Kiosk Reality Check: Study Offers Answers to Hoteliers' Top Questions


Consider the following scenario: The hour was late when I finally arrived at my hotel. I had guaranteed my reservation with a credit card, but I also knew that the hotel was sold out. So, I was a bit concerned that I might be turned away. So, with a little trepidation, I approached the front desk. The clerk handed me the key, complete with the Wi-Fi code, along with the form for me to initial the rate, write down the make and model of my car, and authorize the credit card transaction. Done; I doubt it took more than ninety seconds.

That made me think about the question that many hotels are addressing right now, which is how to balance technology and staff in offering guest services. Many hotels are experimenting with check-in kiosks. I don't think a computer could have beaten those efficient desk clerks that night, but a sample of one doesn't answer any question, and lobby kiosks might be perfect for some hotels. In fact, for some operations maybe it would be even better to allow guests to check in using their mobile equipment (such as Androids, Blackberries, or iPhones).

Your guests know that the technology exists, because they've been checking in for flights and baggage. Some of them will want to be able to do the same thing at hotels, just because they can, or because it actually is faster than the desk. On the other hand, some guests will still want to stop off at the desk and speak to a live person.

Chances are your company has already looked at this issue, or will do so soon. The Cornell Center for Hospitality Research recently looked at guests' reactions to lobby kiosks in 163 hotels in two different chains operated by a U.S. hotel company. The study, "Integrating Self-Service Kiosks in a Customer-service System," by Tsz-Wai Lui and Gabriele Piccoli, can be downloaded from the CHR website at no charge. Lui is at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Piccoli is at the University of Grenoble.

Covering their bases
Lui and Piccoli point out that most hotels simply install kiosks as another check-in option, and let guests decide whether they want to go to the front desk or use the check-in kiosk. What these researchers were most concerned about is how guests react to the presence of kiosks, in terms of how they vote with their feet. Thus, they looked at the financial implications and guest satisfaction results when the 163 hotels installed self-service kiosks in the lobby.

They found that guests favored the kiosks for routine tasks, such as checking in and obtaining room keys. In fact, the hotels in this study saw increases in the average daily rate in conjunction with successful kiosk use. However, when something went wrong with the self-service check-in, the hotels in question saw a reduction in guests' willingness to return. Lui and Piccoli suggest that hotels make sure that guests understand how to use the kiosks, and, of course, make sure that they work (whether the failure is in the machine or the operator).

One argument for installing automated equipment, of course, is that it's supposed to facilitate a quick check-in. However, in this study, the addition of the check-in kiosks did not increase guests' perceptions of service speed at check-in. Lui and Piccoli believe that guests who used the kiosks are then consulting with the front desk to get advice about the destination or to obtain answers to any other questions that they might have. If that is true, then the check-in kiosks may not be speeding up the process so much as they are magnifying the hotel's service stance by matching the tool to the task. For routine tasks, automation works fine, but when guests need additional help, there's no substitute for your staff. Thus, perhaps the question does not involve choosing between check-in kiosks and front-desk associates so much as it involves how to create the best synergy between distribution channels. Thus, the real question going forward is how to integrate automated equipment with your human-driven processes in a way that works well for both your operation and for your guests.

Glenn Withiam is director of publications for the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research.

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