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?


Well, Roomba may not be best placed to alert the management if it espies a dead body, a gun or drugs or smell which requires further exploration!


Call up a couple of hotel managers and some people at the chains and ask for their reasons.


Slightly off-topic but I love how the hotel industry has managed to make us all refer to their customers as "guests", as evidenced by most of the above posts.

mary christian

1. The real puzzle is with the Penn rule. And how would they know?

2. Maybe the hotels would get too many calls complaining the scale was broken and wasn't registering their weight.

3. A maid can go in, see the crumbs near the table, and see that everything else looks pretty good, just hit those. She can see that your change and briefcase contents fell out onto the floor when you were in a frantic rush to get to your meeting, and just leave it undisturbed for you. She can ignore the socks and shoes in the corner and the laptop cables on the floor. A Roomba takes its random run around the room, cause a minor disaster with your things, might miss the crumbs and peter out under the bed.

4. otherwise, 7. You can't take water from a minibar without being charged; they could also have store-type security beepers. Also, noise: I've wondered why my neighbor upstairs is always sanding his floor over my desk.





#4. I think much of the 'cleaning' is highly for psychological measures - to make guests feel that the room is very clean. Visually (from the guests), a small Roomba would seem less capable of cleaning up the entire room as compared to the big-olde vacuum cleaner with the hotel maid.

Technically, I don't see the difference in cleaniness if the hotel were to vacuum using the Roomba or the hotel maid with her vacuum.


To butress Wolfers' argument about the Penn unions: when I was a student there, I was once hit with a grievance from the electrical union for having replaced a dorm hallway lightbulb myself, rather than calling in the union for it. They charged me time and a half for the thirty minutes it would have taken two union electricians to do it.

This is, recall, the same city where the plumbers' union prevented the installation of no-flush urinals in a green office building, on the grounds that flushless urinals needed only half the piping and would have therefore cost the union half its work.

Jason W

Re: #15

I love the image of an army of escaped Roombas charging down a hotel hallway.

Joyce Schwarz

Did anyone besides me go to irobot's website to see what promo they do for corporate sales? NONE? They appear to have NO Corporate sales division. They have government division. In 20 years of advertising I've found that most products like this ie Microwave ovens-- START in the corporate/hospitality/institutional setting. Come on they could have HIGHER level capabilities in a HOTEL ROOMBA call it the SUPER ROOMBA -- I was just in the lobby of a Ritz Carlton waiting for client and saw an employee polishing the floor with a paper napkin -- REALLY -- why not a roomba with the Ritz Carlton brand on it instead? Does iRobot even go to the hotel/tourism trade shows? How many demo units did they GIVE to hotel chains to try? Where is there endorsement from a hotel chain? Sometimes it's pretty simple why not used-- no one ever tried to market to that sector! js


Maybe the real question is why more people don't hire cleaning services for their homes. Assume that hotels are rational and humans are more cost-effective than a Roomba.

Why do people at home spend money on a Roomba which can only clean floors instead of a few hours of maid service a week? You'd have to find a cleaner or service, schedule them, give them a key or be home to let them in, and give up some privacy. The Roomba wins on these issues at home, but they don't apply in a hotel, where the maids are on staff, scheduled, have keys, and try to avoid times when the guests are present (who, thanks to the airlines, only travel with things they are comfortable displaying for everybody at the airport).

Paul Culver

Ok so there are a multiplicity of reasons why a Roomba may or may not work in a hotel room. As I ride MUNI in San Francisco, with filthy floors on the buses and trains, I have often wondered why management has not approached the Roomba manufacturers about a commercial grade floor scrubber. It seems more likely to work. Each car has the same layout so the Roomba could be configured to scrub efficiently instead of randomly, human cleaners could pick up newspapers and large debris and set the Roomba to work and collect it after it's xx minutes of cleaning time, and it is in a secure environment where it is not a safety hazard or likely to be stolen. The floors don't get cleaned now so anything would be an improvement.


#8, too easily stolen could be easily mitigated. Hotels wouldn't use retail Roombas, just like they don't use retail carpet, casements, electronics or almost any other FF&E.

So a commercial hotel-grade Roomba could minimize theft by doing things like... hard wiring the charging base and host unit into the guestroom... equipping each unit with an anti-theft sensor that shrieks when it goes beyond the reasonable radius of a guestroom... locking their logic so that they clean one room and one room only until reset by hotel staff using proprietary devices.

Sure, hackers and assorted losers would still steal the odd unit, but like remote controls that don't work with anything but hotel TVs, theft could be managed to a small amount of shrinkage.

I think there's a combination of #7 and the aggregate maintenance headache involved. Having 1 Roomba per guestroom vs. 1 vacuum per 20 guestrooms created a scale issue for maintenance--not even considering the relative durability and complexity of a Roombas or industrial vacuum.

Personally, #7 is a no-brainer. Human interpretation of the room conditions, a small desired window for vacuuming to happen, and the marginal cost of adding one additional task to a defined cleaning resource and process all favor the conventional approach.

Essentially, the Roomba works at home due to our differing expectations for upkeep at home and in a hotel. Not necessarily the quality of the cleaning--I never notice if my hotel room is *really* well vacuumed or not--but the frequency and predictability of upkeep activities. At home, I'm okay if the Roomba interrupts an A-Team marathon--I've already accepted the terms of the Roomba's service levels, I've bought in because I brought the Roomba into the equation, I control it. At a hotel, that's not the case, and since I expect an even higher standard of convenience at a hotel, the annoyance of a Roomba cleaning when it wants, at its own pace, is probably a non-starter.

I do expect that someone will develop a hotel-specific Roomba at some point--the room attendant can drop it when it enters the room, it knows which room and which layout from RFID or other sensors, and it cleans the carpet effectively in a window mapping to the time it takes for the housekeeper to complete the remainder of the task to turn the room. At this point, all the foregoing challenges start to melt away and the ability to clean more rooms per labor unit will make Roomba adoption a no-brainer.



I bought 3 Roombas for 3 different people and each is broken and unrepairable with very little use. These things would never frequent household use, let alone commercial use.


Numbers 1 and 7 make the most sense, although "easy to steal" as many have pointed out, is a good one too and should be #8.

Frankly I'd love to steal a Roomba. Do you think you can put the hot shampoo and towels inside it?


This is clearly a case of an economist over analyzing a simple situation. A Roomba per room? The maintenance on that situation would be far more labor intensive than pushing a vacuum. The Roomba is great in the home, but it does need constant attention. Taking a Roomba from room to room while the other cleaning is being done wouldn't work because the Roomba is to slow and "dumb". A robot vacuum for hotels would need to be large (big canister, and a big battery to last multiple floors) and fast enough to finish the room by the time the person finished everything else.


I think a real person is required for hotel vacuuming because in hotel rooms people might often leave things on the floor that require a human's judgement to know whether or not they should be vacuumed up. What if my diamond earring fell to the floor and I left it there unknowingly? Would a Roomba know the difference between that and a candy wrapper? I'd rather trust the maid to that one.


Many have suggested that the Roomba is not used by hotels because it is easy to steal. This is a very weak argument; it is very easy to see if the Roomba has been stolen and who stole it. At the end of your stay at a hotel, the room is examined to see if anything is missing… a missing Roomba is not hard to detect. Roombas would also, most likely, be used by relatively expensive hotels. People that can afford $300 a night surely wouldn’t steal a poor little hard-working Roomba.

The argument I find more convincing is that the Roomba has poor suction power. Most hotels that charge $300 a night have high standards for cleanliness. ( as a result of many of them being sued in the past). I do know where the Roomba stores the dust, but it is probably an old fashioned container type thingy. High end hotels mostly use water vacumes that prevent the dust from escaping back out.

Argument #7 is also very convincing and is, in fact, my favorite contender as well. (Go #7)



The notion of Roombae to clean hotel rooms is truly outlandish for all the practical reasons aptly stated above. So I will only add a bit of whimsy:

1. Our Roomba, which calculates exactly how to cover every square inch of the room several times, commands the attention of onlookers who try to understand its mapping algorithm, thereby wasting everyone's time. (Best conclusion to date: Brownian Motion)

2. Said Roomba, in its infinite wisdom, knows that the dirt is to be found under the beds, where no conventional vacuum has ever gone. (Either because of size or the lack of operator initiative.)The result is that it spends a substantial amount of time exercising more diligence thereunder than hotel management would be willing to tolerate.


I saw this headline in my RSS feed and immediately thought of number 7. Compared to that, the other options are trivial. Roombas are incredibly slow, whereas a person can give the room a once-over in about 8.5 minutes.

Y. Preminger

Reason number 0:

You didn't look hard enough !

Roomba's may not be invading hotel rooms but other more robust robotic maids are making rounds in hotels and office buildings in Japan.

Check this out:


Acceptance may be slow but it's definitely happening, starting in Japan, where cheap labor is scarce and people are more likely to heed the "do not feed the robot !" sign.