The key is removing the barrier between the guest and the hotel — be it for better service, streamlining, experience or profit. The sitting-behind-a-desk days are not what travelers want,” Sinclair said. “However the hotel chain chooses to roll it out — kiosks, check-in pedestals, tablets or iPads — you walk to the lobby and whoever you speak to can handle your entire needs …
“Traditional front desks, however, may be destined for a scrap heap teeming with bygone lobby fixtures like key boxes, desk bells and hat racks. Some mid-market chains already are dumping imposing check-in counters for cozy, one-on-one welcomes or for virtual check-ins through kiosks or mobile devices.
When Sherry Richert Bulel entered the Andaz West Hollywood in February, she was greeted by a “host” who offered her wine, a comfy chair and room selection via his laptop. “There was no looming desk between us to indicate that he was the hotel staff and I was the guest,” said Richert Bulel, author and founder of simplycelebrate.net, which creates tribute books for special occasions. “I immediately relaxed.”
In addition to Andaz, Courtyard by Marriott has renovated 201 of its 800 U.S. lobbies, swapping its standard front desks for smaller “welcome pedestals” that allow clerks to step out to meet patrons, then step back to check them in. Courtyard will finish the makeover by 2013.
Meanwhile, Starwood has used one of its urban-style Aloft hotels to test a tech-driven welcome service. Several thousand customers who already carried Starwood Preferred Guest cards were texted their room numbers before arriving at the Aloft Lexington in Massachusetts, allowing them to bypass the front desk and head to their floor.
FITs, or Free Independent Travelers. In general, FITs have above-average income, prefer to roam alone, in small groups or as couples, avoid tourist tracks, research their explorations via their mobile devices, and spend freely. They are, Sinclair said, “now the dominant market traveler being sought after by most major brands.” FITs, experts believe, prefer hotels that offer texted check-in codes or lobby kiosks that spit out room keys. So how long until old-school front desks vanish from most or maybe all mid-market hotels?
“Within the next 36 months,” forecasts James Sinclair, principal of OnSite Consulting, a national restaurant and hospitality consulting company. His clients include W Hotels and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Related: Tech-savvy travelers embrace self-service model “ You sit on a couch and wait your turn rather than (stand) behind Bob who is arguing that he didn’t have the salt-and-honey peanuts from the minibar.” Viewed from the bottom line, chopping the front desk also “makes sense for the hotel in terms of profit maximization,” Sinclair said. “As the hotel market has become more competitive with the various online practices and the need to refocus on margins, there are only a few areas that can be looked at.” Number one: payroll. No front desks, or smaller versions, could allow hotels to operate with fewer employees. What’s next? No beds? Then again, that’s the chief reason why some mega-mile travelers — like comedian Dan Nainan — hate the downsizing of check-in counters. Spending huge chunks of their lives on the road, they befriend hotel employees and feel somewhat protective of them. “If I ever see a hotel without a front desk, I can guarantee you that that is a hotel I would never, ever, ever patronize,” said Nainan, who flew 200,000 miles last year. “I will turn right around on my heel and march out of that place so fast I will actually do a wheelie. What brilliant cost-cutting move will they think of next? How about hotel rooms with no beds? Imagine the savings!” But hotel chains say de-emphasizing, shrinking or removing the front desk simply gives their guests more options. Further, the tactic is part of a larger shift, they say, to entice patrons to spend more time — working or relaxing — in attractive, compelling lobbies. Courtyard’s fresh, first-floor face, which costs the chain about $750,000 per makeover, includes free WiFi, “media pods” where patrons can plug in laptops and watch TVs, plus a 57-inch, LCD touch screen — the “GoBoard” — that provides news, weather, and directions to local attractions. An eat-in bistro — “Starbucks meets Panera,” they say — offers breakfast, then later a casual dinner and cocktails. About three years ago, Courtyard’s lobby designers used Styrofoam cutouts to simulate changes — including the “welcome pedestals.”