When well-intended technology leads to broken experiences

The latest hype is about artificial intelligence and how it will impact our lives, specifically in the hospitality industry. It is a bit like the golden Labrador syndrome, where we all run to get the tennis ball, get distracted by a squirrel, and forget what we were doing. Don’t get me wrong, AI and ChatGPT are pretty cool but can also be disruptive in many areas. That said, the fact is that we are not great at using today’s (let alone yesterday’s) technology to improve and enhance experiences. Yes, we have great ideas, but are those ideas really delivered consistently in the field? 

Observations from a Road Warrior’s Perspective

Since the beginning of the year, I have had more than 10 separate hotel stays accounting for nearly 30 room nights. These stays were across five brands, three major chains and one independent property. With the exception of one stay, technology failed and became a point of friction instead of an enabler.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not odd at all, I remember these experiences enough to document them here. If I remember them as a business traveler, imagine how the leisure traveler looking to relax and recharge will respond via social media, rating websites or worse. Then consider the more intrepid traveler shooting off a rant email to the executive office of the brand, owner or asset management firm.

Without naming names, as the challenge seemed symptomatic of a broader industry issue, the following are a few of the things I encountered. 

What Went Wrong

Mobile check-in issues:

  • The brand.com site was unavailable to book a reservation, so I booked through an OTA. When I got to the hotel, the hotel claimed I did not have a reservation, even after showing the clerk the reservation on my mobile device.
  • Mobile check-in didn’t work due to technical issues. 
  • Able to use mobile check-in, but when I got to the hotel, I was told they do not honor mobile check-in and I needed to "check-in for real" with a "real person."
  • The mobile key only worked on the room door, and I needed to use a key card for elevator and fitness-room access.

In-room issues: 

  • The tablet device that controls lighting and shades was not charged, so I couldn’t turn out the lights or close the shades until the tablet charged (as the hotel didn’t have any spare devices.) In-room streaming did not work, as the Chromecast device was unplugged.
  • A completely blank interactive programming guide on the TV.
  • Dead batteries in the TV remote and the electronic door viewer, and a dead battery in the scale (probably a good thing.) 
  • Requested toothpaste through the mobile app at 9 P.M. It was delivered the following morning. 
  • An overly sensitive sensor on an amazingly cool Toto toilet raised the lid throughout the night.

Check-out issues:

  • The night audit person was not trained in checking guests out, so I was instructed to call back after 7 A.M. to complete my check-out. 
  • The front desk clerk charged me five times for the same reservation, and it took nearly three weeks to resolve the issue while getting handed off between the hotel, ownership group, and brand multiple times.

Restaurant and self-serve food issues:

  • The timer on the self-serve waffle iron was broken, resulting in an overly crisp and inedible waffle. 
  • Waited 20 minutes to get a tablet containing the menu, as the night shift from the previous night did not charge all the units. 
  • When attempting to pay in the restaurant, the check presented on the device was for a different table, and the server didn’t know how to correct the situation. 
  • Broken links from multiple QR codes. 
  • Credit card readers displayed the processor's logo instead of using it to reinforce the brand/location.

What Went Right

In contrast, there was one stay of my last 10 (a limited-service property in a secondary city) where the technology and colleagues worked amazingly well in concert: 

  • Made my reservation while on the road using the brand’s mobile app. 
  • Checked in successfully using the mobile app. 
  • As an elite loyalty member of this particular brand, I stopped by the desk to snag my two waters. I was warmly welcomed back, thanked for my loyalty to the brand, and shockingly they apologized for not having Coke products and offered to run across the street to pick up my favorite drink. They went on to ask how our two dogs were and if they were with us on this stay.
  • The toothpaste I requested through the mobile app was delivered within five minutes. 

This was a shining example of how the power of technology and human interaction can create a memorable experience. Sadly, this is the exception rather than the norm.

Has Technology Replaced Customer Service?

To be fair to my hotel colleagues, the hospitality industry is not the only one that seems to have taken a hard turn to automated customer service models. Chatbots, text bots and online forms seem to have become the norm in this post-pandemic world. During the staffing crisis, many large global corporations seem to think they can replace customer service personnel with online tools. But can technology replace customer service? 

I was speaking with a friend who concurred. Her 80-plus-year-old father has no access to the Internet, no email and no cell phone. He often complains that organizations today (especially very large organizations) seem to have forgotten previous generations who may not be able (or have no desire) to learn technology. Customer service has taken a back seat to technology, from banks to doctor appointments to simple requests to fix an appliance. 

These types of experiences can have a lasting effect on brand loyalty. While travelers are on the road again, we are discovering it is a different world than before. A world where the customer must pay more to get less. But this should not be the case in hospitality, where customer service is our business. 

Help Ensure a Great Customer Experience

Let’s face it—technology is here to stay. There is no shortage of solutions at hospitality trade shows, touting how they will help hoteliers save time and money and “enhance” the guest experience. However, once the investment is made, new strategies, procedures and staff training must be employed before turning it loose into the wild. Without it, your investments may easily go sideways. 

  1. Consider the guest stay. When designing solutions, keep in mind that the typical length of stay for a guest is two nights. The last thing guests want to do is figure out how to make the technology work—or worse, deal with non-functioning technology due to a lack of staff training. 
  2. Keep it simple. Keep designs simple for any new technology and ensure they align with what guests typically experience at home. Use technology to enable choice and ensure it works, including maintenance and quality assurance for each room. 
  3. No technology is entirely hands-off. Many hoteliers have experienced staff shortages, so investing in technology to replace staff may have sounded like a good trade-off. Make sure you have trained your existing staff on the nuances of managing, operating and servicing that technology, particularly that which is in guestrooms. 
  4. Keep up with the technology failure. With the move to tablet-based ordering in restaurants, uncharged tablets are comparable to running out of register tape or order tickets. Have extra charged tablets for those instances when tablets die or stop functioning. Ensure QR codes and other brand-appropriate devices are working or reflect your brand. Train all shifts on how to fix small technical issues.
  5. Recognize those who aren’t tech friendly. Be cognizant that your older guests may not use technology or have the knowledge needed to access those time/money-saving features, such as QR-coded menus or tablet-based controls in the guestroom. Ensure you have a secondary option for those travelers.
  6. Guest-facing personnel are on the front lines. Digital tools should support them and make their jobs easier. If you are promoting mobile check-in/check-out, all shifts should know it and know how to support it. Set user expectations and provide a way for guests to circumvent the technology should there be a failure. 

As we ponder how to utilize the latest and greatest technology, it is critical that we understand the nuances of maintaining it in the future. Following through with the proper training and procedures will ensure that your investment is creating positive, memorable moments. 

Or wait—can ChatGPT fix all our broken experiences? I think not...

Jeff Bzdawka is CEO of Knowland and is a featured speaker at The Hospitality Show, which is scheduled for June 27-29 in Las Vegas.