How technology and robotics are changing the front desk


Hotels have struggled with being on the cutting edge of technology, but the front desk is one area where hospitality is pulling out all the stops in the name of efficiency. Jimmy Santostefano, senior director front office, Hilton Worldwide, said technology is integral to improving the guest experience and helping front-office workers better manage a guest stay. 

"Technology allows Hilton's team to focus on meaningful guest interactions," Santostefano said, speaking about the evolution of technology that tracks guest preferences across stays, creating a smoother check-in and check-out. He also mentioned future plans Hilton has to install credit card readers capable of reading embedded cards, cutting down on fears of identity and data theft. "We introduce new technology to the front desk all the time.” 

Any addition to the front desk is going to change things behind the scenes operationally, but Hilton's most recent venture into robotics may be the most visual tech shake-up in the space in recent memory. The Hilton McLean Tyson's Corner in Virginia installed "Connie" (named after company founder Conrad Hilton), which is stationed at the hotel's front desk as a mechanical concierge. Connie converses with guests, informing them about the property and local area.

While the robot isn't checking guests into the property, comparisons between Connie's implementation and the Henn-na Hotel in Japan, which is staffed entirely by robots, quickly come to mind. Jonathan Wilson, VP of product innovation and brand services at Hilton Worldwide, said guest feedback will help inform how the company brings technology to other properties in the future. Currently, though, Wilson said Connie is performing admirably. 

"Connie has stacked up very well compared to our expectations as [it] speaks, understands and learns from guest interactions," Wilson said. "In regards to improvements or revisions, all changes depend upon our evaluations and any necessary tweaks will be made based on guest and hotel operator feedback." 

For Nils Stolzlechner, GM of the Wyndham Grand Chicago Riverfront, driving to evolve technology at the front desk has made a world of difference at the position. "We don't want guests to repeat themselves," Stolzlechner said, "so we have guest histories, their frequency of visits with us, floor preferences and more all on hand." 

That said, Stolzlechner is bullish on the human element being hospitality's silver bullet in keeping the industry alive, and he doesn't see automated systems having a place in hotels, let alone the front desk. He compared it to the airline experience, which is big on efficiency but lacking in humanity.

"What differentiates us from Airbnb and others are the personalities assisting guests with their needs," Stolzlechner said. "Having a GM talk with guests is what the business is all about." 

On this point, Hilton agrees. "Hospitality at Hilton will always be about people serving people," Wilson said. "Connie is very much meant to live in harmony with our team members and concierges. We view our team members and Connie as the perfect team to deliver the answers that a guest needs to enhance their stays."