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TOUCHLESS Doesn't have to mean Serviceless

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October 24, 2020
5-Star Service
Mark Hoare

Touchless, while not a new hotel concept, has recently been fast-tracked to a much more prominent place within the hospitality industry’s glossary of terms and practices. 

As just one in an array of reactive approaches hotels are employing to address the current COVID-19 pandemic, the touchless effect on today’s hotel stay experience is poised to drive both positive and negative guest experiences. From a hotel segment point-of-view you might argue that the economy and limited service sectors have had a much shorter path to adopting touchless practices than the luxury and resort end of the spectrum. So why has the pace to adopt and implement touchless now increased so much across all hotel segments? 

In no small part, the speed at which the traveling public’s coincidence is restored to promote pre-COVID-19 levels of business will, in large part, be a condition of how well hotels adapt to new social and cleanliness norms. This doesn’t just require a renewed focus on cleaning diligence. Hotels must also redesign processes to minimize interactions with others; reduce the need to touch commonly used surfaces; and communicate what they’re doing to the guest. But how do we create a touchless hotel without turning our backs on underlying principles of hospitality?

First and foremost, we should acknowledge that touchless doesn’t necessarily equate with a bad guest experience. Seasoned travelers have for many years experienced touchless interactions during hotel stays. These range from simple but useful proximity activated doors at the entrance to the property to using mobile devices to bypass all the touch checkpoints involved in the checkin and checkout processes. And as noted, economy hotels are actually designed for a transactional experience. Therefore the extent to which touchless, or perhaps more precisely put, self-service, is employed is a positive indicator of a successfully delivered, no-fuss economy product.

The downside to touchless is becoming more apparent at the other end of the scale. Technology-enabled partitioning of guests from hotel staff has been a trend for decades at high-end properties. But it’s the result of efforts to maximize staffing costs and guest convenience, not a reaction to COVID-19. The ability to practice and deliver hospitality depends on human interaction. 

So how does the hotel owner, operator or manager strike the right balance? This is by no means a new question or challenge. Rather, it’s a function of fundamental hotel brand definition and management. The advent of COVID-19 doesn’t change this, despite guests’ (temporary) willingness to accept atypical procedures and practices to address social-distancing driven inconveniences. That said, the great danger is that postCOVID-19 we, as hoteliers, choose not to revert to the optimal levels of guest/staff interaction and the levels of service delivery commensurate with the intended brand experience. And that independent hotels who too have defined their own particular brand experience standards will follow suit.

By way of example, many hotels are adopting these measures to protect guests and staff during COVID-19:

•Face masks: While totally understandable, they do introduce a degree of anonymity and impact the quality of human interaction, especially as it relates to welcoming and greeting guests. I think we can all agree this practice will be retired as soon as ordinances and formal guidelines allow.

•Complimentary newspaper delivery: While hardly the most serious impact to guest expectations, it’s a likely candidate for permanent elimination once guests have been conditioned not to expect it.

•Valet parking: It’s hard to believe this service won’t be reinstated after COVID-19 concerns diminish, but some hotels will see this as a chance to capitalize on newly reduced expectations.

•Porterage services: This requires guests to transport their own luggage to and from their room. Innovative hotels have sought to minimize the service impact by having porters and bell staff use disposable luggage handle wraps. But due to social-distancing policies, they only transport the luggage to the guestroom door.

•Room service: Even four-star properties are preparing and delivering room service orders using to-go packaging. The order is delivered outside the guestroom door. The order itself contains pre-wrapped utensils, condiment packets and disposable boxes containing the foodstuffs. We hope this practice will rapidly return to the more service oriented delivery and guest/server interaction post COVID-19. 

The ability to practice and deliver hospitality depends on human interaction. Even without recent changes to service delivery standards, touchless and self-service initiatives were already becoming much more apparent across all hotel segments. Some of these can truly be categorized as positive improvements to the guest experience. Others not so much. For segments where high-touch service delivery and all the traits of being hospitable are integral to why the guest chooses a property, the hotelier must work hard to find the balance between touchless and those features the guest deems convenient.

Changes can’t just be a way to reduce staffing levels and make the guest serve themselves. Smart hoteliers will understand that the optimal approach is to let guests choose how they want to interact and receive services. An obvious example might be self-check-in/out, either by mobile device or lobby kiosks. Given that four- and five-star properties draw both the exacting business and leisure traveler, it’s reasonable to assume the business guest wants to get straight to the room and avoid all the meet-and-greet fuss, whereas the leisure traveler expects that hightouch experience.

Then come the touchless, self-service conveniences that virtually all patrons could enjoy, like in-room voice activated guest request fulfillment. Granted, it may not initially involve true human interaction. But unless the property can answer a call from the room within one ring and have the right person/skill on the line to understand and act on the request, voice activated service with an integrated capability to HotSOS, Alice, etc., will provide the better experience. Again, if the guest wants human interaction they can still dial zero from the room.

Self-service interaction has evolved to a point where the spirit and delivery of hospitality is noticeably slipping away. Given that all of us will want to enjoy human interaction again after these last several months of isolation and social distancing, it would be prudent for hoteliers to think about what it truly means to be hospitable

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