Recent speculation that the hotel of the future could do away with check-in desks led to an uproar from industry figures and consumers alike. But in an industry where any opportunity to reduce costs must be considered, doing away with the check-in desk could be the only option for hoteliers. So what does the level of increasing automation in hospitality mean for customer service, and are we losing the personal touch so integral to the hotel experience?
The check-in desk of today
Gérard Laizé, general manager of VIA (Valorisation de l'Innovation dans l'Ameublement) put it best when he explained the current hotel predicament – "As far as lobbies go, there are currently two concerns: a general exasperation with welcoming guests like bank tellers... and a will for speed and efficiency."
One of the key issues arising from the traditional 'check-in desk' setup is that customers often don't want to engage with a member of staff. This is doubly true in hotels, where guests often arrive from a long journey with tired children in tow. This makes it more challenging for members of staff to upsell hotel amenities, offer upgrades and generally make a good first impression. Designated check-in times can also lead to bottlenecks. When numerous guests try to check-in simultaneously, staff can be overwhelmed, leading to delays that could impact a guest's overall perception of the hotel.
Many in the industry, however, still see the front-desk as integral to the overall 'feel' of a hotel. They argue that without it, guests would be left adrift on arrival, unsure of who to turn to when trying to find their way to check in. As Emma Crichton-Miller emphasised in an article for the Financial Times, 'The overt function of the desk is diminished but its symbolic function remains'.
Automation and AI; here to stay
AI and automation in hospitality are already making a significant impact on the day-to-day guest experience. Although not limited to the lobby, these technologies are improving the check-in experience by giving more freedom to the guest, enabling check-in outside peak hours and freeing up staff to focus on providing additional services.
Although the check-in desk is still the preferred option for many looking to find information, guests increasingly look to digital solutions, including AI and in-hotel chatbots, for answers to typical questions. Automated hotel services take the pressure off hotel staff while increasing upselling opportunities. After all, the easier it is for guests to check-in, order room service, and book tables in the restaurant, the more likely they are to use the service throughout their stay.
Simultaneously, technologies like Genie can act as a portable, personal concierge, giving tips on the best places to eat, drink and explore, regardless of whether the guest is in the hotel or exploring the city outside.
Face-to-face still matters
Of course, the hotel check-in desk isn't just for checking in. It's also the go-to point for information about the hotel as well as a place to find tips on external attractions, events, and venues. Hotels looking to do away with the desk must still find a way to keep hotel staff on the ground and, just as importantly, visible to new guests.
Guests are liable to be wary of any establishment where their presence isn't immediately acknowledged. Hoteliers need to establish clear processes for guests to follow. This means integrating visible 'key touchpoints' (i.e. social area, hotel services, etc.) into the lobby design. Ideally, these key touchpoints will be in open, fluid spaces that enable guests to move freely without 'penning in' new arrivals.
Efforts by established hotel brands to streamline the check-in process are still in their infancy, but there's no shortage of ideas for how the lobby of the future could look. Holiday Inn recently introduced Open Lobby, where the multiple functions of lobby, restaurant, bar and business centre are combined in a 'coherent space'. The design was based on numerous studies into how people used space in their own homes, combined with a survey of travel perspectives by IHG into the changing preferences of business travellers. Unsurprisingly, the survey identified a growing trend away from the traditional office format and towards a more personal, mobile-focused engagement process.
The hotel lobby lives on
Hoteliers still recognise the lobby as key to nailing that first impression. Lobbies are where new arrivals orientate themselves, and the front desk is still integral to this. Particularly in the age of the Instagram traveller, providing that shareable moment is integral to gaining organic attention. Hotels have been slow to embrace these new opportunities. Redesigning a lobby is, after all, time-consuming, expensive and, above all, disruptive.
The lobby serves a number of purposes beyond check-in, however. A survey of French hospitality professionals found that, while most said the primary functions of a lobby remains welcoming clients (86%) and providing them with information (75%), 46% also mentioned meetings, 41% relaxation, 19% catering and 16% work. Hoteliers are already taking steps to integrate more 'socially centred' features. As interior designers, Paradigm Design Group pointed out in a recent blog post, "Hotel designers know that the lobby will keep a variety of groups and events, and they try to make the space versatile and multifunctional. We have changed the perspective that hotels are only a place to check in and out. The rise of competition and social nature of guests demand so much more."
Free-moving staff could still be on hand to greet new arrivals in the lobby in the check-in-desk free hotel of the future. This dispenses with the rigmarole of long waiting lines and static meeting points but requires that hotels accept, as they are slowly coming to, that self-service doesn't necessarily mean lack of service.
The future of the check-in desk
Even with the rapid pace of change in the industry, hotels will maintain some form of check-in desk for years to come. The main changes to hotel operations, according to a report by Amadeus, will be in the back-office systems. Automation, cloud storage and AI will streamline services while brands experiment with different FOH options.
While these innovations streamline the check-in process for hotels and guests alike, they won't mark as significant a change to the overall hotel experience as removing a universally recognised element like the check-in desk. So what would a desk-less vision of hospitality look like?
In a future without physical check-in points, guests check-in simply by entering their room for the first time. Patrons receive their room number, download an access code (either in the form of a QR code or through uploading a fingerprint scan), gather information on hotel amenities and make special requirements known in advance through hotel-provided handsets.
Hotels could include automated (and even robotic) check-in points dotted around the lobby, much like the 'self-check' luggage kiosks popping up in airports around the world. Guests can check in at their own pace and the kiosks can upsell room upgrades and spa passes as simple CTA's (Call To Action).
The ultimate aim of modern hospitality is to provide the same level of convenience as guests would expect at home. As Rohit Talwar predicted in his 'Hotels 2020' report, "With no front desk to include, hotel designers will be able to let their imaginations run that little bit freer. And for guests, staying in a hotel could become that bit more like staying at a friend's house, where you're approached on entry, given a comfortable seat and a drink, and then shown your room."
While the desk itself may become a relic of the past, digital innovations will never completely replace personal service. Instead, technology should complement and enhance face-to-face engagement. In the hotel of tomorrow, brands will have to establish a balance between these competing interests.