Hotel guests say goodbye to check-in queues27 September 2012
Self-service kiosks, iPad ordering systems and RFID room keys are some of the innovations being employed to improve guests’ first impressions of a hotel. Elly Earls meets Swire Hotels’ Brian Williams, Peninsula’s Ingvar Herland and Hyatt’s Arnaud de Saint-Exupéry to find out if this is the end of the check-in desk.
Recently, budget and mid-market hotel chains have taken a leaf out of the airline industry's book by installing self check-in kiosks to cut staffing costs and reduce queuing time for guests. The UK's largest hotel chain, Premier Inn, now offers 'speedy check-in kiosks' at several of its larger hotels, which aim to reduce check-in time to under a minute. Not only has this improved the efficiency of the check-in process, the installation of self-service kiosks, the hotel group claims, has also resulted in increased interactivity between staff and guests, with hotel employees now free to concentrate on the needs of their guests, rather than getting bogged down with the ins and outs of the check-in process.
This concept of improving customer service through the use of technology is being taken further by an increasing number of luxury hotel brands; for example, at Swire Hotels, a brand with luxury urban hotels in Hong Kong, mainland China and the UK, paperless check-in not only aims to reduce waiting time, it also serves to make each guest's check-in experience unique.
A more efficient check-in experience
"The team greets and looks after guests when they arrive, and the actual check-in can take place anywhere in the hotel on a laptop - wherever is most comfortable for the guest," says Brian Williams, managing director of Swire Hotels. "Our guest experience team is also in touch with guests ahead of their stay to ensure that all preferences and requirements are confirmed in advance, for a smoother, more efficient experience. These services reflect a general demand for a more personalised and efficient approach."
At Andaz Liverpool Street, a member of Hyatt's boutique-inspired chain, which launched in 2007, it's a similar story. Guests are helped by 'hosts' in the hotel's lobby lounge to either check in on an iPad while enjoying some refreshments, or complete the process at a 'reception table' on a laptop.
Removing the barriers between guest and host
"Many people believe that technology is a way to escape the relationship between the hotel's employees and the guest, but actually it's the opposite," says Arnaud de Saint-Exupéry, Andaz Liverpool Street's general manager. "We had one objective when we started Andaz, and that was to emphasise the personal touch, so we're trying to use what is available on the market today - such as the iPad - to simplify the check-in process, and avoid physical and technological barriers between the guest and the host. People want to come into an environment where there's a real welcome; where they can talk to someone, and where they are no longer a number, but a guest."
The popularity of hotels with individualised service models and sophisticated technology, such as Andaz and Swire, may be indicative of a guest demographic demanding less formality. For Williams, certainly: "People are looking for places to stay where they feel comfortable and at home, without the fuss and formality of check-ins and reception desks."
But one check-in model, for de Saint-Exupéry at least, doesn't fit all: "It's important to be able to adapt to what the guest wants," he explains. "A businessman during the week would probably be happy to go straight to his room, while leisure clientele staying for the weekend are more likely to want to enjoy a glass of wine, engage with the hosts and learn about the hotel. You need to allow the guest to choose whatever is most convenient for them."
In addition to the two options already available in the lobby lounge, and the kiosk technology that can be found in some of the brand's US hotels, Andaz is working on a web check-in option that will allow guests to receive their key card on their mobile phone and use RFID technology to enter their room, without having to stop in the lobby lounge.
"With all of these options, the core message remains that technology should never be a barrier; guests are looking for simplicity," says de Saint-Exupéry.
According to the brand's research, guests' desire for simplicity also extends to the room.
"We continually see that they don't want to be in a world where there is too much technology," de Saint-Exupéry adds.
Andaz's in-room technology, therefore, doesn't even allow guests to order room service via their TVs.
"We didn't go that way because we found out that being too complicated goes against what guests are looking for."
Similarly, at Peninsula Hotels, which currently has nine luxury properties throughout the US and Asia, and is the only hotel group with its own R&D facilities for in-room technology, simplicity is key.
"The guest needs to feel that it isn't too complicated," says Ingvar Herland, general manager of research and technology at The Hongkong & Shanghai Hotels Limited, which operates Peninsula Hotels. "You need to provide something that is very intuitive and seamless."
State-of-the-art in-room technology
One of the key priorities for Herland and his team when designing new elements of the Peninsula group's in-room technology system is perfect synchronisation; for example, if you receive a call in the room and you are watching TV, the audio will automatically mute.
"This is extremely important," says Herland. "Everything in the room must work together."
As technology continues to develop, this will become increasingly important.
"Guest feedback suggests that they want more information about the hotel and the city in their room," explains Herland. "So, if you look at our most recently renovated hotel in Hong Kong, you'll see that we provide every room with an Android tablet that has full interactivity with the hotel."
Swire Hotels is moving in a similar direction, according to Williams: "We provide either iPod Touches or iPads in all the rooms at our hotels. The iPods offer information on the restaurants, the spas and the local areas, while guests at The Magdalen Chapter hotel can make reservations and book appointments directly via the iPads. The Opposite House in Beijing has also just released 'HouseVibe', a new iPhone/iPad app, where staff share their recommendations on the city's best restaurants, nightlife and shopping."
The hotel of the future
Sophisticated technology made simple could become an integral part of the hotel of the future, according to de Saint-Exupéry: "Increasingly, our competitors are coming to see us to find out what we're doing, and some of them are already experimenting with this kind of approach."
However, costs, demographics and operational challenges may slow the growth of this model. "The technology is evolving so quickly that you'd need to commit to an annual capex investment for the hardware," adds de Saint-Exupéry. "It's less affordable for a single property than a big corporation that will roll it out across many different hotels."
According to Williams, it also depends on the type of experience that guests are looking for, be it luxury or budget hotels.
"Clearly, the greater the number of guest rooms in a hotel, the more challenging this type of service can be from an operational standpoint," he says. "Our House Collection hotels have 120 rooms and the Chapter Hotels have 60 rooms, so it works well for us."
The high-tech hotel experience
Despite the challenges to be faced, there's no doubt that technology is becoming an increasingly integral part of the modern traveller's hotel experience. "Technology is part of our brand's DNA, and state-of-the-art, efficient technology is what our guests now expect," says Williams. "The high-tech experience starts from the airport transfer in a hybrid Lexus at The Upper House or a Maserati at The Opposite House, as all our vehicles offer complimentary Wi-Fi onboard."
In ten years' time, it's anyone's guess how much technology will have developed, but for de Saint-Exupéry, one thing is clear: "Although the world is now all about social media, people want to engage. Technology will continue to play a key role for sure, but, we will never compromise the most important part of hospitality - the welcome."