At first it’s nothing out of the ordinary. You go to the Yotel website and book your room, just like any other hotel. But then something unusual happens. After you’ve selected your dates, picked a room category, and clicked “Continue,” you’re asked if you’d like to add “Vi-YO-Let Disinfection” for an additional $25.
The website explains that Vi-Yo-Let is an autonomous robot with UV light that “works to disinfect not only surfaces, but the air as well, providing a fully comprehensive infection prevention solution. Add this for added peace of mind.”
While it’s great that Yotel, a UK-based chain of micro hotels, has brought in an extra precaution to keep guests safe, should the “added peace of mind” from a robot that blasts your room with UV light to kill COVID-19 cost an additional $25 or $30? (The official Yotel announcement prices Vi-Yo-Let at $30, but online the cost to book the robot is $25).
“It doesn’t seem like a good idea to me,” said Jan Jones, coordinator for hospitality and tourism management at the University of New Haven. “I understand that hotels are going to have to recoup some of the extra costs involved in cleaning. To me, it’s sort of like saying, ‘Yes, it’s pretty clean, but if you want it really clean it’s going to cost you more.'”
Currently, the Yotel Boston, which is located in the Seaport neighborhood and where rooms start at around $100, is the only hotel in the chain using this particular robot. These robots, produced by a Danish company called UVD Robots, also roam the terminals at Heathrow in London to clean surfaces and the air. For a Yotel stay, the robot must be booked prior to arrival, and yes, it costs $25 or $30 to have the robot come into your room for the extra layer of clean.
Anthony Melchiorri, creator of the television show “Hotel Impossible” and founder of the hotel management and consultancy group Argeo Hospitality, said the add-on robot layer of protection almost gives the appearance of a hotel asking “Would you like a fire extinguisher in your room?” or “Would you like a room with a sprinkler system?” for an up-charge.
“It feels like a counterintuitive move,” Melchiorri said. “This is a time when hotels need to be drawing customers back, and no one likes an extra charge.”
To be clear, the rooms at the Yotel are subject to the same upgraded cleaning protocols that major hotels around the world have adopted to keep patrons safe from COVID-19. Within the hotel, high-touch surfaces are frequently wiped down, hand sanitizers are abundant, and masks and social distancing are required when guests are not in their rooms.
Trish Berry, general manager of Yotel Boston, said in a release that it’s important that the hospitality industry do everything it can to reassure travelers. When not cleaning rooms for an additional charge, Vi-Yo-Let whirls through and cleans common spaces in the hotel.
UVD Robots, which is renting the robots to Yotel, claims its robots are able to disinfect pretty much anything you point them at — each robot has a mobile array of powerful short wavelength ultraviolet-C (UVC) lights that emit enough energy to literally shred the DNA or RNA of any microorganisms that have the misfortune of being exposed to them.
The company’s robots, which are a bit like bright, disinfecting Roombas, first found popularity in hospitals, but they jumped to the hospitality sector after the pandemic arrived earlier this year. Yotel is one of many hotel chains trying new technologies to win back guests who abandoned travel in record numbers since the start of the pandemic.
The Westin Houston Medical Center, Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, and the Beverly Hilton are using similar UV robots, made by a company called LIghtStrike, but these hotels do not charge guests an additional fee for the UV disinfection.
Melchiorri of “Hotel Impossible” is a spokesman for another robot called CIRQ+CLEAN. Unlike Vi-Yo-Let, CIRQ+CLEAN robots dispense a disinfectant through electrostatic spray. It’s the same procedure that airlines have been using. Electrically-charged cleaning fluid is sprayed, which envelopes and sticks to surfaces. When guests check out, the robot is brought in to clean the room before the cleaning staff arrives. The robot was introduced last month and has yet to be adopted for use by any major hotels.
It’s almost hard to fault the hard-hit hotel industry for wanting to charge an additional fee for coronavirus-related cleaning. An August study from the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that the occupancy rate at urban hotels was hovering at an abysmal 38 percent. The break even point for a hotel to turn a profit is a 50 percent occupancy rate. At the same time they’re losing money, they’re also adding Plexiglas shields, hand-sanitizing stations, and ramping up cleaning.
So far, charging a COVID-19 clean up-charge does not seem to be widespread in the industry (the AHLA did not respond to e-mails asking if it knew of hotels charging extra for new cleaning protocols), but according to Emily Weiss, managing director of travel strategy and consulting at Accenture, now is not the time for hotels to add fees or additional charges for cleaning.
“Through our research we found that only 26 percent of people we had interviewed said they would be comfortable staying in a hotel room right now,” Weiss said. “There’s pent up demand, but there are also large shifts in people’s willingness to travel right now, which is inclusive of hotels. They’re looking for hotels to restore their trust, to assure them that all health and safety protocols are being taken into account.”
She said the Yotel UV robot charge is an anomaly, and she doesn’t expect to see any such charges from other hotels — at least in the near future.
“I would say health and safety is a requirement, not a perk,” Weiss said. “I think it’s just an expectation. It’s about transparency right now with many hotels. They’re partnering with brands and sharing whatever protocols they have in place.”
Jones, of the University of New Haven, was slightly more pointed in her assessment of charging fees for cleaning, particularly for Yotel’s UV robot.
“It was seems to me that if they have this technology it should be front and center,” she said. “Like, ‘Look what we’re doing to go above and beyond to clean your room.’ I don’t think you should charge people for something that adds to their safety like you’d charge them for room service or the minibar.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.