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Hotel guests split on lack of front desk

10/28/2010
By Bill Briggs


Two bloggers walk into a hotel ...

No, that’s not the opening line to a joke. We’re talking about two travelers who picked the same hotel chain — Andaz, a boutique Hyatt property. One stayed at a Los Angeles Andaz, the other at a New York City Andaz. Neither lobby contained a front desk — a budding hospitality-industry trend that’s equal parts chic and shrewd. The reviews: a wow in the West, and a wince in the East.

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.”

But when Alison Green arrived at the Andaz Wall Street in May, she described the same scene as pretentious. “It felt a bit self-consciously hip, like ‘Hey, look at how different and cutting-edge we are,’ ” said Green, who runs the blog, askamanager.org. “There's something about the solidity of an actual desk, with people behind it, that feels more secure somehow.”

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.

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. Once there, they simply tapped their preferred guest card on the door lock for room access. That pilot program is being expanded to Alofts in Harlem, Brooklyn, Jacksonville, Fla. and Brussels, Belgium.

Luring tech-savvy travelers
Hotels increasingly want to lure a rising subset of the market — a younger, tech-proficient group of business nomads and vacationers with their own industry acronym: 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.

“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 ... 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.” They rented a San Francisco warehouse to stage the future look and gather consumer opinions.

“What we heard was that the customer wanted to be more engaged with the hotel. They felt that lobbies were kind of boring,” said Janis Milham, vice president and global brand manager of Courtyard.

“Now we’re creating different, interesting spaces for them to get out of their room. We found people want to get their business done but they also want to enjoy some break from the routine that business travel offers,” she said. “You’re not stuck in a room behind a door.”

'Customer is looking for is choice'
Andaz.com says its desk-less lobbies offer “a kaleidoscope of culture embedded ... in the art on our walls, the books on our shelves, the flowers in our vases.”

And at the five Aloft hotels — where thousands of card-carrying customers will have the option of strolling right to their rooms or pausing at a circular desk at the center of the lobby — some guests still stop for short visits.

“It’s generally relative to how their travel experience is going,” said Brian McGuinness, senior vice president of specialty select brands for Starwood. “If they’ve landed early, they might pop by the front desk. If their flight’s late and they’re rushing to a meeting, they’re blowing by the desk ... What the customer is looking for is choice.”

Does McGuinness foresee the extinction of front desks?

“It’s relative to price point,” he said. “At the luxury side, certainly there will be a front desk and a butler and a doorman and a valet. In the budget segment, I could certainly see where you check yourself in and check yourself out.

“And frankly there’s a population out there at times that wants to be anonymous. So certainly that would work well for that segment. But if it’s cheap and chic and $59, you might buzz right in, put your credit card in the machine, it will (offer) a key, and you go right upstairs. Hey, nothing wrong with it.”