Man or machine?

We all know technology has a tremendous influence on our daily lives, and automation has entered the hotel arena with a vengeance. It wasn’t too long ago that putting an iPod docking station in a hotel room was considered a cutting-edge amenity. And those of us dealing with hotel owners on annual budgets no doubt remember the endless hours of discussion on whether or not to charge for Wi-Fi. Now that technology has moved from a hotel support system to greater prominence as a life support system, the question that begs an answer is: How far do we take technology in an industry traditionally defined by the idea and fact of service? There are those who would argue that any interaction — whether by email, text or other electronic or digital transmission — is as meaningful as face-to-face contact with a guest. I had the opportunity to personally test this theory on a recent business trip.

I typically don’t select a hotel based on how “hip” it is on the tech scale, as this is not necessarily a priority among my hotels of choice. So I was surprised when I arrived at the hotel and there was no front desk in sight. What I did find was an automated check-in kiosk. This annoyed me, as I like to ask questions at check-in, such as the exact location of my room on a floor. There is nothing worse than being given a room next to the ice machine, service elevator or with mechanical equipment rumbling outside your window.  As I stared at this kiosk, I had to acknowledge the shift in power from man to machine and the fact that I had lost the option of choice or discussion. The machine was in control, and I had to go with the flow. That was the beginning of my adventure with technology during my stay. It continued with automated wake-up calls — oh how I missed those 15-minute “call backs” from a hotel operator — and automated room service. Had I been so inclined, I could have even made my reservation in the hotel restaurant and selected my entrée without contact with a human being. I did eventually find a short-staffed front desk, which made it apparent that the kiosk also provided a more efficient form of checkout than standing in line.

In truth, the hotel was fine. All the physical features lived up to their billing, but when I returned home and someone asked me my opinion of the service, I drew a blank. I couldn’t describe a single meaningful interaction with a hotel employee. As a result, I had no sense of the “personality” of the property usually exemplified by staff and its dialogue with the guest. It could have been “any hotel anywhere.” Call me old-fashioned, but I refuse to consider all aspects of automation “service.” Are we employing technology as a way to satisfy guests or as a way to reduce staffing and achieve cost savings?

Technology unquestionably plays a valuable role in how we communicate with our customers, and it has shaped the development of many exciting new hotel products and amenities. But the question stands: Should it really replace the human aspect of  hospitality and service? What are your thoughts?