Facial recognition is coming to hotels. I stayed at Alibaba’s hotel of the future


Alibaba is well known for its e-commerce platforms, but the Chinese tech giant has branched into fintech, film, new retail and now, hospitality.

I recently stayed at Alibaba’s futuristic FlyZoo hotel, which is adjacent to its headquarters in Hangzhou, China.

Here, there are no keycards and everything is cashless. It features facial recognition doors, robotic arms at the bar and even robots that deliver items to guest rooms.

Alibaba hopes the property will be a model for what a hotel of the future may look like.

Upon arrival, I noticed the lobby was completely bare: no check-in counters, no concierge, and no receptionists.

As a foreigner, however, I was quickly greeted by a staff member, who used a mobile device to take a photo of my passport and my face. Then she told me my room number and offered to email the receipt.

Andy Wang, CEO of Alibaba Future Hotel, claims the data recognition information is only kept during the duration of the guests’ stay and is not kept on record.

While foreigners are greeted by a staff member to assist with check in, Chinese nationals can check in themselves on kiosks by the side — or they can even check in on Alibaba’s Flyzoo app on their mobile devices and skip any process in the lobby entirely.

“Young generation, they love it,” Wang said. “For the generation like us, they would feel a little nervous initially, but in a couple minutes with our assistance from the service ambassador in the hotel lobby, they will feel more comfortable. Everybody knows how to use Alipay, everybody knows how to use [a] smartphone.”

Alipay is Alibaba’s payment platform which allows customers to seamlessly pay for items on their phone or send money to others. It has more than one billion monthly active users globally.

I arrived to my room and saw that next to the bed was a voice assistant device, Tmall Genie, which is Alibaba’s answer to Google Home or Amazon Alexa. With just voice commands, the virtual assistant can help turn on the TV, open and close the curtains or adjust the lights. It can also be used to order things like towels or bottled water to the room — which are delivered to the room by a robot.

CNBC’s Uptin Saiidi tests out facial recognition rooms at Alibaba’s Flyzoo Hotel in Hangzhou, China

Eli Lo | CNBC

Along the hallways are refrigerators stocked with drinks and snacks. But unlike most vending machines, customers use the Alipay app to unlock the door of the fridge. When an item is removed, the refrigerator automatically detects what’s taken out and the customer is charged within seconds of the fridge door closing.

But don’t expect to see Alibaba roll out more properties like Flyzoo. The company is using the hotel as a test bed for the technology that it hopes to license to companies such as Marriott International.

“Everybody loves the ease of getting into the hotel faster. No one would say ‘I want to go to the front desk and do more,'” Peggy Fang Roe, Marriott International’s chief sales and marketing officer for Asia-Pacific told CNBC.

“It’s getting good traction, but there are still steps in the process that require you to go the front desk so we haven’t eliminated it completely, but when we do, I think people will adapt to it quite quickly,” she added.

She said certain Marriott properties in China could soon be reducing the traditional front desk check-in process pending local government approval.

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