The Robots Are Coming To Las Vegas

Oct 7, 2018
Originally published on October 7, 2018 2:37 pm

At the Vdara Hotel and Spa in Las Vegas, robots are at the front line of room service. "Jett" and "Fetch" are delivery robots, designed to look like dogs, each about three feet high.

They can bring items from the hotel's cafe right to your room. Among their many capabilities, they can travel alone across the lobby, remotely call for an elevator, and even alert guests when they arrive at their hotel room through an automated phone message.

It's not just Vdara that's experimenting with this technology. Other Las Vegas hotels, including the Renaissance Las Vegas, are using automation to cater to customers' needs. So too was the Mandarin Oriental before changing over to the Waldorf Astoria this summer. And at bars like the Tipsy Robot, it's the machines that are making the drinks.

It's a growing trend that could mean big changes for the 300,000 people who work in the city's gaming and hospitality industries. A recent study by the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis (ISEA) found that two-thirds of all jobs in Las Vegas will most likely be automated by 2035.

At the Vdara, Jett and Fetch play a small part of a bigger strategy. Cliff Atkinson, senior vice president for hospitality at MGM Resorts International, which manages the Vdara, says automation can help transform the industry as many guests demand more of a customized experience.

"I see it as we eliminate front desks altogether and that you're able to check in over your phone," Atkinson says. "But the people that were at those front desk are still there. They're there to customize your journey, there to greet you at the car and they're there to escort you to your room to make sure you have everything you need. You can't replace that and that engagement."

Atkinson sees technology as an opportunity to retrain employees. Goodbye front desk agent, hello "lobby ambassador."

But according to the ISEA study, automation will most likely hit Las Vegas in the places most visitors don't see — like the back offices and fast food kitchens. Johannes Moenius, an economist at the University of Redlands, coauthored that research.

"Women will most likely be hit first," said Johannes Moenius, an economist at the University of Redlands and coauthor of the ISEA study. And, given the makeup of the hospitality industry, minorities are also at risk of losing their jobs first, said Moenius.

That's why the Culinary Union — which represents about 57,000 hospitality workers in Las Vegas, the majority of them women and Hispanic — made it a point to include language in its latest contract to protect its members from automation.

Geoconda Arguello Kline, secretary-treasurer of the union, helped negotiate those protections between the union and the casinos. Arguello Kline says workers whose jobs are changed by automation will be given retraining opportunities. Workers who leave their jobs get severance pay and benefits for sixth months.

"Now, the workers say they have the opportunity to get the training, to learning something new," she says, "At the same time, the workers, they will say, 'You know, I don't want this. This is not for me, but I have a choice.'"

Under the contract, the union is also given up to 180 days notice before a new technology is implemented. And that is already being seen in some hotels where workers who chopped salad have been replaced by automation.

Some automation is bringing in more employees. Take, for instance, The Tipsy Robot, a bar equipped with two robot bartenders that can make drinks with its robotic arms as orders come in from a tablet. No more questions on how to make the perfect Manhattan.

Victor Reza Valanejad is the venue's general manager and says not only is business growing, he's hiring more humans to help operate the robots.

"Believe me. It's not going to take any job," Valanejad says.

Others, like Arguello Kline, are more cautious in their view of the changing landscape.

"Right now, it feels like we're protected for the next five years," she says. "But in this five years we have to prepare for the next five years, what's going to happen."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We were in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, where the hospitality and gaming industries drive most of the economy, employing some 300,000 people, which is why a 2017 study predicting a massive disruption - the loss of up to two-thirds of all jobs in Las Vegas - has garnered, as you can imagine, a lot of attention. Now, what could cause that disruption? Meet Jett.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOT BEEPING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jett is a delivery robot, the outside designed to resemble a dog - kind of. And along with its robot sibling Fetch, they're a new addition to the workforce at the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas.

So the robot is going through the lobby of the hotel with its delivery. It's about 3 feet high. And we have the Dalmatian one running for us. And it's causing quite a stir.

Guests stop, turn and look as Jett navigates all by itself, making a small delivery from the lobby cafe to a room on the fifth floor. But first, Jett remotely calls for an elevator for a quick trip up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR BEEPING)

RECORDED VOICE: Fifth floor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kerryn Abel, director of hotel operations for the Vdara, joins me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOT BEEPING)

RECORDED VOICE: Going down.

KERRYN ABEL: So right now it's telling - it's getting out to let the guests know it's ready to leave the elevator.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's very polite. It says, excuse me, please.

Those words scroll by on its front screen. We reach the room, and it alerts the guest by an automated phone call. And then it makes its delivery. And there it is. And it says, hello. Please remove your items.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOT BEEPING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it says, yay. And it's shaking back and forth. Thanks. And then it says, bye. I'm heading home. And off it goes.

Jett the delivery robot is just one example of how automation is gaining traction in Las Vegas. But Kerryn Abel says, don't worry. Little Jett doesn't portend the employment apocalypse just yet.

Do you envision this as more than sort of a gimmick? It's something that people like. But do you see it becoming something other than that?

ABEL: It's been really fun for the guests and fun for the employees. But it really isn't anything more than that. It's a convenience, but it still needs to be handled by employees. It still needs an employee interaction. So it isn't going to be anything that's going to replace something. But it is a fun interaction for our guests.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cliff Atkinson is senior vice president for hospitality at MGM Resorts. And the Vdara is part of its family of hotels. While we were in Las Vegas, he was in Japan for work. So we got him on the phone.

CLIFF ATKINSON: For us, we like to be innovative. And we like to try new, fun things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Beyond the fun, Atkinson says automation is helping transform the industry as guests demand more of a customized experience. They're looking for options. Take, for instance, checking in. The front desk is already changing.

ATKINSON: I see it as we eliminate front desks altogether and that you're able to check in over your phone. But the people that were at those front desk are still there. They're there to customize your journey, there to greet you at the car. And they're there to escort you to your room, to make sure you have everything you need. You can't replace that and that engagement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For Atkinson, technology is an opportunity to retrain employees. Goodbye, front desk agent. Hello, lobby ambassador. But automation will apparently hit Las Vegas most in the spaces that we don't see. That's according to the 2017 study by the aptly named Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis. Administrative back offices, restaurant kitchens, jobs often done by people with low education levels, jobs done mostly by women and people of color will be affected first.

GEOCONDA ARGUELLO KLINE: We know we can't (ph) always stop technology. Technology's here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Geoconda Arguello Kline is secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, which represents about 57,000 hospitality workers in Las Vegas, the majority of them women and Hispanic. This year, she helped negotiate a new contract between the union and many of the big casinos in Las Vegas. It included what they called ground-breaking language. For workers whose jobs are going to be affected by new technology, they'll get a chance to retrain.

ARGUELLO KLINE: Now the workers - they have the opportunity to get the training, to learn something new. And at the same time, the workers - they will say, you know, I don't want this. This is not for me. But I have a choice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What she's saying is that for those who move on and decide not to accept the training, they'll get severance pay and benefits for six months. A key provision within this five-year contract - the union gets a heads-up of 180 days before a new technology is implemented. This is already happening in some hotels. Workers who chop salad are being replaced by machines in some places.

ARGUELLO KLINE: Right now we feel like we protect this five years. But in these five years, we have to prepare for the next five years - what's going to happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The struggle between man and machine is as old as the dawn of the mechanized age. Remember men used to race on horses against the steam train? Chess players would match their wits against computers? Automation has already changed the way we work for generations now. But I still contend that a real bartender makes a better margarita. And so to test that theory, I head to my final stop in Las Vegas, The Tipsy Robot bar.

AYANNA MARTIN: What is this? - 'cause this actually seems kind of cool.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twenty-three-year-old Ayanna Martin (ph) of Maryland is selecting a drink off a computer tablet.

MARTIN: Oh, there's cherry syrup in it. I'm going to go with this, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Drink ordered, a big robotic arm, a cocktail shaker for a hand, gets to work. Liquor bottles hanging from the ceiling dispense exact amounts of booze. Then a quick shake. And finally, the robot arm pours the concoction into a plastic cup.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING LIQUID)

MARTIN: My God, this is so good. (Laughter) This is actually really good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So do you think can imagine drinking from a robot all the time instead of a human?

MARTIN: Yes. It's probably going to be a lot more cost-effective, but it's not going to be as fun for the people who go to bars 'cause the fun part of going to a bar is making friends with the bartender and having them pour just a little bit extra, more than they're supposed to, in your drink. Robots can't do that (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So true, so true. But Victor Reza Valanejad, the general manager of The Tipsy Robot, says his bartending robots will mean more jobs, not fewer.

VICTOR REZA VALANEJAD: Our business is growing. And we are not buying more robots. But we are hiring more humans. So just imagine if there was Tipsy Robots popping up everywhere and hiring 10 people, 10 people, 10 people, even more. That would be just great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you think that, actually, the nature of work is going to change. But it doesn't mean that humans are going to be replaced by robots. That's kind of optimistic.

REZA VALANEJAD: No.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I like it.

REZA VALANEJAD: Yeah. And, you know...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We talk some more about robots and the future of bartending. And then it's time for my taste test. I order their signature drink, a Pineapple Planet. Wow.

That is not my thing (laughter).

As I suspected, nothing tops a margarita made by a human bartender - for now.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRAFTWERK SONG, "THE ROBOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.