Preserving a human connection


By Chip Rogers, AAHOA President & CEO

In the late 1970s, a “format war” erupted between Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS, two videotape technologies, for consumer loyalty and market share. Betamax boasted superior resolution, sound, and picture, but Sony had badly misjudged its target market; ultimately, consumers preferred the considerably less expensive, if technically inferior, VHS format.

Technology has progressed at breakneck speed over the past half-century or so, leading to the almost-fully automated air-travel experience and restaurants where you can order from an iPad bolted to the table. Hotels, however, have lagged behind the rest of the travel industry in implementing technologies that eliminate or significantly reduce the need for human interaction. Despite occasional oohs and ahs over front-desk robots and “smart” guest-room technology, hotels in general have not changed very much since the Betamax days – but it’s not because hoteliers are behind the times.

Take the check-in process. In the early 1990s, hotel-tech writers predicted the summary obsolescence of the front desk. Shortly thereafter, computerized check-in kiosks began appearing in hotel lobbies around the world. But two decades later, the front desk remains every bit as much a part of the hotel experience as elevators and vending machines.

The reason, according to Michael Hillier, general manager of The Renwick in New York City, is that “hospitality, in general, can’t be automated.” Ron Swidler, branding principal at hospitality-design firm The Gettys Group, agrees: “What we need to consider is how can we use technology to enhance the guest experience while still allowing for a human connection.”

On the other side of the coin are brands like CitizenM Hotels and HTL Hotels, both of which have done away entirely with the front desk. Where CitizenM has simply retasked existing staff with providing technical assistance for self-service kiosks, however, HTL’s smartphone app enables guests to both check in and open their room door.

The rationale, according to CitizenM COO Michael Levie, is simple: “[Guests] don’t want to stand in line; they don’t want to meet someone else. They just want to get in and out.”

In either case, lobby staff are almost certainly in for a revised job description. Several brands, including IHG and Starwood, have responded to consumers’ desire for a more automated experience by offering instant-message service on platforms like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. With the two services handling a combined 60 billion messages per day, it’s safe to say that staff-to-guest interactions – whether at a kiosk, on a smartphone, or in person – are headed toward a seismic shift.

Today, “Betamax” has all but vanished from the lexicon, and the limited technological options of the mid-1970s are a distant memory. In 2016, our travel and tech choices are so abundant that it simply doesn’t make sense, as hoteliers, not to be flexible when it comes to guest preferences. Now is the time to make sure you are listening carefully to your target demographic; when the industry shifts, as it inevitably will, your business will be well positioned to prosper.


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