Is technology accelerating the decline of the front desk?

The future for hotels is one in which the “front desk” will change dramatically. Shifts in consumer demands, accelerated by the global pandemic and advances in connected tech, mean that front-of-house staff increasingly will focus less on transactional interactions and more on interactions of service. Technology is revolutionizing the whole concept of the front desk: what it means and how it operates. 

The Downstream Effect

Beyond the daily hustle and bustle of our individual lives, a technology wave has simultaneously reshaped nearly every industry on the planet, creating amazing business opportunities in its wake. Across the spectrum, hotels, both large and small, have adopted technological innovation to help them grow and reshape old business models. The downstream effect has been increased automation, better efficiency, lowered overheads and more healthy bottom/top lines.

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This shift to a technology-led world has fundamentally changed our collective behavior, insofar as the human species, hard-wired as creatures of comfort, increasingly relies on technology for its ease of use, convenience and ubiquity. The very convenience that technology provides has driven the near universal adoption of smartphones, social media and internet connectivity. For instance, fast Wi-Fi and guest connectivity are now table stakes for any owner/operator in the hospitality industry. This trend looks set to continue well into the future.

However, the real magic of modern technology lies in its ability to reduce everyday friction points. And, once eliminated, because a new bar is set, we wonder how we ever got by without it in the past. Most of us can remember putting coins into a public phone before the arrival of cell phones, but we’d never go back to that stage.

Leveraging Possibilities

In my view, the hotel industry, and especially around the front desk (and arguably the entire in-stay experience) has not yet leveraged technological advancement to its full capacity to ease friction points. Over the past 100+ years, I argue that not much about the front desk has actually changed. Owners have merely switched the front-desk bell with a tired old Dell.

Imagine arriving at a hotel today in 2021, as you did in 2019. After a long flight and Uber trip from the airport, your ride pulls up by the hotel, and after a cursory glance at the bellman, you roll your bags through the front doors. On this particular occasion, you arrive five minutes after a busload of tourists has also just arrived, putting you and your luggage at the back of a 50-person deep line, waiting to check in. 

Of the five check-in windows at the front desk, only two are actually staffed because the others are on lunch break. To add insult to injury, the group right in front of you has a screaming toddler, the air conditioning in the lobby has decided to take a day off and you are in dire need of a shower. After a 30-minute wait, you are finally greeted with a lukewarm “hello” by an over-extended check-in clerk who is counting down the minutes until his or her shift is over.  

After randomly assigning you a room, you arrive only to realize that the credit card in your hand has managed to demagnetize your room key, and you are now stranded outside your room, with your luggage in tow. Frustrating...

Sounds archaic right? Well, it's actually not. We have all experienced some version of the story above, and when it happens, it causes stress and anxiety. Hardly the welcome any hotelier intends to provide, nor any guest wishes to experience. In 2021 it doesn’t have to be this way. 

I believe it’s time for a complete reimagination of the front desk.

Seamless Service

Until COVID-19, one of the biggest buzzwords in the travel sector was “seamless.” This described an almost impossible pursuit of removing every friction point in the customer journey—before, during and after a trip. This utopian experience would happen effortlessly, and yet be customized to the needs and interests of the traveler. 

Today, the pursuit of seamless has been usurped by contactless. For consumers looking to travel again post-pandemic, safety is their primary concern. Demand for contactless, technology-enabled stays that cater to an increasingly digitally native consumer is becoming the norm. 

Making the jump to contactless is a 180-degree shift for an industry that for decades has built its operating model around in-person experiences, but it's not impossible. With technology that connects rooms with guests and with hotel teams and ancillary service providers—we can unlock more than just the door. This advanced connection has the potential to unlock guest experience, new revenue streams and operational efficiency—providing a check-in experience and concierge service that is built for the 21st century. 

As 2021 continues to unfold, the hospitality industry faces a dynamic and challenging economic environment. While identifying what the “new normal” will look like from the consumer perspective is still unclear, hoteliers that remove friction points and provide memorable connections and personalization “at scale” will ultimately win. This remains non-negotiable, regardless of all the other changes the industry has undergone. 

Lastly, one thing we can be sure of is that we are not going back to the way things were. Now is the time for hotel operators to act boldly and utilize new technologies to elevate their customer experience. Give customers what they want—contactless stays and excellent guest experiences—and hoteliers can unlock new opportunities for revenue growth, boosting operational efficiency for the future.

Steve Davis is the CEO of Operto Guest Technologies.