Why some hotel brands aren’t afraid to dump the desk.

Walk into any of Hyatt’s Andaz hotels and look around, you might just notice something different. There’s something missing — a front desk.

It’s the same reality whether you’re in New York, London or at any of Andaz’s five locations around the world. The boutique brand — launched in 2007 and yet to break into the Canadian market — doesn’t have a front desk. It doesn’t have a lobby, either, or at least not the traditional entrance you might expect. Instead, there’s a lounge, where you can enjoy a glass of wine or a cup of coffee while the “hosts” check you in.

It’s a different type of check­in process, says Tristan Dowell, director of Brands for Hyatt’s Andaz and Park Hyatt hotels. “It removes traditional barriers and brings a refreshing take. It has much more of an engagement with our guests as they arrive.”

Despite its differences, the familiar components of the check­in process are there: friendly staff and appropriate technology in an environment designed to make guests feel welcome. Even without the front desk, hotels across the continent share those three common elements.

But that could change. Guests today are used to checking in at kiosks at the airport — for some, having to stand face­to­face with front­desk staff now seems antiquated. Today, guests access information and recommendations from iPhones and Blackberrys instead of a concierge. Hotel operators are navigating a sea change, while some guests resist it. So, it’s hard to imagine what the check­in experience of the future will look like. Will technology replace human staff completely, or will everything remain status quo?

If you ask Dowell, it’ll likely be somewhere in between. For him, it’s all about choice. “We want to give guests options,” he says. Technology can’t replace the human factor in the hospitability industry, he insists, but that doesn’t mean hotels can’t offer more tech­savvy options, too. At Andaz, guests can check in with a host using a tablet PC while enjoying the lounge or at a PC set at a table, for an approach closer to the traditional front­desk experience. Specific locations have iTouches to facilitate the process — a program currently being rolled out throughout the brand. Finally, guests can choose to check in and out through their mobile phone, with Hyatt Mobile functionality or online through Hyatt’s Web­in and Web­out technology (Both technologies are available throughout the Hyatt brands, while kiosks are also used for checking in at some Hyatt locations.) Yet, even then, staff members provide a friendly face as guests enter the hotel. “It’s about embracing the technologies but keeping that personal touch at the forefront,” says Dowell.

It’s an approach Hyatt has found successful, and it’s not the only one. Others have used technology to augment the traditional roles of the check­in and concierge staff, and it’s resonating with guests. It’s proven to be a successful way to navigate the evolving check­in environment.

Take Renaissance Hotels, for example. Last year, the Marriott brand launched its Navigator program in place of a traditional concierge. The program combines on­site, online and mobile applications, offering guests local recommendations for food, drink, retail and cultural experiences at their destination of choice — similar to how a concierge might help. The difference is today’s guests can access information online before they even arrive (with a link to renaissancenavigator.com, sent through a pre-­arrival email) or through their mobile devices. Renaissance has onsite navigators — staff members trained with “micro­local” knowledge. They create “In­The­Know” documents on local attractions and events and provide the information to guests checking in, with city­specific recommendations updated for the week in progress. Those same navigators work one­on­one with guests to recommend personal experiences based on their specific interests.

Today’s guests have access to convenient online and mobile information gateways as well as recommendations from a person. “We’re using technology, but we’re also bridg­ing the gap,” says Lauren Levine, director, Lifestyle Brands for Renaissance. “We’re out there curating, because we know our guests are looking for specific recommendations, and they want to come and see the city in a very specific way. We’re trying to get to the next level of detail.”

As far as models go, two­pronged service is different than what’s used in some of the technology­reliant hotels in other parts of the WARM WELCOME, world. For instance, at Accor’s Formula 1 economy brand in Europe, Asia and South Africa, guests check in automatically by credit card, even using their plastic as a room key. Front­desk staff isn’t even there most of the time, since they only work during peak hours. “That’s been in place now for at least 15 years,” says Michael Singer, general manager of Accor’s Novotel North York. “You’re paying [a low rate], but it’s low service and people know it.”

In North America, similar check­in models haven’t caught on — yet. “Here land is more expensive, building costs are more — there has to be that price point [for that model to be successful],” Singer says.

Singer also suggests balance is necessary between technology and service. While his hotel doesn’t have check­in kiosks, it has ramped up the technology behind the counter, adding a new Property Management System, which allows for more flexible, efficient and speedy check­ins, although a staff member is still required to press the buttons.

Singer also notes a surge in Accor’s A Club loyalty program at his hotel, which allows for even more efficiencies in the check­in process, with credit­card information and preferences stored in the system, so staff don’t have to ask guests every time. “All they have to do is walk up to the desk and collect their keys,” says Singer, who adds most of Novotel North York’s guests are business travellers, part of the reason A Club has been successful there. “There are people who like that, but then if you go into another market where we’ve got a balance of leisure, new to the area, they want service — they want to know about the hotel, they want to know what’s close to the hotel. And, so it’s about finding that balance.” At Choice Hotels’ Quality Inn Halifax Airport, a loy­alty program also helps bridge the gap between efficiency and hospitality. Members of the Choice Privileges pro­gram are ushered quickly through the check­in process, says Shelly Dean, the hotel’s general manager. In fact, if they want, they can just grab their key and go. And, while Dean admits concierges aren’t as busy as they used to be — as guests turn to iPhones and other devices for information — she doesn’t expect to lose them completely anytime soon. Even at her hotel, where many guests have arrived after long flights, they often still want to stop and chat to someone behind the counter, whether to find out about the new place they’re visiting or just to make human contact after a long, faceless journey.

“We’re not prepared to take the human element out of it just yet,” Dean says. “People still want to interact with other people.”

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