JD Power Special Report: The Strange Case for Mobile Check-in

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July 06, 2017
JD Power Special Report
Rick Garlick, Ph.D.

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J.D. Power’s study:  
The front desk agent sets the standard by which you interpret your stay. Keep the human touch and let guests decide how to get to their rooms. 

For weary business travelers, there’s often no greater service a hotel can provide than to get them checked into their room in the timeliest manner possible. While J.D. Power’s annual North American Hotel Study shows that engaging with hotel staff members is a positive contributor to guest satisfaction and loyalty, there’s a guest segment that would just as soon avoid front desk chit-chat and go straight to the room. That’s what makes the concept of mobile check-in so appealing. A room key is delivered to your mobile device and all encounters with hotel staff can be bypassed. It works well for airlines, so why not extend it to the hotel industry? It makes perfect sense.  
Or does it? While there’s much to like about the concept, J.D. Power’s annual studies of more than 60,000 hotel guests show it hasn’t really caught on. For the last several years, the firm has examined the use of mobile check-in among its large samples of hotel guests. There’s been a slight uptick – from 3 percent in 2016 to 4 percent so far through three quarterly waves of the 2017 study. But the percentage of total guests using mobile check-in procedures hasn’t really grown, given the perceived demand. Nearly nine in 10 people (89 percent) check in through either a traditional or preferred member front desk, and the percentage isn’t shifting.
A 2015 Hotels.com™ Mobile Travel Tracker study followed more than 9,000 travelers across 31 countries. Most (76 percent) said their mobile device was their preferred travel accessory. Nearly half (42 percent) said they booked a hotel using their mobile device. While the estimates might have been slightly inflated because the study was sponsored by an online travel agency, there’s no doubt mobile technology is making everything more convenient. Availability is a factor. While major chains like Marriott and Hilton are leading the way, mobile check-in still isn’t widely offered. According to a recent lodging study, 39 percent of hotels plan to install or upgrade mobile keys within the next 18 months. It’s highly possible that usage will rise along with availability.  
Lack of familiarity and trust may also play a role. Think about the first time you deposited your paycheck into an ATM. You hoped it wouldn’t disappear into a black hole. Now you’re used to the technology and you don’t think twice. As mobile check-ins become more available, travelers will likely shift their habits. They’ll figure out that – just as with air travel – they can avoid long check-in lines.
There’s one more thing to consider. J.D. Power’s study shows that the front desk agent sets the standard by which you interpret your entire stay. After a positive arrival experience, you’ll report higher overall satisfaction with your stay and there's a greater likelihood you'll return. You’ll also report fewer problems during the stay. 
Based on the tone that initial impression sets, you’ll either see problems as added hassle, or blow them off as irrelevant to your overall experience. Maybe your brain is still wired to enjoy positive encounters with staff. If the hotel takes this away, it risks losing the hospitality aspect of what hoteliers provide.
This type of technology is a wonderful thing. It can help you unwind from a long day, or quickly get you and your family settled into the room. But there could be an unintended consequence. Bypassing the front desk makes hotels more commoditized. They lose their charm and personality. The key is to keep the human touch and let guests decide how they want to get to their rooms. In the end, this will lead to a greater appreciation for the mix of art and science that is good hospitality.

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