Travel in the 21st century is undergoing dramatic technological changes, and now the way hotel guests check-in is about to change, too. How travel is booked, the type of service received, the information travel providers know about guests and the way they interact with those providers is changing at an unprecedented rate. Guest service is moving from transactional to informational. As a result, hotels are developing different technology service methods to deal with the range of demographic profiles of arriving guests.

What’s driving the change? Productivity, customer service and competition is certainly fuelling it. Some people view it as the ‘chicken-and-egg’ scenario. Does the technology get developed as business needs it, or, does business strategy determine the type of technology required? The struggling economy of the past few years has driven businesses to develop more productive, efficient methods. The result is several improvements in customer service, giving certain businesses a competitive edge.

Nowhere has change been more progressive than in the airline industry. Driven by a need to reduce costs in a fiercely competitive field, the airlines have created a self-service model. They’ve convinced customers to book their own flights, select seats, print boarding passes and create baggage tags, thereby reducing staff needs. In effect, they created better customer service for themselves. Airline staff have become more information-based, answering questions, directing passengers and accepting their luggage.

Hoteliers will soon follow this example and provide web-based applications to remotely check-in and out of hotels. The new self-serve methods are about increasing productivity and saving money, but it’s also about consumers who like to control all aspects of their travel.

For hotel owners and operators, the idea comes with greater challenges than those experienced by the airlines. The harsh truth is airlines sell commodities; an airline seat is an airline seat, and every aircraft is similar. Hotels, however, will have to create levels of self-service consistent with their market position and guest profiles. A full-service hotel still has to create the perception they’re providing a full-service experience but a limited-service hotel will become very automated.

The following “tale of two travellers” illustrates how a hotel needs to tailor its applications to its customer profiles. Max, a boomer, likes old-style customer service and the experience of staying in a hotel. He remembers the days when an inbox contained paper. Alex, on the other hand, is a millennial. Not yet 30, Alex’s idea of full-service is different than Max’s. She craves apps, which allow her to do everything herself. She likes to be in control, accomplishing tasks at her own speed, on her time, using a smartphone or computer tablet.

What will the future of the guest arrival look like for Max and Alex?

Let’s follow their individual journeys. Alex is travelling from Vancouver to Montreal, and she booked her airline ticket, hotel, car rental and taxis online. The day before her arrival, the hotel sent her an email inviting her to check-in online. A quick click and she instantly sees her reservation. The link, offers her a choice of floor, and the option to pre-purchase a discounted breakfast. A note on the link Alex received details the meeting to which she’s headed. Amazingly, an agenda is attached, along with a map of the hotel indicating which meeting room she’ll be in.

The words, “would you like to turn on your GPS, so we can track your arrival?” appear on her smartphone. Alex agrees and confirms her arrival and departure and payment type. Within seconds she receives a check-in confirmation code.

Arriving at the Vancouver airport for her flight to Montreal, a text pops up on her smartphone that reads, “have a pleasant journey,” along with a link to a room-service menu for pre-ordering breakfast. At airport security Alex’s identity is automatically scanned and matched to her boarding pass. Upon landing in Montreal, the hotel sends another email welcoming her to the city. The car rental company has also twigged her arrival and sends her directions on where to pick-up a complimentary shuttle.

Once at the hotel, the doorman and concierge greet her by name. As she approaches the elevator a Near-field Communication Chip (NFC) in her smartphone is detected by the elevator. Magically, the doors open in an instant. Outside her room, as she reaches for the door-handle, her phone chip unlocks the door. The temperature is a comfortable 21°C — her preferred temperature — one of her favourite songs plays in the background. The TV displays her agenda, and after a brief look around the suite, she places a video-call to bid her children goodnight.

Let’s now look at Max’s journey. The boomer, sends an email to his personal online concierge provided by his platinum credit card, detailing his trip to Montreal from Vancouver with dates and plans. Within 15 minutes he receives an email confirming his requests from his personal concierge. The information and data, including locator codes, are downloaded to his smartphone. On departure day he arrives at the Vancouver airport for his flight to Montreal and the hotel sends him an email wishing him a pleasant journey. Max’s identity is automatically scanned at security and matched to his boarding pass.

Upon hitting the tarmac in Montreal, his concierge sends an email welcoming him to Montreal and the hotel informs him he’s checked in. He receives a message from his limo driver and proceeds to the curb for pick up. The hotel knows Max has arrived; the guest concierge has his information on a tablet, walks him to the elevator while creating his in-room entertainment profile, booking his dinner reservation and ordering breakfast for the next morning. There is also a basket of McIntosh apples in Max’s room and Coldplay plays on the guestroom entertainment system — a musical preference the concierge gleaned from his Facebook page. 

In both cases the reservation and check-in process was completed prior to arrival. The hotel identified Max as someone who wants hotel employee interaction and the personal experience of staying in a hotel. On the other hand, Alex doesn’t need to talk to anyone, she’s in control of her transactions and proceeds at the speed she’s comfortable. Both have been given the level of guest service they desire. Yet, neither guest’s experience involved a hotel employee standing behind a front desk. The hotel has tailored the degree and level of personal guest-service interaction to suit their individual needs and comfort level. Alex believes personal-service interaction is being provided with the self-service applications she embraces without fear. Max thinks personal service is being presented to him by real people.

In the near future, hotels will have to strike a balance between the two levels of services based on the guest  and the value of service guests perceive. The future of hotel check-in will use pre-arrival applications to complete the check-in process prior to arrival at the hotel.

As more guests complete transactions prior to arrival, the need to provide a high level of transactional training is reduced and staff will become more information-based.

Warren Markwart is principal of Toronto, MK2 Hospitality, which specializes in asset management, hotel development and technology advisory services. The 30-year industry vet has held executive roles at Fairmont Raffles Hotels International and Delta Hotels and Resorts.

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