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09/30/2021

The New Check-in Experience

Digital, contactless and mobile: In 18 months, check-in has completely changed.
Michal Christine Escobar
Senior Editor (Hotels)
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According to Casai, digital check-in technology should solve all the ‘boring’ manual work that needs to happen for a guest to get into their unit. (Image Source: Casai)

Prior to March 2020, digital or contactless check-in technologies were limited to a few pioneering brands. IHG was the first to pioneer digital key technology in 2010, but discontinued it in 2012. Then in 2015, IHG relaunched the technology with added mobile check-in and check-out capabilities. Hilton also launched its digital key technology in 2015, and Marriott and Hyatt followed in 2018. But then in March 2020, the pandemic created a seismic shift where guests began to view avoiding hotel check-in lines, POS terminals, and face-to-face interaction with staff as a matter of health and safety not just avoiding a nuisance.

For this reason, “hotels are much more conscious of social distancing as a way to ensure guests feel welcome and relaxed in the property while recognizing the need to provide a more enhanced guest experience,” says Carsten Wernet, Executive Board Member for SIHOT. Conversations center on “how technology can reduce the pressure on front-of-house staff and make lobbies and receptions less crowded.”

Eighteen months later, most travelers will likely never go back to a “traditional” check-in experience. Why would they? A digital experience, when done correctly, is quick and convenient.

“Digital services are no longer being seen as a perk but are becoming increasingly expected by hotel guests,” says Robert Stevenson, CEO, Intelity. “Pre-pandemic, hotels were judged by the quality of human interactions including the length of wait to check in and the actual face-to-face interaction between guests and staff. Now, hotels are increasingly judged by their ability to deliver app-based services.”

What a Guest Wants

So, what kind of a digital check-in experience will get hotel guests to leave a five-star review and, more importantly, stay with your brand again?

First and foremost, the experience must be mobile friendly, Stevenson notes. Consumers use their smartphones for everything, from banking to rideshare to food delivery and “expect hoteliers to deliver similar mobile conveniences during their stay whether it’s an app, mobile friendly website or something in between.”

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Guests want a digital check-in experience that is mobile friendly. (Photo source: Intelity)

Once your hotel has a mobile-friendly solution, think about guest needs. For example, often guests need to contact the hotel for airport pickup arrangements, early check-in requests, room preferences and special requests, says Rahul Salgia, Founder & CEO, DigiValet. With this in mind, any type of digital check-in technology employed by a hotel should allow guests to reach out and communicate with the hotel very easily and early on – perhaps even by chatting from within the reservation confirmation email.

Once guests arrive on property, they “want the ability to skip the front desk,” says Satyen Pandya, CTO, Sonder, a a ‘tech-enabled’ hotel brand that features a fully digital self-check-in service as well as keyless access to guest rooms.

But to skip the front desk, hotels need to ensure that they offer a way for the guest to make payments or authorize credit cards, upload documents, digitally sign registration cards, and agree to the hotel terms. Skipping the front desk also requires that hotels offer mobile key technology. Consider how frustrating it would be for a guest to check-in on their mobile phone only to wait in line for a physical room key.

Of course, for a guest to be truly happy, not only will hotels need to provide these mobile options, but also ensure they work together seamlessly. This means integration with the hotel tech stack such as the PMS, document storage system, payment gateway and access control system will be key.

“That’s easier said than done,” Salgia notes. “A lot of hotels have taken a half-baked approach -- which guests will use while fear of contact remains high.”

But as guests stay at other properties and notice that there are better integrated solutions out there, they’ll be unlikely to return to hotels where the digital check-in experience was less than ideal.

Go All in on Digital

Offering a great digital check-in experience will no doubt make guests happy. But it will raise other questions, such as: Why can’t I order room service or book an on-property restaurant reservation or spa service via the mobile app as well?

Some brands, such as Sonder, are already working to create a mobile app environment that can handle these varied requests.

“We offer curated lists of localized food and experience recommendations to help guests get the most out of their stay and explore the local neighborhood,” Pandya explains. “Guests can also book intra-stay cleaning and self-serve requests through Sonder’s app throughout their stay. They also have the ability to select late check-out through the app, when available. Our behind-the-scenes operations, including our task and workflow management software, enable us to manage on-the-ground staff and instantly route guest needs to the right place so we can address needs as quickly as possible.”

Digital Doesn’t Mean Impersonal

Offering a digital check-in experience does not mean guests will encounter a lack of hospitality and personalization. In fact, many hotels would argue it does just the opposite. How so? First, it allows guests to choose how they want to interact with the hotel and its staff: face-to-face or via contactless solutions.

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Mobile app technology isn't the only way for hoteliers to offer digital check-in technology. Kiosks are another great option. (Image Source: SIHOT)

Kiosks as a Contactless Option

While mobile apps tend to get the lion’s share of discussion when it comes to digital check-in technologies, kiosks are another great way for hotels to offer a contactless check-in experience. They offer all the same benefits of a mobile application and the technology is very familiar to guests.

“At peak times, kiosks help us to process a lot of check-ins in a short time while minimizing wait times,” says Dr. Bjorn Hackert, Head of Organization & Communication, authorized representative, fidelis hospitality GmbH.

The kiosks used by fidelis hospitality, provided by SIHOT, use a guest’s booking confirmation details, including reservation number, GDS or QR codes to complete the data requirements for check-in registration and confirm the hotel’s terms and conditions. While not currently used by fidelis hospitality, SIHOT reports that some versions of the kiosk can use a scanner to automatically read and transfer text-data from personal IDs and passports into the hotel management system.

Hotels can also earn ancillary revenue by offering upgrade options, presenting the guest with room details including images and descriptions in various categories, while integrating other services, like breakfast or hotel transportation. 

And best of all, the kiosk can issue key cards upon check-in or reissue key cards if the card is lost.

“This saves the guest the embarrassment of having to talk to reception after locking themselves out of the room,” Dr. Hackert adds.

Second, regardless of how they choose to interact with staff, “a more efficient check-in experience is beneficial to hotel teams because it allows them to engage guests on-property in more meaningful ways and deliver an even better overall experience,” says Jeff Edwards, Senior Vice President Property, Owner and Enterprise Products and Platforms, IHG Hotels & Resorts.

With less time dedicated to data entry, staff members will have more time to dedicate to guest questions and making meaningful connections which can ultimately create more loyal guests.

In fact, digital check-in services allow “well-trained staff to drive revenue through direct, personalized services – perhaps returning to the golden era of hoteling,” notes Wernet.

With this greater emphasis on personalization and interaction between staff and guest, the role of the front desk agent is expected to change drastically.

The Front Desk Agent

In most cases, large and small hotel brands seem to realize that front desk staff member time is better spent engaging with guests as a concierge would, rather than entering data.

“Rather than saying digital check-in technology replaces the front desk agent, we think of it more as solving all the ‘boring’ manual work that needs to happen for a guest to get into their unit,” says Nico Barawid, CEO and co-founder of Casai. “The technology allows our agents to spend more time on the high touch and more creative/personal elements. The front desk agent therefore takes on the role of a concierge rather than an extension of the reservation system.”

However, this doesn’t mean that there are “no humans,” Barawid explains. For Casai, staff member time is spent researching and providing personalized tips to guests on local restaurants and things to do. Staff also spend their time customizing the living space based on guest requests.

“If a guest wishes to enhance his work-from-home setup, our staff will set up the desk with a monitor or mouse upon request and even include a personal handwritten note,” Barawid adds.

For Casai, this means that there is no need for onsite staff. Messaging between guests and concierge works well for their customers. Other brands agree that front desk staff jobs are evolving to be more concierge-like, but continue to feel that on property staff is still necessary.

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Most hotel brands are in no rush to remove the front desk agent; they're simply reevaluating their role and how they're expected to help guests.

“There are just some things – like a smile or a warm greeting – that can’t be replaced,” says Dan Morton, Vice President, Product Management, Hilton.

For Accor, a combination of on property staff and digital check-in technology is integral to achieving its goal of enhancing the guest experience.

Four years ago when business and leisure travel was booming, “our capacity to spend time with each of our customers was compromised by longer and longer administrative tasks for our staff,” says Carla Milovanov, SVP Customer Technology Services at Accor. “We had also launched a transformation program called Heartist, designed to create more genuine interactions with guests, and we realized that digitalizing the check in process was essential to spending more time enhancing our guest’s experience.”

Similarly, IHG is in no rush to get rid of front desk staff.

“Hospitality will always be a business focused on people and the importance of human connection,” Edwards explains. “Technology solutions can help enhance the guest experience, but can’t replace the meaningful connections made with face to face interactions.”

Milovanov agrees, adding “Harnessing digital processes and data can help to personalize and tailor the check-in experience. It is, however, important to note that it is designed to enhance check-in and not replace it. If you elevate your game on digital and lower it on physical, it may be worse than doing nothing."