1. Business

BB-8? R2-D2? Nope, it's just Wes on duty at this Tampa hotel

Wes, the West Wing Boutique Hotel's Savioke Relay robot, makes its way down a hallway while delivering items to a guest's room. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Apr. 30, 2017

TAMPA — Scurrying silently down the hall, Wes looks like a small lectern on the loose. At about three feet high and a sleek, tech-y silver color, he's hardly what a guest might expect when answering the door for a front desk delivery. He slows to a gentle stop in front of Room 113 and pops open his top compartment with a R2-D2-esque titter to reveal a complimentary bag of chips and bottled water.

"That's adorable," Morgan Matthews, a hotel guest from Barre, Vt., said, answering the door. "I want one!"

That reaction is exactly what the West Wing Boutique Hotel on Fowler Avenue is hoping for. Hotels are increasingly incorporating technology into their facilities to entice guests, particularly corporate guests, to come for a stay. Some higher-end hotel rooms come with tablets that control everything from lights to curtains, while others offer Chromecasts so guests can keep up with their favorite shows.

When the West Wing opened in mid-March, Benjamin Tran, its director of revenue, wanted to emphasize the hotel's focus on technology to draw customers.

The hotel caters both to business and leisure travelers with room rates from $126 per night and up. He was looking for something that was both novel enough to be memorable and functional enough to aid hotel staff. Wes was his answer.

"It was something totally different that I wasn't expecting at all," he said.

The little robot, who takes his name from the hotel's moniker, has a central compartment that can hold up to two large towels or an assortment of small snacks and items such as soap. His sensors allow him to navigate the hotel on his own and avoid collisions, as well as call the elevator for himself to get to the hotel's second floor.

That allows hotel attendants to send him off on deliveries while they man the front desk. This is particularly helpful at night, when Wes is going "pretty much all the time," Tran said.

Among Wes' most appealing features are his blinking, oval eyes and bubbly beeping sound effects. A small LED screen serves as his face, allowing him to display text such as "Need anything?" to guests around the hotel. He beeps and dances side-to-side when a guest gives him a five-star review following a delivery.

The cuteness makes him a particular hit with younger guests, Tran said. The front desk often gets calls from children — occasionally without their parents' knowledge — asking for towels or toilet paper to their room.

"When Wes goes back to the front desk sometimes the kids trail behind him," he said.

But Wes has more practical appeal as well.

"Through research we see that not a lot of (women) feel comfortable with, say, ordering a towel and having a male attendant come up to the room," Tran said.

Wes helps take fear out of the equation while still allowing the hotel to have a personal touch with their service. Corporate guests in town for business also might prefer a robot to having an interaction when they order soap or a spare toothbrush.

Currently, Wes is one of three robots like him in Florida — five total on the East coast — and the only one in Tampa Bay. He was created by Savioke, a company specializing in robots. There, Wes and his counterparts are known as "Relay," and even have their own Linkedin page.

"Our intention is for the robot to be almost like a service dog — very sweet and very lovable, but really helpful," Lauren Schechtman, vice president of marketing at Savioke, said.

Savioke currently has more than 50 robots in hotels across the country, though that number is increasing quickly, Schechtman said. West Wing leases their robot for $2,000 per month.

Wes isn't without flaws. Early on, he got lost a few times, and employees would find him stopped in a remote wing of the hotel. He also can't go outside because of uneven terrain and the possibility of getting wet.

And while he's fairly heavy at around 90 pounds, it's conceivable someone could kidnap him. But Tran said if the weight isn't enough of a deterrent, the robot's front-facing camera may be.

"If someone takes Wes mid-route and puts him in their car, we can see who did it," he said.

For now, Wes will roam the West Wing halls alone. But if business picks up, he may soon get a friend — another Relay robot.

"We'll see how busy it gets in the next few months," Tran said.

Contact Malena Carollo at Follow @malenacarollo.


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