Why Don’t Hotels Use Roombas?

INSERT DESCRIPTIONTaken fromo irobt.com

My colleague Jeremy Greenwood has convinced me that advances in household technology have yielded tremendous benefits. And I’ll admit it: I love my vacuum-cleaning robot (the Roomba). Labor intensive vacuuming is, at least for me, a thing of the past.

But I just realized something rather odd: I have never seen a Roomba used to clean a hotel room. Why? The puzzle only deepens when you realize that hotels are avid users of other labor-saving devices, including dishwashers, washing machines, and dryers.

Here are seven theories:

1. Quality: Hotel staff do a better job vacuuming than the robot can. But any frequent hotel guest will object that current methods just aren’t that thorough.

2. Demand: Hotels rarely vacuum the rooms. (See #1.)

3. Social status: Hotel guests don’t want clean carpets, but rather they want people whose job is to clean up after them.

4. Information asymmetry: If clean carpets are tough to verify, then customers may rationally demand visible evidence that the carpets are being cleaned. Seeing someone pushing around a big old vacuum-cleaner provides this information. (And we are less resistant to technical change in the hotel kitchen or laundry, because those activities necessarily occur behind closed doors.)

5. Unionization: Unions have sometimes resisted labor-saving devices. Indeed, this is why I’m not allowed to use a Roomba to spruce up my U. Penn office. But it is hard to believe that hotel unions are as powerful as Penn’s unions. Beyond this: Surely management can negotiate an efficient outcome, perhaps by sharing Roomba-generated cost savings with their workers.

6. Capital-skill complementarity: This argument suggests that operating a Roomba is beyond the abilities of hotel cleaning staff. But honestly, if even a Ph.D. economist can operate one, they aren’t that complicated.

7. Capital scarcity: The Roomba — while labor-saving — is slow. The scarce resource is not labor, but unoccupied hotel rooms, and anything that slows down room turnover is too costly.

I don’t find any of these too compelling, but the most promising candidate is No. 7, combined with the fact that implementing Roomba-based vacuuming will change the workflow of hotel cleaning staff. Numbers 2 and 3 may also be part of the story. But there must be a more compelling answer. What is it?

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  1. andrew says:

    The Roomba doesn’t do deep cleaning as well as a “real” vac. Guests demand a 100% CLEAN room. So a real vac is required.

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  2. DB says:

    #7 sounds about right. I figure your typical hotel maid is probably lucky to get minimum wage, and most probably do not.

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  3. luke says:

    8. roomba would be too easily stolen from the rooms. a roomba with a hotel logo would be like bathrobe, but *way* cooler.

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  4. James A says:

    I would say #7, but also that if the maid is in the room making the bed, cleaning the bathroom, etc., how much more time could it really take to vacuum? Remember, the Roomba can’t vacuum if a guest is in there or if the bed spread is on the floor. You have to time it just right.

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  5. Dan M. says:

    #8 The marginal cost of someone who is already in the room changing sheets and auditing the minibar spending three minutes running a vacumn is less than the cost of several hundred roombas? or is it roombi?

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  6. Greg says:

    #7 is right.

    But have you also considered that there is a risk of having the Roomba still roaming around in the room when a guest walks in? That could be an unpleasant surprise to someone who doesn’t expect to see a little round thing crawling along on the floor.

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  7. Phil Kulak says:

    Those are all good, but you could also consider that Roombas are expensive and very easy to steal.

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  8. bill e says:

    #8 – anything that can be lifted or stolen will be.

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