A.L.O. Robot “botlr” in NYC. When hotel technology gets adorable, but customer service gets deplorable

In October of last year (2017), the wife and I stayed at the Aloft Manhattan Downtown, right in the middle of the financial district.

The experience at Aloft was definitely memorable, although there were many quirks that, well, were not. True to New York’s urban jig puzzle architectural habits, the hotel was crammed in between two most definitely older buildings. It makes me imagine it went something like this:

Starwood boss: I want the new Aloft in Manhattan!

Builder underling: Yes sir, I know, but there are no suitable spaces. All we found is a tiny space barely wide enough to park three cars tail to tail. Even most homes are wider than that. Surely that space isn’t sui…

Starwood boss: Is it in Manhattan?

Builder underling: Yes sir, but…

Starwood boss: I wanna see it!

Builder underling: *Shows pictures* As you can see, it is clearly not suitable for…

Starwood boss: Perfect! Begin the construction!

Builder underling: But sir, it isn’t wide enough for a lobby and..

Starwood boss: I said there!

Builder underling: But the lot is surrounded by run down buildings and its definitely too narrow for…

Starwood boss: *Crosses arms* I said THERE!

Builder underling: *ahem* Yes, sir….*sighs*

One project development later…

aloft

All hypothetical comical exchanges aside, I definitely had a good time there, but there are some quirks that, while I did enjoy my stay, I will probably not be coming back to this location. I would definitely be open to trying Aloft again in the future, but just another location.

The hotel was very cool and inviting, full of modern accents and avant garde hints implemented in anything from chairs to lamps. The decor definitely screamed “you are in a modern hotel in the middle of Manhattan.” Upon entering you are greeted by the lobby desk to one side, the cafeteria in front of you, and elevators to the other side. As I previously noted, the hotel is quite narrow. However, the lot space encompasses both sides of the block. In other words, you can enter the hotel through one street and come out through the back to its parallel. However, because of how narrow it is, it makes you feel like you are in a 2D side scroller game, where you must visit B, C, D, and E on your way from A to F. This both adds quirkiness to the hotel but also a small factor of annoyance that makes going anywhere within the hotel feel like a mini excursion.

20171027_003453
View of cafeteria from lobby, which you must go through to reach rooms in back tower.
20171028_021858
Central patio in the middle of the hall like structure

The above isn’t necessarily a negative, but the following is: Customer service was very quite poor. Upon arriving there in the wee hours of the morning, we lined up behind a couple having a hard time claiming their reservation. After waiting twenty minutes, we decided their experience could be an inevitable happenstance of the hospitality industry. We were soon corrected, as I was greeted by a gentleman who seemed…confused. I felt his response time and awareness were at least abnormal. And I don’t mean this in a derogatory manner, but the individual was simply not competent enough to be left alone at a major hotel chain’s front desk. I do not remember the exact exchange, but the gentleman had a hard time understanding if I had a reservation or merely needed a room, because the first time he replied to my stating “I have a reservation” he stated they were out of rooms. I remained patient and I showed him my reservation confirmation. After some more confusion he was able to find it, but he then proceeded to give me a price that did not match what I purchased through booking.com. More confusion ensued, followed by him realizing he was mistaken, and then moving on. After clearing that hurdle, he proceeded to tell me they did not have any rooms that matched what I had paid for. Once again he managed to realize he was mistaken, and he moved on. Finally at the last step, he proceeded to tell me my $4000 credit card, with a balance of zero, was being declined. We called the bank and the bank said they saw no attempt to charge it. This hurdle we were unable to overcome. I put a different card on file because at this point 30 minutes had gone by just to get checked in, and I wanted to get on with my night. Once I was FINALLY given a room, I was so confused by the whole situation, that I was ultimately unsure if he had assigned a room off my reservation or if he had started from scratch. I ended up looking for a manger the following morning to ensure he had done it correctly.

That manager was not in the least surprised that my experience had been poor. In fact, she stated “are you talking about a guy that kinda made you feel like maybe he was doing it right, maybe not; like he made you insecure?” I blinked at her, then said “umm…yeah?” She proceeded “sorry about that.” She ended up giving me some meal vouchers and a drink voucher for their bar, WXYZ, for my trouble.

For the most part, my room issues ended there. However, I continued to be disappointed by customer service when a random cafeteria employee rudely told me that “I had to pay for that coffee because it was not included in the meal voucher.” It was cheap, black, unflavored coffee from a machine, and home girl could not stand that I may *gasp* get away with a free cup by “abusing” my voucher. Here is the thing: I have worked customer service for over 10 years and retail for at least 7. Therefore, my standards are quite high because I pride myself in outstanding customer service. I paid for my coffee, that is not the problem. It is the way that you address people that bothers me. She could have been nice. She could have said “excuse me sir, I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience, but I am required to let you know the coffee is not complimentary and must be paid in advance. Would you like me to take your payment for a cup of coffee?” I would have gladly paid with a smile on my face. But simply stopping a customer and regurgitating “excuse me, you have to pay for that” in a condescending tone is very, very poor customer service.

Now, to the positive. Let me say this, the rooms are TINY. But its Manhattan, most, if not all rooms are tiny unless you are willing to cut off a few limbs and sell them in the black market for enough dollars to cover a night… So I can’t really hold that against them. Rooms are approximately 150 square feet. I think there are pricier rooms available, but at that price you are better off at a different hotel entirely. Now, while the rooms were small, they were very modern and inviting (yeah I said that already). Bed was comfortable, and the room had a “balcony” which was a tiny 3 by 3 feet concrete square with a guard rail..not really a balcony, but being able to peek outside was nice.

The best part: A.L.O. A very literal robot that has been programmed to deliver toiletries and small items to most rooms on the property. My understanding is that A.L.O. is specifically pre programmed for each Aloft location, so that the robot will be able to follow a preloaded map using sensors. Stars Wars fans will be delighted as the A.L.O. interacting experience comes complete with cutesy boops, beeps, bops, and even a touch screen tablet that is used as its virtual face, where it happily and digitally displays it, and everything it has to say. It also acts as your interacting medium with the robot. The robot is completely autonomous, and is even able to take the elevator by itself. I was told it is wirelessly connected to the elevator’s management software. Another interesting detail is when it arrives at your door, your room’s phone starts ringing in a special way, to let you know A.L.O. has arrived.

While I thought A.L.O. was definitely the highlight of my experience at Aloft, it is still too limited to be a true innovation. Since A.L.O. carries things in a small compartment at the top of his head, which automatically opens when it arrives at it’s destination, it is only able to carry extremely small items such as toothpaste, mouthwash, and the like. I do not even think its compartment is big enough for toilet paper. I would describe its size as maybe a bit smaller than a glove box compartment in a small car. In fact, I had to call reception in advance so they could advise me exactly what I could order to see the robot in action. Note that they specifically excluded towels. The only thing I was able to think of I could utilize was toothpaste. I feel like they could have easily increased its carrying size without changing its design too much. When A.L.O. was first released, Starwood hotels claimed they hoped to better utilize their man power to focus on customer service by giving menial chores to A.L.O. However, that remains untrue since, as previously stated, if you were to request for the most commonly asked item–a towel–a real person will be bringing it to you. Also, I was told there are specific rooms A.L.O. cannot visit. This is mostly because A.L.O. can only use one of the two elevators available in the hotel. Until these quirks are solved, A.L.O. remains a cool novelty rather than a game changer.

Aloft Manhattan’s conveniently, yet awkwardly located building houses a NYC worthy hotel whose modern charm is only surpassed by its own robot “botlr,” A.L.O. Unfortunately, Aloft’s sub par customer service and its ironic lack of sense of hospitality make it difficult to recommend; specially in the intensely competitive hospitality market that is NYC. Nevertheless, Aloft’s aforementioned claim to fame, A.L.O., while a charming and impressive display of technology, its unfortunate lack of practical usability, as limited by its size, make A.L.O. unable to be considered an actual innovation.

But hey, it’s cute as hell.

My experience with A.L.O.:

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