First assurances

The front desk is the nexus of any hotel. It manages guest requests, coordinates incoming calls and helps with reservations. Above all, it handles check-ins and, apart from bell staff, is the most likely point of first contact between guests and staff.

You know how they say first impressions are everything? Well, it’s true. Guests will often make snap decisions about your property based on what could only amount to a five- to 10-minute encounter upon arrival. This is your time to shine, and I would say you cannot underestimate just how important the check-in process is.

Think of the first impression you make on a guest at check-in as your first opportunity to assure them of your brand quality and the satisfying experience that awaits. And this “first assurance” boils down to the caliber of your front desk team.

Mark my words: the front desk is not a position for untrained beginners. In order to make a comforting and impactful first impression, your staff must always bring its A-game. They have to be overtly warm, attentive, knowledgeable, quick and empathetic. A guest may arrive in the best of spirits and ready to answer a front desk clerk’s barrage of questions and explore the hotel. Then again, your guests may have just driven for the past five hours in horrendous traffic, leaving them with sore backs and incredibly stressed, in which case they are probably more than ready for a nap and might confront these same questions with mild hostility.

In this latter case, you don’t want to have a trainee greet them; you want someone who can read the energy of the situation and get the fatigued guests to their rooms as fast as possible. An experienced staff member will be able to flawlessly execute the check-in request and answer questions matter-of-factly, all within a few minutes. Even better would be a clerk who addresses concerns before they are asked!

Put yourself in this scenario. You just got off a four-and-a-half-hour flight from JFK to LAX. You woke up two hours early to make the flight. Traffic on the way there. A 40-minute wait through airport security. Flight delayed half an hour. Traveling economy, sandwiched between a sniffling sneezer and a blabbermouth. Long lineup for the car rental. More traffic on the freeway. Got lost finding the hotel. Now, how would you feel when you finally arrive on property and are greeted by a junior trainee who fumbles on the check-in process?

Even though you’ll likely feel relieved to have reached your final destination, the point is that traveling can be a very draining experience. The last thing you’d want is another obstacle at the check-in counter. In this potentially irrational frame of mind, any problems at the front desk might subconsciously translate to other aspects of hotel operations.

It’s unfair, but that’s how first impressions work. You will be judged for things that are beyond your control. But are they really out your control? Aside from putting the best team members at the front desk and continually reassessing their performance for ways to improve, here are a few subtle tricks I’ve picked up along the way.

First: sugar on the countertop. A more scientific way to classify fatigue is sugar deprivation. As such, it’s best to leave out some snacks to replenish guests and thus make them more receptive to the check-in process. This can come in the form of chocolates, packaged candies, mints, juice, bottled water or fruit. Treat this as yet another way to demonstrate your brand differentiators and allegiances. If you promote healthy living, then there should definitely be a fruit bowl. If you are an avid supporter of regional produce, then what local bite-sized and sweetened goods can be offered at the front desk?

The next applies to high-volume hotels. After waiting on the tarmac, in airport security and on the freeway, the last thing a weary traveler wants to encounter is a lineup at the check-in. But sometimes — especially during peak hours — this is unavoidable. Rather than scrambling to assign an extra person or two to the front desk, consider placing a pre-front desk clerk. That is, someone at the start of the lineup to reassure guests that the wait time will be short and they needn’t worry. Offer bottled water to people waiting in line. It costs little and is a nice touch. If it is exceptionally hot and humid, pre-moistened towelettes in foil packs should also be considered.

Third: don’t underestimate the value of a human face to comfort first timers. When you get tired, your decision-making skills go out the window. Tasks that would otherwise be no-brainers like figuring out where the front desk is in the lobby and navigating your car to the parking garage are now riddled with anxiety. This is where your valet, bellmen and all other outside staff members come in. They must understand the mindset of the wearied traveler and must be as personable as the front desk staff. Sorry to say, but Walmart does a better job with its “greeter” program than many of the properties I have experienced. And to prevent stormy weather from damping a guest’s mood, perhaps install a carport, if at all possible.

Fourth, many properties now have electronic monitors at their check-in area. Usually these serve as electronic boards for groups, showing meeting room locations and directing traffic. Depending upon the number of monitors available in your lobby, consider changing some over to newsfeeds such as CNN, Bloomberg or coverage of major sporting events. These visual distractions will help comfort those waiting and improve the social atmosphere of the lobby.

Fifth, free Wi-Fi in the lobby ensures that those waiting can quickly get caught up on emails through their smartphones. I’ve stood on my soapbox and advocated for free Wi-Fi ad nauseum in the past. This is simply one more reason to add to the list. Just make sure that if you do in fact offer free Internet connectivity, you also add some signage so people are adequately informed about the feature.

A few suggestions, and with any luck, a few minor improvements will work wonders to turn first impressions into great first impressions. Just remember that as with nearly all guest service issues, it boils down to the genuine warmth and perceptive nature of your staff. Assure your guests from the start with a positive interaction at the front desk and set the tone for a spectacular experience.