Is The Hotel Front Desk Really Necessary?

According to a recent post by TripSavvy, “hotels not honoring a reservation” and “rude or unpleasant staff” both rank among the Top 10 most common problems hotel guests cite when giving poor reviews on social media.  A quick internet search of “Terrible hotel front desk staff” delivers over 250,000,000 responses with most being TripAdvisor reviews using those exact words.  As a hotel owner or operator, one of the biggest pain points (and operating expenses) is the hotel front desk.  In an era of digital hotel keys, web check-in and virtual currency – is the hotel front desk really necessary anymore?

HOW WOULD A GUEST SKIP THE FRONT DESK?

Mobile keyless entry has made it possible for hotels to check-in a guest pre-arrival and issue a secure digital key to the guest smartphone before they reach the property – allowing the guest to bypass the front desk and go straight to their room.  Such an experience can approach nirvana for some guests.  It’s happening today.  But how are hotels doing it?  To make skip-the-desk a reality, a few elements are required:

  • Guest must download an app to house the mobile key
  • Hotel must provide an option to check-in remotely
  • Hotel must capture payment information and authorization pre-arrival
  • Most hotels will want to capture an ID image with check-in request

THE GUEST EXPERIENCE

As described by the author in this Conde Nast article, the guest experience of skipping the hotel front desk is generally very easy to follow.  It’s also easy to understand why there is an industry trend towards adopting a ‘skip-the-desk’ procedure in hotels.  The process usually begins with the guest receiving a reservation confirmation email a day or two before their stay.  That email explains the remote check-in process and what they will need to do to receive a mobile key if they want to skip-the-desk at the hotel.  The email will typically provide a link for the guest to download the mobile app used for keyless entry.  Most hotels require the guest to upload an image of their ID (driver license, ID card or passport) to accompany any remote check-in request.

Upon completing the remote check-in process, the guest receives a message (email or text) that their mobile key will be sent once their room has been assigned by the hotel.  The mobile key should provide the room number on it as well as valid dates and times.  On the day of arrival, either the PMS or a front desk agent identifies an appropriate room and checks the guest in – at which time a mobile key is automatically generated by the PMS and sent to the guest smartphone.  To be clear, there should be a three-way-match between the guest ID, name on the reservation and name on credit card for skip-the-desk eligibility.

In most cases, the check-in experience is more of a toll gate than value-add to the hotel stay.  Research on digital guest engagement shows 73% of guests would prefer to skip the front desk entirely.  The hospitality business is all about making guests happy.  With such a high percentage of guests wanting this experience, why are there still front desks in hotels?

THE RISKS OF SKIP-THE-DESK

A future where hotel guests no longer check-in at a front desk may be possible, but not without risk.  The major concern is the defensibility of credit card charges without an EVM chip insert or signature.  Credit card processing companies may also charge a higher percentage for transactions of this kind. The financial risk presented by that should be weighed against the operational savings realized by a reduction (or elimination) of front desk staff.  Another risk to consider is not having a guest face-to-face with front desk staff to verify that the ID matches the person checking in.  In a skip-the-desk situation, the hotel will still have an image of the guest ID on file but may never actually see the guest in person.  Hotels should consider how important that element is to their individual operational procedures.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

The sentiment among guests checking in is almost universally that of the front desk as a tollgate to get to their room, but the usefulness of the front desk should not be entirely discounted based on that.  These team members also help guests with more customer service-related issues.  Eliminating the front desk entirely could remove a beneficial touchpoint for guests to make requests and get local area recommendations, etc.

Hotels using mobile keys for a skip-the-desk experience have seen the front desk evolve from a transactional hub into more of a concierge.  Most hotels using mobile keys have also been successful in reducing the number of front desk staff.  Although not a common experience today, the trend is unquestionably moving towards a lighter staffing model at hotels, and skip-the-desk will be a key factor in making that possible.