The contactless guest journey is here to stay, or is it?
— 16 experts shared their view
Created as a consequence of COVID-19, CONTACTLESS TECH is at the heart of the paradigm shift that most industries, especially those in Travel and Hospitality have had to lean on to ensure their survival and avert the spread of the virus. The Guest journey comprising numerous round and square pegs has had to be re-imagined and at the same time dynamically re-engineered to cope with the fluidity and complexity of requirements and compliance needs of the new now. Technology has inevitably had to undergo change constantly, and at lightning speed, and customer investments are sometimes forcibly made to enable this industry to ride the trend, and comply with safety and customer requirements as well as deal with staff scarcity and rising costs.
All of these have shrunk and recalibrated the guest experience to fit the palm-of-the-hand, with nearly all the once human-centric touchpoints, becoming touchless. Some may say this development has turned this once service-oriented business, into what many might consider soulless…
During this pandemic, face-to-face human contact has been one of the casualties of our existence. As we emerge and learn to co-exist with COVID, how will that impact the contactless journey going forward? Will we experience another change where contactless tech becomes hybrid - with a dash or more of humanity thrown into the mix?
The continued development of the contactless guest experience during hotel stays is the new norm and that is a good thing. Hoteliers have the unique opportunity to set a new tone for how they communicate and provide personalization to their guests. This is done through working alongside tech partners to integrate intuitive systems into everyday processes. Connecting modern communication tools, i.e., apps and SMS texting, with hotel operations helps to meet travelers where they are, on their phone or mobile device. Front desk and concierge services can be adapted and moved to a hotel app to allow for mobile check-in, keyless entry, and beyond, putting more services and amenities at a guests' fingertips. These tech integrations work to create more memorable experiences for guests through intentional interactions rather than taking away from the human to human connection. Contactless communication gives hotels the power to adhere to both the socially distanced travel landscape while offering unique individual touches that are synonymous with an unforgettable hotel stay.
Simultaneously, these same solutions work to better equip staff with an easy-to-use digital assistant for everyday task management. Recent staffing shortages felt across the industry have placed a strain on individual employees by increasing their workload. This is where the right tech platform comes into play to work as a digital organization and task management assistant. Digital tech communication creates a way for staff to assist with multiple guest requests in real-time. From the hotel management standpoint, the same platform enables to-dos to be assigned to multiple employees at once while also providing timely alerts on the progress of each task. Working alongside a hospitality-specific solutions provider will help to establish accountability and empower a smaller team to manage the day-to-day.
Social-distance and digital communication preferences will continue to dominate the hospitality industry. Hoteliers that adapt to work existing technology that speaks to the preferred contactless experience into the guest journey will find themselves ahead of the curve.
Owner, The Murphy Gallery & Hotel Dublin
There are some things that technology is great at. For example, exchanging information.
There are some things that humans are great at. For example, making you feel welcome.
I never, ever want to have to stand in a queue in order to have someone else fill in a form for me.
I quite often (but not always) enjoy having a chat with another person.
I always appreciate being able to access the information I need quickly and efficiently. I don't care if I get it from a website, app, tablet, chatbot, voice assistant, pro-actively sent sms or email, over the phone, or in person; as long as it's relevant, accurate and easy to understand, I am happy.
Regardless of the pandemic, the way we live our lives has changed dramatically over the last ten years. We order taxis, book flights, hotels and restaurants, and do our shopping, all from our mobile devices. We expect and demand a frictionless experience and instant gratification.
Hotels need to provide service via the channel that suits the guest, rather than the channel that suits them. For luxury and leisure focused hotels, service will likely lean more heavily towards in-person; for business and budget, more towards technology. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the idea of what constitutes 'good service' has changed forever. There is no going back.
Founder and Editor-in-chief of ROBONOMICS: The Journal of the Automated Economy
The Covid-19 pandemic stimulated the use of contactless technologies for measuring temperature, payments, kiosks for taking orders, food delivery robots, etc. I personally think that after the pandemic some of the demand for these technologies will decrease in the short term because the demand for the tasks they perform will decrease (e.g. biometric technologies for contactless measurement of the temperature). However, the demand for other contactless technologies (e.g. payments, self-service kiosks, delivery robots) may remain due to their convenience to the users. Moreover, other contactless devices like digital bracelets or human microchip implants might gain popularity for tracking, payments and secure access to premises.
Furthermore, in the long-term, the labour supply in hospitality may decrease because people saw the vulnerability of their job positions to fluctuating tourism demand due to the pandemic. Many hospitality employees turned to other industries as areas for professional development. Hence, hospitality companies would be forced to automate some of their operations due to the lack of sufficient supply in the labour market. This would stimulate the demand for all technologies in the long term, including contactless devices.
Adjunct Professor NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality and Hospitality & Online Travel Tech Consultant
The contactless guest journey is here to stay. The hospitality industry will not be going back to the old times of 100% human-assisted guest journey.
To begin with, the current labor shortage is not going away anytime soon. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of unfilled positions in the U.S. reached 10.07 million in July 2021, 1.73 million of which were in hospitality. Similar is the situation in Europe and APAC. But labor shortages are not a hospitality-native problem. Professional services, retail, transportation, manufacturing, construction and other industries are equally affected, so hospitality simply cannot outbid for talent these industries. So whether we like it or not, we have to learn how to service guests with fewer staff members.
The second major consideration is labor cost, which is not to be taken lightly. Total labor costs per available room in North America came in at 40% and in Europe 84% higher than at the same time a year ago HotStats).
What are the solutions?
Changing the hotel business model, outsourcing or hiring more gig workers to do the job, streamlining operations are some of the immediate temporary measures. But the only long-term solution is investing in technology that can solve the current labor shortages and rising labor costs through automation, mobility, robotization and next gen technology applications, including contactless guest experience. The goal is to do more with fewer employees by using technology and reduce your staffing needs over the next few years by at least half compared to 2019 levels.
In the same time, great hospitality does not necessarily mean 100% people-provided services. Let's stop crying about losing the human touch, the human component in customer service. One-third of total accommodation stays today are at short-term rentals where services are being delivered in a completely contactless guest experience fashion. These same short-term rental customers also stay at hotels. When you book your Airbnb and are provided with a mobile code to open the front door of your rental, and you enter your clean, well-appointed rental house or apartment, do you feel under-serviced because of the lack of human-provided services? No!
Why then some in our industry are convinced that our guests are longing to be serviced by underpaid, undertrained, overworked front desk clerks as opposed to seamless mobile check-in application that provides not only a mobile key, but also allows them to choose their room from a digital floor plan and select the type of housekeeping-on-demand service they prefer for their stay? Or that guests prefer to call the front desk and speak to a human in order to request an extra pillow as opposed to message the hotel using their own smartphone?
Contactless guest experience and investments in contactless technology are also necessitated by the exceedingly tech-savvy guests and their exceedingly high technology expectations, which are mostly around self-service, so let's give the DIY-obsessed consumers what they want!
Face-to-face human contact will never go away. In fact, it's a key element of the service industry. That said, COVID has impacted every single person on the planet, and is responsible for a major digital-adoption movement, which we are still experiencing today. Just think about how many QR codes you see now vs. pre-pandemic and how much more likely you are to use them, despite them being around since the mid-nineties. Similarly, the technology behind CONTACTLESS TECH is also not new, but it is finally progressing along the technology adoption lifecycle.
Let's not look back now - instead we need look to the new opportunities for that human element on site. There are hundreds of hospitality apps out there right now that offer “contactless” products that spans across various categories and offer innovative solutions to today's problems. Right now, you're probably also reading the opinions of many providers that offer these products. These are the experts who can give recommendations based on their extensive research, product knowledge, and experience. At apaleo, our focus is on developing the platform, which is what enables contactless apps to do their thing and pass data thorough open APIs, making sure these apps can function automatically. We believe in collaboration, not competition and we will never try to copy features from a guest journey application or build an inferior all-in-one set of features.
Contactless doesn't have to mean “humanless”. Now is the time to be creative and rethink whether we even need a person standing at the front desk behind a computer screen. This was never face-to-face, but actually face-to-face-to-computer. It only exists as the means to collect and document information. When technology lets a guest do this on their own time, in advance, and through their own devices, then you can rethink what the first human touch point really is. Maybe it's repurposing the front desk space into a coffee shop, where your barista can welcome guests with a coffee. Maybe it's turning the space into a giftshop where your guests can purchase hotel merch or local products. Maybe it's simply reusing the existing space and your staff for “concierge” services. These are real examples from real customers who can test out these ideas with the flexibility of a cloud hospitality platform.
Partner at Soler & Associates
I believe contactless is here to stay. There is just no real added value to standing in line and waiting for a key or a check-in. I can't see anybody yearning for a queue again. But I think we (in the hotel industry) have erroneously linked the check-in and check-out experience with "human contact" and "service". Apple stores famously got inspired by luxury hotels to build a great experience - but the check-out experience wasn't the one they kept. They created roaming payment systems where any staff could check one out. And they've now moved to self-check-out. Amazon is creating stores with no lines. Uber removed the transaction and so did Airbnb. We would be foolish to think that transactions is part of the soul of a hotel. It isn't. Being there for the guest, predicting what they need and being there just when they need it - that's the magic of great hotels. If we can free up some of our most qualified staff from the front-desk to be there for guests I think we'll take the average hotel into a whole new level. PS: Noticed how McDonalds added table service by putting self-ordering kiosks? A huge upgrade to the experience.
Professor at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne
Interesting question. As we observed hospitality had to do a lot of “knee jerk” reactions to COVID in order to function. Now that we are learning to live with it and reaching for some kind of normality the question is what will remain from the COVID times. Yes hospitality is about the people, that is essence and DNA, so no technology should not replace the great staff we have. However we should seriously think about processes we were doing pre COVID and should never go back to. Also we need to think where contactless makes sense. Would I expect or even want this in a luxury hotel, absolutely not, but would it fit in a budget / economy hotel where I am looking for efficiency and not really worried about the experience then yes. For me there would be nothing wrong in having a SMS confirmation of my room number for an economy hotel, bypassing any form of check in and going to my room and using my phone as the door key. In the upper upscale and luxury that becomes more difficult, however I am firm believer in choice. So more contactless aspects will probably creep into the guest journey in all hotels, because it gives guests choice if they wish to use it or not. But this also creates operational challenges for the hotels as well. With multiple paths being created. What we must avoid at all costs is going back to what we were doing before in certain aspects. Which were annoying for the guest, inefficient for the operator and well just outdated. Perfect time for a rethink.
A study by Deloitte Digital found strong interest in contactless operations even before the pandemic, with 60% of guests preferring hotels with contactless check-in and keyless room entry. A survey in 2020 by Skift found that after the onset of the pandemic, 71% of travellers stated that they would be more likely to stay at a hotel offering self-service technology that minimises contact with the staff. Brought on by the increasing adoption of mobile technologies and accelerated by COVID-19, contactless tech is fast becoming a staple for hospitality organisations to continue operations.
- Contactless front desk
The simplest and the most necessary point of change would be front desk operations. As McKinsey noted, while exchanging documents and credit cards at the front desk is merely a single point of risk for the guests, this risk is multiplied from the perspective of the front desk staff who interact with many such guests.
Incorporating contactless tech will not only make the guest journey safer but will also make it smoother. Using simple tablet or mobile-based applications for check-in/check-out functions can ensure an efficient workflow leading to an enhanced guest experience. These platforms can be used to build comprehensive guest profiles and to tailor the experience accordingly. Deloitte found that such experiences have a 23% impact on guest satisfaction.
- Incorporating interaction
The next step would be to include interaction in the contactless journey. This can be done by enabling chat functions through the contactless tech. In a contactless guest journey, staying in touch with the guest is crucial to ensure that the guests do not feel like they are staying at an impersonalised robotic accommodation.
57% of travellers preferred to communicate with staff via their smartphones or a voice assistant, and apps that facilitate two-way communication and real-time photo and video sharing can offer an interactive means of communicating. These tools can be used to respond to customer queries and complaints, as well as in-room service provisions and other request management.
- CRM 101
These interactive contactless systems can then evolve to become CRM 101. A robust CRM system can allow hospitality organisations to maintain connections with individual guests, paving the way for a more personalised experience. Guests who receive personalised attention are 29% more likely to share positive reviews (Deloitte). A contactless CRM system can allow guests to log their preferences prior to arrival, allowing the staff to tailor their experience while minimising contamination risks.
- Humanising the brand
Minimising physical interactions does not mean that the guest journey will be transformed into a string of soulless formalities. On the contrary, facilitating contactless guest journeys is an excellent approach to kick-start the industry and engage with post-pandemic guests. Hospitality organisations can leverage contactless tech to humanise their brand and build loyalty.
Automating back-office functions can provide hotel staff with more time and opportunities for face-to-face interactions. By incorporating automation and self-service, hospitality organisations will be able to achieve higher efficiency with lesser labour. Moreover, allowing guests to select services from the comfort of their own device creates a contamination-free zone for the staff to engage in one-on-one communications with guests. Given the convenience of this effortless upselling, it can even encourage guests to explore the different services provided by the hotel.
For the foreseeable future, contactless will be the mandate for hospitality organisations, and it will soon be a part of the standard hotel front office technology. The sector needs to recognise that a contactless guest journey does not mean placing the guests on a sanitised travelator. It is the newest trend in creating safe and personalised guest experiences, and it is certainly here to stay.
Founder | CEO | Futurist
As a futurist, I can only hope the trend is here to stay.
In a recent article, I expressed my feeling towards the topic.
Here's an extract:
It's not so far-fetched to think that, in the near future, three different types of hotels could coexist, no longer classified on the basis of stars or reputation, but on the basis of the percentage of “biological staff” employed.
- Budget hotels will likely benefit the most from the replacement of human employees with robots, self-check-in kiosks, and other automatisms, and it is not difficult to think that they will be able to offer extremely competitive prices thanks to the reduction in the cost of human personnel;
- On the other side of the spectrum, I predict that there will be human-centered hotels, completely (or almost completely) run by human beings. The assurance of being welcomed and accompanied for the entire duration of the stay by real people will be a “plus.” The luxury guests of the future may be willing to pay extra for this human-centered service, just as today they are willing to pay extra for handmade items, compared to those created on a larger, industrial scale. Therefore, a higher ADR would compensate to the increase in costs associated with the use of human personnel;
- In the middle (and here I would include the vast majority of hotels) there will be "hybrid" properties, where the human and artificial elements coexist, maintaining a service that is as human as possible but reducing costs and improving processes wherever feasible, in a sort of "technological humanism."
It is true to say that hotels have had to change the way they interact with guests due to COVID's effect on the industry but it doesn't have to be considered as 'soulless'. Instead, the hospitality industry should consider it as an elevation to the personalised service it provides its guests.
Over the years, the shift from face-to-face to more technologically savvy systems has been prominent in the hospitality industry to cater to millennial travellers. For example, self-check-in or check out counters, chatbots where guests can order room service or book reservations at restaurants. How are these systems any different from what we're trying to implement now? The added feature that's been requested now by travellers is the hygiene and safety aspect which such technology can help with. Want to ensure guest and staff safety by limiting their interaction during make-up service? Get a system that can provide you with real-time occupancy information of the guest room. Want to ensure the guests are getting their preferred room choice before they arrive but also want to be energy efficient? Get a solution that can inform you of the most energy-efficient room that meets all the guests' criteria. These kinds of systems can elevate your hotel and its service without having to compromise on guest satisfaction.
The contactless journey is here to stay and in the long run, it's going to be the new norm.
Let's begin with arguing that the word "contactless". When a guest us using their mobile phone or a self service check in our out, there is still contact, there is still service that can be provided, and if the hotel does it well their is still staff member around to assist if needed.
In today's world and this started way before COVID, many guests prefer to be in control, we all like to do stuff from our phone, airline checkin, Uber, amazon, etc, all trends that started much before Covid. It's now been 1.5 year since COVID forced hotels to close, and come up with changes to attracted the concerning guest. Enabling mobile phone guest communication, is one of those changes. Has it been accelerated, probably, is it visible, not always, most hotels still have giant front desks and center their guest experience around it.
The future is a mix, in which we have to believe that digital engagement with a guest, if done well plays an important roll to encourage "contact" or interaction between the guest and the hotel, from booking, to pre arrival to upselling, to check in, and lastly check out. Hotels can service guests best if the physical hotel adjusts with a more friendly lobby, not a giant front desk behind which the hotel staff hides, but smaller pod's for those that want to interact directly about items not related to the administrative parts of the procedure. Guest Self Service is here to stay!
Co-Founder at TRAVHOTECH
Personally, I don't associate the contactless tech experience with COVID. I associate it with the rise of mobile technology in general and the intersection of customers of any industry wanting more control and the commercial opportunity of giving them control, thus offloading processes and effort.
For those reasons it will continue and increase as the digital customer increases their expectation for DIY tools and businesses take the opportunity to streamline product and service.
The delivery of reduced product and service in hospitality is something that COVID is directly responsible for. I'm interested to see how much industry motivation exists to return to previous service models, having had the opportunity to reduce the experience for more than a year.
Ultimately this type of technology is about providing the customer with choice. I also wonder at what point the customer will eventually return to the appreciation that what is special about hospitality is that people look after you and your needs. In the best circumstances they are anticipating these needs. It's included in the price so why not take advantage of it?
It's a common misconception that delivering a high-tech guest experience must come at the expense of personalized, high-touch service 一 or that all “high-touch” interactions equally benefit the guest experience. Waiting in a long-line to the front desk, and enduring a scripted check-in dialogue might be “high-touch,” but it only burdens guests who want to get on with their stay. Well before COVID, we found that guests were clamoring for a welcome experience that delivered more convenience, customization and control. In fact, 73% of business travelers preferred mobile check-in, while 53% of customers prefer mobile notifications about deals and coupons in store.
A mobile PMS offers guests a choice in their welcome experience, allowing them to check in through their mobile device, through a guest-facing smart kiosk, or through a friendly hotelier aided by a tablet. When guests are given a choice, StayNTouch customers benefit from an up to 81% conversion rate on contactless guest check-in. The reason for this is clear: Self-service check-in lets guests complete their welcome experience in under a minute, while also allowing them to customize their stay through automated amenity and upgrade offers, sent directly to their mobile device. We have found these offers to be enormously successful, with up to an 18% conversion rate on automated room upgrades, a 10% conversion rate on amenity offers, and a total 240% ROI based on automated upsells alone.
On a more fundamental level, high-touch service is ultimately determined by positive guest engagement. When hoteliers maintain eye-contact, express genuine empathy, and proactively implement creative solutions to problems, they establish the kind of emotional connections that create life-long customers. Of course this is exactly the kind of heightened guest engagement that a fully cloud, guest-centric mobile PMS can facilitate: When more guests opt for mobile or kiosk-based self check-in, front desk agents can spend less time manually checking-in guests, more time actually delivering service. And because a mobile PMS runs on a tablet, your staff can break free from the front desk and meet guests wherever they are on property. Now, hoteliers can meet guests in the lobby with tea or drinks, ask them why they are traveling or if they have any special requests, and inform them of the amenities in your hotel. In a word, a guest-centric mobile PMS allows your staff to deliver organic and unburdened service, instead of forced and scripted administrative interactions.
And the staff facing capabilities are just as important. Being cloud based and fully mobile separates them from the restrictions of a desk or an office, but being simple to learn, intuitive to use, and responsive to the operating environment means the staff experience is also significantly improved - and happy staff makes a huge difference in serving happy customers.
COVID or no COVID, we find that hotels continue to lean into mobile technology to redefine the relationship between the hotel and its guests, further blurring the distinction between “high-tech” and “high-touch.” Mobile technology has transformed lobbies into vibrant spaces for dining, socializing and co-working, and allowed hotels to offer everything from hourly layover rates to extended stays. Expect hotels to discover more creative ways to use mobile and contactless technologies as they try to distinguish their brand and enhance their guest journey in the post-pandemic era. The key isn't in “contactless tech” - it's the flexibility and personalization that great operational technology enables that is key to how modern hospitality continues to evolve. A great system needs to be equally comfortable delivering a fully touchless and contactless experience as it is delivering a highly personalized, and highly inter-personal, guest experience. We believe the customer will define the guest experience of the future, and the best systems are the ones best equipped to respond no matter what the guest desires.
Managing Director for Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India, Latin America and the Caribbean at interTouch
The hospitality industry was starting to embrace contactless technologies before COVID-19, if anything, the pandemic has accelerated the roll-out and acceptance of these technologies. It has also made the industry as a whole stop and think how we can utilise technology and interweave this with human interaction to drive customer engagement, satisfaction and safety.
The adoption of contactless technologies is not a new thing and this trend has been fuelled for quite some time by a new generation of travellers that increasingly look for new mobile technologies and self-managed services across all aspects of life, including travel. Given a lot of sectors have embraced contactless technologies in the last few years, customers have increasingly become more accustomed to their use.
What's very important, however, is that as an industry we don't see this as a call for 'less' service or as an optical, temporary solution to save costs. When implemented and integrated well, contactless solutions don't just respond to the ever-changing needs of travellers and enrich the guest experience, but also provide hotels with significant opportunities to make their operations more efficient and greener hence more sustainable.
Now that the concept of the contactless journey is almost the norm, I think we will see a lot more applications coming our way, many of which will emerge from other industries. Here I'm thinking of the use of biometrics, AI powered self-service solutions and a next generation of mobile apps that will not just enable a contactless but also a smarter guest journey.
Contactless tech will have a part to play across the entire hospitality spectrum at some level. The magnitude of its role will depend on the type of property - 100% at self-service outlets where there is zero human interaction, reducing (but not disappearing altogether) at the traditional establishments that have always prided themselves on the "personal touch".
The successful solutions will afford flexibility and cost savings to the hotelier without altering the characteristics that define the hotel. Whilst for the guests, instantaneous gratification via their own device will support health and safety benefits as we learn to live with Covid for the foreseeable future. The reality is that hospitality is not a one size fits all environment and some hoteliers will extend the adoption of contactless solutions more than others. One thing is for sure, Covid-19 has accelerated the adoption of such technology, the genie is now out of the bottle and there is no going back.
The short-term rental industry has long proven, even before the start of the pandemic, that contactless guest experiences were possible while still delivering great service and hospitality. Hotels have long hesitated to invest and make this transition. But now the industry is facing one of its biggest challenges: sustained labor shortage without any signs of a quick recovery. Properties can no longer run at full capacity without tools like self-service and automation. But is your business ready to leverage these technologies?
The way to begin to meet these challenges is to decide what type of guest experience you want to provide. How frictionless should it be? Whether it's self-check-in, keyless entry, or mobile messaging, you need to ask yourself: do we have the infrastructure required to make this work seamlessly, and what do I need to do to get the guest excited about using it? The contactless journey will look different for different types of properties and different types of travelers — like anything else in hospitality, it's about engaging and meeting the needs of the guest the way they expect and want to be served.