Over the past three months I have spoken to many hundreds of hoteliers. Initially there was a huge amount of work for them to do to safely mothball their hotels, deal with refunding guests, furloughing staff and dealing with the bank. Even in those early days of lockdown due to COVID-19 I was having positive calls about how I would help when they reopened. The most common thing I heard then was, “I knew we would have to introduce technology and now is the time.” And more recently, “Even my 90-year gran has a smartphone to Zoom us so I’m confident we don’t need to worry about the demographic issue anymore.”
As reopening dates have moved to reality, at Criton we’ve been extremely busy working through demos of the system, signing new operators and bringing on new partners to ensure that we had all the necessary workflows covered by the app. We launched our partnership with Hungrrr two weeks ago to help hoteliers offer contactless F&B ordering and payment from roomservice to bar and restaurant to takeaway when it became obvious that food-and-beverage was causing major headaches.
What has been interesting is how some hoteliers are looking at the impact of the app on the guest journey and that some fear that guests will not see it as hospitable, that it will replace their warm welcome, that it is soulless.
I’ve been gently breaking this to hoteliers for the past four years, so brace yourself: Check-in is not a process built for guests; it’s built for hoteliers to capture payment details, run our eyes over our guests and to upsell. To cover this we’ve added in extra hospitality stand operating procedures to try and make it a better experience. “Welcome to X Hotel, pause, smile, are you checking in?”… No, I’m just lugging my suitcase up to your reception for no good reason!
News flash! Guests do not crave check-in; they are not arriving at your hotel desperate to check in! They want to go directly to their room and make sure it’s the one they ordered, open all the drawers and minibar (if you have one), lie on the bed, experience the linen, the pillows (hotel pillows are the best!) and get on with their stay from leisure weekend to romantic break to family event, to business. No matter the experience. Four beautifully attired receptionists standing at a huge desk just waiting for you is almost as annoying as a queue … why? because they will all be doing something on their computers and we will be desperately trying to catch at least one of their eyes because we want to choose a line and get check-in over with. Yes, it’s a chore.
And that was the case before COVID-19. Changing our technologies to speed up the processes we need, and guests do not, was required well before this irrespective of what type of hotel you run. Many guests wanted to use their own device before this pandemic arrived.
Undoubtedly COVID-19 has now sped up this process of change for hotels, but they are concerned because they believe that check-in is their first chance to make an impression and they fear missing out on that engagement. They fear that their guests dealing with their wonderful team via chat is a bad experience.
In my opinion, respectfully, if you think this you are missing the point. This is all about guest choice. Our research in January of 5,500 guests, i.e. before COVID-19, showed that 75 percent wanted to use a hotel app to check in, 70 percent wanted digital door key and 80 percent wanted to use it to check out and those numbers were higher for corporate guests. If there’s anything worse than standing in a queue to check in, its standing in a queue to check out and hotels cannot win that battle. It’s an ongoing, never-changing staffing issue because most people leave around check-out time, which causes a pinch point, just as most people arrive around 5 p.m. on a Friday for the weekend. As hoteliers, now more than ever we cannot afford to throw more staff at something guests do not want.
In 2013 when I was opening Old Town Chambers, 50 luxury serviced apartments in Edinburgh, Scotland’s, Old Town, I didn’t put a desk in our reception. The developer was surprised. Our SOP was that 48 hours before guests arrived, we made sure we had all the details we needed in terms of payment, etc., and when we did, we sent our guests an access code. Many guests chose therefore to go directly to their room and come by reception later if they had questions not in my in-room directory. The most common reason for coming to reception was because they had booked via an online travel agency and hadn’t received their email with their code (where we took the chance to remind them to book direct next time so that didn’t happen again!).
Our reception was laid out like a sitting room with sofas and a fireplace. Concierge had a small office at the back of it, no desk, so we would head there to check their apartment code and that we had everything we needed. Without the desk, guests generally followed and chatted—yes, had a real conversation with us because there were no barriers between us. We then gave them their access code and asked if they wanted shown to their apartment. Most did not. Let’s face it, it’s generally an awkward, excruciatingly long few minutes where both parties feel like they have to make small talk. Of course, every now and then we would get an older couple or a big family and yes, they wanted to be shown and that was fine, too, because it was their choice and we were happy to help.
My view is that the first impression someone has of your hotel is online. Perhaps their friend is recommending it on their Facebook or Instagram page with lots of great photos. Online, they start to consider how they could become part of your experience; they start to imagine themselves in your hotel. Once they have booked, they cannot wait to get into the room. Check-in is just an annoyance.
If you offer an app to remove this annoyance, on your guests' confirmation and prearrival emails you would encourage them to download your app, from which they can precheck-in to speed up arrival, or check in (if you have a property-management system with which we integrate and digital door key). They can then engage with preordering whatever they need for their stay: table, spa, kids club, etc. As a hotelier using Criton you can choose to drop guest requests into a ticketing system that we offer, meaning no more notes and lost guest requests and great insight into guest precheck-in requests. And the great news is that 45 percent of guests who download your app keep it, so you build a closed marketing group of guests who are engaged with your brand because it is on their phone.
Technology should underpin and reduce or remove the processes guests do not really like: booking a table, queuing to check in, calling for roomservice, calling because there is an issue with your room, queuing to check out. These processes can all now be done via the guest's own phone—and that is not a bad thing. It is great news for your guests to have the choice and therefore it is great hospitality.
Guests consume your hospitality in so many ways across their stay: the stillness of a hotel room as you enter it embraces you, the linen, the pillows, the order of everything having its place in the room. Someone bringing you roomservice with a cloche on your plate, the smile of the receptionist as you walk past, a staff member saying hello as they pass you, quick table service or great banter at the bar, the amazing food, the gardens, it’s all encompassing and embracing. We’ve built it that way and technology will never replace all of that.
Technology doesn’t replace your hospitality, it improves it because your staff have technology supporting them and that makes it easier for them to get back to do what they were recruited to do: provide amazing hospitality.
Julie Grieve is the founder and CEO of Criton.
This column originally appeared on Hospitality Insights.