High Touch vs. Touch Screen

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High Touch vs. Touch Screen

By Mary L. Carlin - 02/19/2008
There has been an ongoing debate since the inception of self-service kiosks in hotels as to whether they improve or dilute customer service, particularly in traditional high-end hotels where guests have come to expect 'high-touch' service from staff. As the technology has matured and users have become accustomed to self-service in other environments, such as airports and retail stores, kiosks have become increasingly accepted by hotel operators even at the highest end because of their ability to reduce lines and offer additional services like boarding pass printing (which would only add to front desk lines if they were offered there). Kiosks can free front desk personnel to spend extra time with guests who prefer or need personal assistance, while enabling business and other travelers to speed through check-in and check-out by serving themselves.

Threat or Support?
A key element of any self-service implementation is getting the buy-in from your staff. If employees see the kiosk as a threat to job security, they won't support it and might even unplug it (this has happened more than a few times) or otherwise sabotage its success. It needs to be seen as part of an overall customer service strategy to reduce lines and offer additional services like boarding pass printing, therefore making their jobs easier. Staff can be very helpful in introducing guests to the kiosks, particularly when they are new, and must make it clear that the kiosks are an option and not mandatory for guests to use.

According to Pierre-Louis Giacotto, general manager of the Sofitel Chicago O'Hare, "I believe that self-service in luxury and higher end establishments can be diluting to customer service if that is the only method offered. However, if technology is an addition to the traditional way of checking in, I don't see a problem at all. It is in fact an added benefit. However, you should ask: 'Is the staff going to rely on the technology and not be able to take over should the technology fail? Does the staff know how to handle IT issues if anything happens to the technology that they have to use?'"

Jim Bina, IT director of Rosen Hotels & Resorts (using Agilysys kiosks, www.agilysys.com) adds this advice: "Our kiosks were rolled out a little sooner than they should have been. The interface with the PMS needed some work. As a result of the kiosks not working very well in the beginning, staff didn't trust them and then didn't really feel comfortable referring guests to them."

According to Walter Brindell, vice president of rooms for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, "You have to have both, depending on your market. Some customers need personal interaction and others prefer the availability of technology that they can control, select, and orchestrate themselves. We have a 40 percent usage rate now in our conference hotels. In the long run, this will reduce staffing levels - absolutely - and with our multiple-kiosk hotels it already has."

Club Quarters has offered self-service check-in and check-out kiosks at its hotels for a few years, and it perfectly suits its largely business clientele. "Being able to offer our guests a simple, fast check-in experience was the driving force behind installing the kiosks," explains Helmar Dinger, director of IT for Club Quarters. "With a check-in time of less than 23 seconds and a check-out time of less than 15 seconds, the PAR Springer-Miller Systems (www.springermiller.com) SMS kiosk fulfills that objective and allows us to offer another facet of exceptional guest service."

Although the advantages are becoming well established, these are dependent on a successful roll out based upon careful consideration of your clientele. "I feel that the generation in which the guest grew up can make a difference," Giacotto explains. "The older the guests, the less technology they are interested in as this is not always part of their 'gene'. I am generalizing of course but it is a vast majority. Also, the more trendy the place the more technology is expected. Even if the guest may not use it all, they expect to have it and it helps sell the property as well."

It is also important to consider the location of the hotel (i.e. downtown vs. airport) and the type of image the hotel wants to market (i.e. trendy vs. traditional). "Is the investment going to bring anything to the guest's experience and bring any return either in the form of reduced costs or additional quality? Or is this 'just because?'" asks Giacotto.

Assisting Self-Service
Location remains the key consideration for any kiosk deployment. Today's hotel operators are having the most success with check-in/out kiosks placed on or very near to the front desk. Hyatt's Brindell explains: "It takes multiple kiosks, placement, and positioning to make it work. We started with NCR's (www.ncr.com) standalone kiosks, but have moved to their thin screens built into the front desk now. They're high-tech and attractive to customers. Our office directive is to have one person to help with self-service in each lobby. One person minimum is placed on the front side of the desk to direct people to the front desk staff or the kiosks placed there. We want more one-on-one interaction meeting guests on arrival." Hyatt has finished deploying 'Web In' to 90 of its 120 North American properties. The service includes hotel check-in via PDA or online. Upon arrival, guests swipe their credit card at the kiosk, which dispenses their room key. 'Web Out' is still rolling out, and includes email notification for guests to review their bill and approve it online.

Rosen's Bina agrees with Brindell. "Placement of the devices is key. Can the guest gain assistance if a process is not working correctly? What happens to a guest who is referred back to an agent, and there is a line?" Bina notes that if kiosks are built into a hotel desk, they allow an attendant to aid two guests simultaneously while still providing some personal touch.

Bina also believes that kiosks bolster security by eliminating the need of guests to turn over their credit card to an agent, as well as keeping room numbers confidential. "I think the kiosk will offer more services to the guest that an attendant doesn't have time or information to handle, such as airline services," Bina explains. "If implemented carefully, with great thought and buy-in from agents and management, kiosks can be very successful in a hotel environment. A kiosk in my environment will reduce staff, and just give a guest options."

Kiosks are becoming sources of other services at Hyatt, which is currently testing boarding pass printing and Gold Passport registration on the kiosks, according to Brindell. Sofitel has deployed Flyte Systems' (www.flytesystems.com) boarding pass kiosk, which provides live flight information as well as boarding pass printing in the lobby: "This is a great service that would not exist without technology, and it enhances the guest experience," says Giacotto.

Lobby of the Future
Future hotel lobbies will incorporate self-service technology into their overall design. Brindell predicts: "We'll see lobbies as pods, with the front desk as a pod, or a broken up series of pods sporadically placed. There will be a person in front of the front desk - with no barrier between them and the guests."

Giacotto takes this idea even further. "I believe that the hotel of the future will offer technology that can be personalized for each guest," he says. "Lobbies will certainly be more interactive, and people will congregate and be able to use the lobbies like they do their living rooms at home. In the old days, hotels had superior technology and were more comfortable than many homes." Today, however, homes have more technology than hotels can offer, Giacotto points out, making it even more crucial that hotels keep up with the expectations of their guests.

"Hotels will need to be able to adapt to technology that changes quickly," says Giacotto. "If a hotel can have expandable units that can be used for multiple functions and purposes without losing the personal touch that an individual brings, they will have won the technology battle."