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Smart, Weird and Wonderful

The Henn-na Hotel has garnered global interest because robots handle many of its services.The hotel’s management concept is also designed to trim labor costs and conserve energy, with an eye toward Japan’s future.

The Henn-na Hotel (literally, “Weird Hotel”), which opened last July, is located within the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki Prefecture’s Sasebo City, a destination that welcomes large numbers of guests from both Japan and abroad.

The first thing you’ll see when you arrive at the hotel’s entrance is the cloak robot. Normally programmed for tasks such as loading boxes in a warehouse, this industrial-use robot stores the luggage of hotel guests inside forty-nine cloak boxes. Inside at the front desk are three robot receptionists—one tiny bot, a dinosaur and a female humanoid—that handle check-in procedures. The female humanoid robot will look into guests’ eyes, smile, and at times even wink. The dinosaur robot is very popular with both children and adults of all ages, regardless of nationality.

“The female reception robot is so real that some children are afraid of her,” reports Takeyoshi Oe, the hotel’s general manager. “Because she’s a humanoid, she has been built to re-create the smooth movements of a person without mechanical noise. Her natural-looking facial movements, such as smiling, are generated through the compression and expansion of air in her facial structure. We’re scheduled to get another robot in March of this year, and we plan to increase language compatibility from the current two languages of Japanese and English to four by adding Chinese and Korean.”

In the lobby, a concierge robot offers information about the hotel and Huis Ten Bosch, and a porter robot is on hand to guide patrons to their room. The highly mobile porter robot has a motion sensor to detect people, allowing it to avoid colliding with guests or accidentally abandoning those following it. Outside, a grass-cutting robot maintains the hotel lawns, returning automatically to a recharging station whenever it finds itself low on power.

All guest rooms feature a robot—nicknamed Tuly—so that guests exhausted after spending the day at Huis Ten Bosch can accomplish tasks such as adjusting the room lighting or arranging wakeup calls through voice commands without ever leaving their beds.

“We’ve improved the precision of this robot so that it responds to any voice, regardless of sex or age,” Oe notes. “Some rooms even feature Tulys that ask riddles. They’re very popular, since they help guests staying alone avoid feeling lonely.”

The hotel offers a wonderfully offbeat new kind of guest experience, and as the world’s first low-cost hotel, subverts existing concepts of how such establishments operate. “Huis Ten Bosch is teeming with five-star hotels, but it takes significant labor and energy to maintain services deserving of a star rating,” Oe states. “That’s how the idea for the Henn-na Hotel came about—to create an energy-efficient smart hotel unlike anything you’ve seen before. By incorporating robots and using radiant panels as an air-conditioning system, we were able to drastically cut labor and energy costs. We’ve also reduced guest room amenities to a minimum by offering them for purchase in a vending machine in the lobby, and with the exception of our deluxe rooms, instead of installing televisions, we’ve provided tablets for guests to enjoy movies and other forms of entertainment. A 72-room hotel would normally require a staff of about 22, but we have less than half that number, with 10 staff members always onsite.”

While the incorporation of robots has merits such as standardizing the quality of service and lowering labor costs—not to mention the entertainment aspect—there are still concerns that need to be addressed, such as emergency support. The Henn-na Hotel has solved this particular issue by ensuring that guests can speak with a human staff member through their in-room tablet, and a human monitor observes much of the hotel’s public facilities via security camera twenty-four hours a day. Considerable research has gone into determining which services only humans should perform and which ones robots can provide, creating a neat division of labor between the two.

“I believe we’ll see a polarization in styles between the five-star hotel services and those like the Henn-na Hotel,” Oe says. With a goal of opening another hotel in Tokyo by the time the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic take place, the Henn-na Hotel provides an enjoyable experience for its guests, who receive the best in omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) from both robots and human staff.

GUEST ROOMS (As of January 2016)
Standard Type
Size 21.32 m2
Price ¥ 39,960 (roughly $340) per room for two guests in a room, including tax and service fees.
Cleaning, bedmaking and other services are available for an extra charge.