• Hotel Sky in Johannesburg is the first African hotel to deploy robot staff members.
  • Whilst this hotel is the first of its kind on the continent, robot concierges have been around for a while, with Tokyo's Henn'na or 'Strange' hotel becoming the first to be fully staffed by machines in 2015.
  • The robots in Hotel sky will help to serve those with mild COVID-19 symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading the disease.

Staff at Hotel Sky in Johannesburg's wealthy Sandton district adhere to strict COVID-19 protocols, wearing masks and physically distancing from guests as much as possible; all, that is, except Lexi, Micah and Ariel.

For the three concierges couldn't breathe germs on you even if they wanted to: they're robots.

Robot hospitality is not new - Japanese hotels have been deploying them for years and in 2015 Tokyo's Henn'na, or 'Strange', hotel became the first to be fully staffed by machines.

Several robot-staffed Tokyo hotels are now using them to serve guests with mild COVID-19 symptoms.

But Hotel Sky, which launched this year, is the first in Africa to use automated attendants, a concept that could cause a stir in a country with one of the world's worst jobless rates.

Unemployment is at 30.8%, according to President Cyril Ramaphosa's state of the nation address last Thursday.

"It'll never replace people, but it is going to change the space," Paul Kelley, Hotel Sky Managing Director, told Reuters.

AI-powered robot Ariel delivers room service to a guest at the Hotel Sky, the first in Africa to use automated attendants, in Johannesburg, South Africa, February 9, 2021.
Ariel delivers room service to a guest at the Hotel Sky.
Image: REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

"I think that it is the future," he said, adding that they planned to launch an offshoot in Cape Town next month.

Lexi, Micah and Ariel deliver room service, provide travel information and can drag up to 300kg of luggage from the marble-floored lobby to the rooms.

If the hotel receives a guest with COVID-19 symptoms, the robots could be deployed instead of people as a precaution.

Otherwise, "guests can choose whether they want to interact with staff members or make use of the self service, which is all controlled by their phone," Herman Brits, the hotel's general manager, said.

Steve Pinto, CEO of CTRL Robotics, which supplies the droids, said they could also scan customers' facial expressions to determine how happy they were.

"It helps management to understand how customers are experiencing the facilities at the hotel," he said, after getting a robot painted in a riotous orange and white pattern to take a selfie.

Reaction to the robots has been mixed. Even highly intelligent robots don't always "get" what you want.

"I think the world is moving towards this digital space, but we are not used to it," hotel guest Ernest Mulenga said. "The human touch is still something that is appealing to me."