Technology has continuously been transforming the travel industry, but one constant remains – the hotel front desk. Step into any hotel, of any range, and you will end up finding the typical counter with people smiling and greeting you.
There are exceptions to this of course – the hotels who have bid farewell to the faithful infrastructure in exchange for handheld or fixed devices and kiosks. We are in an era where travellers cannot have a seamless experience with the hotel without the aid of technology. With technology evolving and guests gaining access to several social media platforms, it has become imperative for hotels to have a positive online presence, a brand recognition and provide a smooth stay experience. IoT is termed as a defining force in travel and IoT solutions are offering interesting set of possibilities for hotels by offering better data about the guests. From enabling front desk to serve customers quickly to skipping it altogether, the solution allows hoteliers to add the technologies as extensions to their existing app. Many consumers want to interact with hotels flexibly, whether by texting to request an early check-in or by unlocking their guest room with keyless entry powered by a mobile app. Moreover, there is an age-old desire to cut labor costs through automation.
However, at most places, the front desk has defied most of these technological trends and persisted. How did that happen?
There has been a growing skepticism for technology that has many implications for travel. In the past couple of months, social media platforms have been facing intense backlash from consumers, media, and regulators for having abused their trust. By treating a traveller this way – ‘using’ them only for data and attributes – hoteliers stand to face a similar backlash for exploiting customers for the purpose of upselling. The front desk is one place where this can be taken care of.
People don’t want to be treated like gadgets anymore. When travellers show up at a hotel after a long flight, the last thing they would want is to interact with another piece of technology. This goes especially true for business travellers, for whom travel can be a particularly dehumanizing experience. Chances are that the only human interaction they have all day is the front desk colleague who warmly welcomes them. Isn’t that the point of staying at a great hotel – to be taken care of?
A front desk is like the heart of a hotel. The travel industry needs to rethink its pursuit of digital services as only a proxy to human experience, and not simply replace it. A vast majority of today’s travellers still reject fully automated check-in. Case in point, long queues at airport counters. People don’t usually walk up to kiosks unless escorted by a human.
This is not to say that we should not pursue automation and all things digital. Many guests already do prefer it. However, let’s wait for a point at which time more guests will prefer to check-in via mobile than in person, before completely giving up on the front desk. In fact, rather than replacing the front desk completely, it should be re-invented as a tool to build brand image, especially online. When people check out reviews at TripAdvisor, it is easy to see that what people review is service by humans. If hotels completely eliminate the front desk experience, all hotel brands will eventually become a commodity, and then, why would we need a brand at all?