front office contact with guests at hotels is still important

As a writer in the hospitality space, I am often approached by new companies with emerging technology who are looking for PR.

NB: This is an article from Doug Kennedy of Kennedy Training Network

Despite that my articles are almost always related to training tips for human engagement such as sales and hospitality skills, they somehow think that my help promoting whatever new gimmick they have come up with is key to their industry penetration. Recently I was approached by yet another company about an exciting new innovation they had invented there and were looking to bring to the hotel space. It was an app for interacting with guests and fielding their requests.

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Wow, no one ever thought of that before, and just what the industry needs, another new guest communications app! Yet a quick search on Google for “hotel app for guest communications” reveals page after page of results. With six pay-per-click ads on just the first page, I’m sure those Adwords bids are costly too! Of course, most (if not all) hotel brands also have their own apps, as do all of the OTA’s.

As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the tech companies began salivating like a hungry dog waiting for his owner to finish filling up his bowl and set it on the floor.

The theory is that germ phobia will finally push guests to adopt the apps that some hotel brands have been trying to push guests to use since at least 2014. Sure, smartphone and app check-in use is probably up, and I’ll bet that some of the tech companies will be glad to respond with hard data on this. But let’s see how those numbers hold up now that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated their guidance and now says the average person’s risk of contracting COVID-19 from a surface is extremely low.

Another theory, if you listen to the tech companies, is that “Those Millennials and Gen-Zers, well they despise human interaction and aspire to do everything on their smartphone, and they are taking over the travel industry any day now.” Too many hotel companies are buying into what I call the Millennial Myth as if it were fact and not just the latest psychographic that has evolved from Strauss-Howe’s Generational Theory. Many of us Baby Boomers are still in our 50’s and still filling up plenty of seats on airplanes and rental cars. Further, I believe it is truly impossible to stereotype and profile guests based on their birth years.

Somehow, despite all these predictions, when I speak to our hotel training clients worldwide, what I’m hearing is that the front desk is as busy as ever, and it’s not just grandma and grandpa checking in at the desk either.

Could it be that there are others who, like me are feeling “apped-out?” Could it be that there is a new trend of “tech backlash” about to reveal itself?

By the time I have reached a hotel front desk, I have already used the Uber app to order my ride to the airport, the Delta app to get my boarding pass, the Starbucks app to order my coffee, the Avis app to find my vehicle, and the Maps app to navigate. I’ve also used an app to check email, the Xfinity and New York Times apps to catch some news during layovers, and my Facebook and LinkedIn apps to stay in touch with family and business colleagues. Oh, and the CVS app keeps telling me my prescription is ready, my credit card app says “card not present” and “WhatsApp” keeps updating some group chat I got randomly linked to.

Honestly, about the only way I would want to use one more app to check-in to my room is if I encountered an exceptionally long line at check-in, due to a hotel manager who has cut staff in order to save enough payroll to pay for the investment in their new app-based keyless check-in system.

Could it be that there are others who, like me, crave human engagement and random conversations with strangers even more so after the isolation of this pandemic era? Am I the only one who prefers to ask a human “Where’s a good local’s place for dinner?” or “What’s the best route to take to avoid rush hour traffic?” instead of relying on an app? Am I the only one who enjoys friendly banter with a local human upon arrival? If the conversations I have been having with my fellow travelers of all age groups lately are any indication, I think I am not alone.

Likewise, when it comes to requesting my extra pillows, coffee pods, or that backup wake-up call at 4 am in case I sleep through my cell phone alarm, I also vastly prefer to just pick up the in-room phone instead of scrolling through 3 pages of my “homepage” to find the right app.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-app and certainly not anti-tech in the hotel space. I absolutely think hotels and hotel brands definitely should embrace the latest tech and have it available. It is just that I advocate for using “tech” in a way that allows us to embrace “touch” when needed.

And I know there may be plenty of tech companies out there armed with surveys they have done that say guests prefer apps over humans, although I would immediately enjoy debating their survey methodology and sample size.

But even for those app-loving, tech-embracing individuals who prefer a touch screen to a smile and kind voice, hotels still need to recognize the importance of human interaction. When the smartphone battery dies, when the app freezes up, or when a guest has a special need, request, and especially when they have a complaint, the empathetic words of a human should be immediately accessible.

So, give your guests the best app out there, but keep plenty of staff around for when they are needed. Most importantly, train your staff to:

  • Always greet guests first whenever they pass them in hallways, elevators, corridors, and lobbies.
  • Take a moment to chat-up guests who are waiting for their car or Uber.
  • Show interest in their traveling companions, especially children, pets, and the elderly.
  • Instead of saying, “How was your stay, good?” ask “So tell me, what do you think of your hotel experience so far?”
  • Ask where they are from and comment on their local sports teams.
  • Upskill your staff’s knowledge of local area attractions and off-the-beaten-path points of interest. Do not assume that those who grew up in the area will automatically be local area experts.
  • Train them to proactively offer these local insider’s tips.
  • Get your team to obsess on “the basics,” and do them EXTREMELY well! Eye contact, smiles, facial expressions, and body language.
  • Express empathy before offering an apology.
  • Leaders, you especially need to model these behaviors and use them when greeting staff behind the scenes.

P.S. I would like to credit my client and friend, Mr. Peter Cooper, Marketing Director at Resort Realty (Vacations) of the Outer Banks of North Carolina for being the one who to my knowledge coined the term “Apped Out.”

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