Human beings are not digital, and yet, many of our physical interactions with the real world have become just that. After all, we don’t need to visit banks or bookstores to use their services. And, the trend towards digitization has had huge implications for the world of hospitality, too, particularly when it comes to what we currently understand as the front desk.

Innovative software programs such as Micros Opera, used by brands such as Mississauga, Ont.-based Marriott Hotels and Toronto-based Delta Hotels and Resorts, allow customers to com-plete ‘front-desk’ transactions from anywhere in the world. Paul Gardian, executive director of Brand Operations at Delta Hotels and Resorts, says the hotel trend towards online reservations really took its lead from the airline industry. “The phrase I use to identify the trend is ‘on my terms,’” explains Gardian,

“Meaning, the customer has the freedom to interact with our services however they wish — whether that means interacting with us digitally or physically, in person, at the front desk.”
The popularity of Micros Opera stems from its management capability. It not only keeps a live in-ventory of room availability, allowing customers to check in and check out at their leisure, but it also hosts a library of customer preferences. By keeping records of each customer’s wants and needs — whether a guest ordered extra towels on their last visit or requested a certain room — the hotel can personalize hospitality service down to the detail.

“I think of Micros Opera in terms of catering to pre-, during and post-customer visit,” says Gardian. Post-visit, Opera can perform tasks such as sending copies of invoices to clients or collecting information about guest experiences through surveys (which are voluntarily completed after the hotel visit). And, using one holistic software program for guest interactions prevents staff from having to be trained on multiple software programs.

Warren Markwart, principal at MK2 Hospitality Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy, agrees Micros Opera is an important management tool. “This PMS has evolved into a comprehensive system and was used internationally for years prior to becoming popular in the U.S. and Canada,” he says, adding that the popularity of the program has made training easier as many hotel workers already know the program.

But the ultimate game-changer, as Gardian puts it, will be the upcoming iPad Opera version. “Just imagine your conference has just ended; I can send 10 employees with iPads to where you are, and we can check you out without you leaving the room,” he enthuses. “The future won’t really require a front desk at all.”

Charles McDiarmid, managing director of The Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, B.C., disagrees. “The front desk, or ‘reception desk’ as we like to call it, is part of the way we welcome people into our home,” says McDiarmid. “The human touch is hard to replicate.”

That said, The Wickaninnish Inn needs a POS. But, despite using Epitome software created by Infor, McDiarmid still misses the DOS-based program created by ICS, a small private company on Vancouver Island. He looks forward to the new software ICS promises to provide as an update to the DOS-based system. “The DOS system was so solid,” says McDiarmid. “It was easy to train staff on and never had glitches.” In contrast, McDiarmid notes that training on the Epitome is more difficult, because it’s more digital and comprehensive.

Training staff on complicated software systems can be difficult. For one, when staff is learning how to use a new PMS, they have to take their eyes off of the guest to look at the computer screen. “Our goal is to spend our time interacting with guests and giving eye contact. It’s part of showing that you are actively listening to their concerns,” explains McDiarmid.

Another criticism of Epitome is that it doesn’t allow hotel staff to take notes on customer prefe-rences. “We offer that type of personal service where we will rearrange the room for you before you come — based on how you rearranged the interior on your first visit,” says McDiarmid, explaining the importance of making guest notes. “Because Epitome doesn’t have a module for tracking this information, we have to keep a separate file for customer profiles.”

But, these days front-desk technology isn’t just about computer software. More recently, front-desk PMS has begun to merge with the world of mobile apps. Marriott Guest Services at Marriott Hotels recently launched mobile guest check-ins at its 329 hotels in Canada and the U.S. So far, more than 50,000 guests have used the mobile check-in option featuring the Marriott Mobile app (available for free in the Apple iTunes store and at Google Play). Aside from being convenient, the app also promotes brand loyalty, since guests have to become a Marriott Rewards member to download it. They can use their smartphones to check in as early as 4 p.m. on the day prior to their arrival. The app also provides room-ready alerts as well as other services available to Marriott Rewards members.

The launch has been a huge success with more than 2.3-million downloads to date. Last year alone, mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, accounted for more than $700 million in revenue. For Paul Cahil, SVP of Brand Management at Marriott, these innovations evolve from un-derstanding client needs: “We recognize our guests, especially millennials, do not separate work and play. They are more mobile and global than ever before, and technology — especially their mobile devices — keeps them connected.” Cahil reiterates that Marriott needs to stay relevant to “next-generation” travellers and that involves remaining innovative on the technology front. To this end, Marriott is preparing to introduce a mobile checkout option to facilitate the mailing of hotel receipts and even conference papers to clients.

With so many technological advances, there may come a day when customers need not interact face-to-face with any employees during their hotel stay. Is this personalized service potential too impersonal? Only time will tell.


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