Over the past year, digital check-in has moved from a “nice to have” to a “must-have” for hoteliers. Many guests are now expecting to be able to check-in on their own without having to speak with someone at the front desk.
There’s been a great deal of discussion around the different types of technology needed to accomplish this – text message, app access, and kiosk technology are the most popular options. The best solutions are integrated with the property management system and digital-key solution to provide a complete end-to-end process. But what has been largely overlooked until this point is the operations side of the process.
Contributed by Branigan Mulcahy, co-founder of Virdee, Austin, Texas
When a guest walks into the lobby, should someone be there to greet them? What’s the first thing that should be said? Should a team member point them to a kiosk or walk them through the process on their phone?
Putting an operational strategy in place around digital check-in is just as important as installing the technology itself – perhaps more. Without a strategy, some percentage of your guests will walk into the lobby and be immediately confused. The welcoming experience sets the tone for the entire stay and you want to put your best foot forward.
Your operational strategy will depend on a number of factors, but the main differences will be whether you choose to continue staffing a front desk or remove the front desk completely. Here are some guidelines on different ways you can train your line-level staff to complement your new digital check-in tools.
Front desk or no?
Operators, technologists and pundits have been prophesying the “death of the front desk” for years. Has the moment finally arrived?
It depends on the type of property you are running, and ownership’s willingness to rely on automation alone. Either way, you need to be prepared to integrate the newest digital technology into the mix. Because consumers are more familiar with self-service now, using them for everything from checking in at the airport to checking out at the grocery store, adoption in the hotel industry seems to have gained traction again.
The higher the chain scale, the more likely a hotel is to continue staffing a front desk. But this team member’s role should still evolve and, with a digital check-in system in place, they should be freed up to perform other functions throughout their shift. With the right technology in place, kiosks can enhance an upscale experience and even improve interaction with the guest.
At smaller hotels, extended-stay properties and short-term rental properties, however, many operators are choosing to forgo the front-desk experience completely. There is still at least one person on property to help out with any issues, but this team member is not constantly positioned behind a computer at a desk.
And in-between there’s a hybrid model, which we see being most prevalent in the future. In a hybrid model, the front-desk agent becomes an “ambassador,” moving out from behind the front desk and walking the lobby, taking care of various tasks while always being present to welcome new guests as they walk through the doors. The ambassador can help guests with bags and keep the area clean, and they can also be available to walk guests through a kiosk experience.
In a hybrid model, operators can be flexible with staffing. Maybe there’s an ambassador in the lobby from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., maybe the position is only filled during peak season or on the busiest days of the week. Now hoteliers can begin using occupancy forecasts to optimize labor costs. Technology can enable demand-based staffing while still driving high Net Promoter Scores.
Keep in mind that, if a guest walks into your lobby and there’s a person standing behind a desk and there’s also a kiosk, the guest will tend to head toward the person unless there is a line. Staffing a front desk during off-peak times will significantly limit the value generated by your digital check-in technology.
The ambassador role
Turning your front-desk agents into ambassadors will require new job descriptions and new training processes. Perhaps the most important skill for this team member will be reading guests – eye contact and body language – to determine how much assistance they want or require. While some guests will be familiar with the process and want to head straight to their room, others will require assistance getting settled.
Take the CLEAR experience at the airport, for example. As a traveler approaches the CLEAR security line, an ambassador will greet him or her and either ask an introductory question – “are you familiar with the check-in process?” – or read the traveler’s body language to determine how much assistance they will need.
When a new CLEAR member enters the line for the first time, it’s obvious they aren’t sure what to do next. In this case, the ambassador will walk to the kiosk with the traveler and help them through the process – where to look, what to scan, what buttons to press. But seasoned travelers will enter the line with confidence, walk swiftly past the ambassador and head straight to the kiosk. In this case, the ambassador will keep their distance and allow the traveler to do most of the work on their own.
When done right, digital check-in not only increases guest satisfaction but also helps team members operate more efficiently. No longer are front-desk agents looking up reservations, scanning IDs, assigning rooms, taking payment and coding key cards. The guest is handling all of this on their own, which frees up staff to spend time on other tasks. Even if a guest should need assistance, they can simply press a button to talk with a virtual concierge – a staff member who is either on site somewhere or in a remote, centralized location.
Digital check-in is the wave of the future, but hoteliers are still at the beginning stages of implementing the right digital strategies to fit their unique lobby experiences. As with most technology, installing the hardware and software is half the battle; ensuring your staff utilizes it appropriately will determine the value of the system.