant convention center, and tidbits about the surrounding neighborhood.
It’s important to note that this isn’t Hilton’s rodeo when it comes to robots. Not long ago, the company explored another prototype called Ava, which was ambulatory and helped work the bar. “It felt like more of a gimmick to us,” said Holthouser.
Connie, on the other hand, is stationery—but he moves and interacts in a way that feels more human and natural. His eyes change color to reflect that he’s processing your question, and he can gesture with his head and arms.
“If you let yourself dream a little bit,” says Holthouser, “the possibilities for Connie are endless.” His vision includes face recognition software that would help Connie recognize Hilton’s most loyal guests and greet them by name, or the ability to customize responses according to the language or visual cues that guests present.
It’ll take months of testing to see how Connie really delivers on his promise—and Hilton isn’t promising to roll this out to ever city-center mega-hotel in the near future. “We’ll continue to test this as long as there’s fertile ground,” said Holthouser. “We’ll only roll it out if we can prove that there’s real value to our business partners and owners. We’re might be onto something—right now, we just don’t know for sure.