Definitely Doug 5/21/21: Rethinking Guest Arrival

5.21.2021
by Doug Rice
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Rethinking Guest Arrival

For years, hotels have tinkered with every aspect of the guest arrival process, trying to improve service and engagement and offer guests more choice. Few efforts have truly been successful, however. Mobile apps typically apply only to loyalty program members and only a minority use them regularly. Kiosks have been tested for decades but few have achieved much usage except in front-desk-less hotels. Mobile key was much heralded when Starwood launched it in 2014 and has been copied by most major brands, but with few exceptions, guest usage (where offered) remains in single-digit percentages.

Many hotels are again rethinking the process. Why? Guests want to avoid long lines at the front desk. They may be tired after a long trip and not want to engage in conversation. They may want contactless options because of COVID. Many travelers, especially younger ones, simply prefer self-service options. And today it is no longer just about the guests: staffing constraints that started during COVID now appear likely to worsen as travel recovers, and hotels are actively looking for ways to reduce front desk labor without impacting guest satisfaction.

Too many hotels still offer streamlined arrival processes only to loyalty program members and/or holders of the hotel or brand app. The rationale has been that the benefit of faster check-in would get more guests to download the app, join the loyalty program, and book direct. There is little evidence that this has worked, however. After years of following this strategy, major brands have told me that 80% to 90% of guests do not have the app (or have it but do not use it), and that even most loyalty program members do not use it. When the only choice is an app or the front desk, many guests will choose the front desk. This creates unnecessary friction for the guest and extra work at the hotel.

Hotels often say, “we are in the hospitality business, we want guests to interact with our wonderful hospitality staff upon arrival, not with technology.” I certainly understand this as an objective, but since when is it about what a business wants, as opposed to what their customer wants? Guests who prefer to talk to staff should of course have the choice and ability to do so, and many will. But others want it only sometimes, or not at all. I have never understood the business logic for forcing guests to do something they prefer not to do, that requires expensive staff resources to deliver, and that delivers no significant benefits to the business. Yes, local regulations or practices may require certain things be done that seem to need a front desk (more on that later), but many times that is not the case, and even when it is, there are often more effective ways to comply.

As for interactions between the guest and hotel staff, the reality is that real-world front desk colleagues are often too busy. The time they spend checking in any one guest may mostly consist of looking at their screen and keyboard. I have often tested this by walking up, looking at the associate, and saying “good evening” and giving them my name, while simultaneously and conspicuously placing my credit card and passport on the counter. Most of the time, the next interaction is a bit later when the associate says “I need your passport and credit card please,” and I politely point to them, in plain view, inches from their eyes. At a busy front desk, eye contact and meaningful conversation, while desirable, are rare.

If the hotel really wants its associates to provide welcoming hospitality to arriving guests, why not assign someone who is not preoccupied with data entry, and let them do it well? Better use of pre-arrival registration and check-in technology can free up staff from busywork and enable their redeployment to greet guests properly. But to do this, self-registration and check-in needs to be available to all or most guests, not just to the small minority willing to download an app.

citizenM was a pioneer on this idea and opened its first hotel in 2009 with no front desks, only kiosks – but also very importantly with an “ambassador” stationed in the area to greet and talk to guests, and to help if needed with the kiosks. The approach used technology to enable better hospitality. It worked, and it has since been replicated in every hotel in the brand. Some independent and small-chain hotels using newer cloud-based Property Management Systems (PMSs) that offer an integrated package with a kiosk have implemented similar approaches.

But most branded hotels and many independents have instead focused on mobile keys as the best way to streamline the arrival process. Guests check in on the brand app and go straight to their room (at least in countries not requiring ID document capture). Mobile keys sound cool and can play a role in a solution, but there is one minor problem: they simply do not work well. This is not due to any technology limitation: the same near-field communication (NFC) technology used in most hotel door locks works just fine for tap-and-go mobile payments, transit system turnstiles, and access control for college dormitories. You just hold your phone near the reader and it opens the gate or door or processes the payment – even, in many cases, if the phone is turned off or the battery is dead.

Why do we not see this in hotels? In fact, it can work with some Android phones (though not all Android phones have NFC, and those that do have inconsistent implementation). But Apple has not enabled it on iOS devices for use in hotels. This has meant that hotels had to fall back on technologies like Bluetooth. Every expert I spoke with, including the lock manufacturers, agreed that Bluetooth provides a much poorer user experience than NFC.

To be sure, even a slow and cumbersome Bluetooth mobile key may be preferable to standing in a long front desk line. But one major brand told me that 25-30% of guests who get a mobile key also get traditional keycards, usually going to the front desk to do so. This suggests that they find mobile keys are not sufficiently convenient or reliable.

This week’s blog will address the frictionless arrival issue, providing some of the solutions and the pros and cons. As is often the case for hotels, there is no “one size fits all” solution, but there are many useful options to consider. I owe thanks to the vendors’ product and technical experts who generously spent much time with me, including from lock system providers Assa Abloy Global Solutions, Salto Systems, and 4Suites; and from providers of various other components for the arrival process including Ariane, Enzosystems, NEC, Simpello, YooniK, and Zaplox. My choice of companies was based on an attempt to get a balance of different perspectives, technologies, and approaches; there are many other companies that would have been equally good choices.

The Challenges

There are myriad challenges with creating a frictionless guest arrival experience and reducing the workload on the front desk. Ideally, every guest should be able to choose from among the options: a traditional full-service check-in, check-in via a mobile app or a web page initiated from a link in an email or text message, check-in via a kiosk, obtaining physical or mobile keys at a kiosk or the front desk or mobile keys from an app, or a combination of the above. Guests who use self-service options for some or all of the process will reduce the burden on front desk staff and free them up to provide more useful services to arriving guests – something they cannot do when they are typing or staring at a check-in screen.

Even where it is impossible to offer a fully automated arrival process, due to factors such as local regulations or available infrastructure, there can be significant benefit to both staffing and guest experience from streamlining the parts that you can.

A critical part of the equation is handling all the variations of guest preferences and behaviors, hotel processes, and regulatory requirements. Some guests have the hotel’s mobile app; most do not, and even those that have it may prefer not to use it. Some guests are comfortable with or prefer mobile keys, while some guests are not – and both types may be sharing the same room. Brands may have hotels with different lock providers, but still want a consistent guest experience. Some hotels or regions may require verification and/or retained documentation of identity, others do not, or the requirements may vary depending on whether the guest is local or foreign. Payment requirements can differ by region and even by type of guests; for example, some hotels waive credit card swipes for regular customers.

While the specifics vary from hotel to hotel, it is critical to map out the guest journey for every relevant combination and provide as much choice as possible for as many guests as you can. If your solution only addresses 10-20% of your guests, as most of today’s app-centric brand solutions do, you will fail.

Tight interfaces and data sharing are required for a seamless guest experience. The mobile app, the PMS, and the kiosk can all complete various steps in the check-in process, but each needs to know what the others have already done – and in real time. If you are standing in the lobby and check in on the mobile app, you should be able to walk over to the kiosk and be able to immediately and easily pick up your key without going through the check-in process again. Typically, unless the kiosk and mobile app are provided by the PMS vendor, you will need strong two-way connections from the PMS to the other systems. But be aware that even then there may be limitations. Depending on your payment processor and PMS, it may be impossible to pass a card-not-present payment card authorization from the mobile app to the PMS. If that is the case, authorizations may need to be handled in the PMS and confirmation passed back to the mobile app or kiosk during check-in, an integration which may not be supported or even feasible.

Mobile Apps are a required part of the current solution for most major brands, providing check-in and in many cases mobile keys. This is fine for guests who are willing to download and use an app, as it offloads much of the check-in process to the guest and prior to arrival; it also avoids the need to re-enter the same information for multiple stays. Unfortunately, the “willing” guests are in the minority. For most hotels you must be a loyalty program member to activate the app, so only a fraction of guests are covered. Reports I got from two major brands suggest that even among loyalty members, only 20% to 30% actively use the mobile app. If hotels want more guests to have the option to bypass the front desk, they need to offer other options.

Progressive web apps that can be instantiated from a link sent by email or text message, or by scanning a QR code in the lobby, can make mobile check-in available to app-less guests. Many independent hotels have done this very successfully and it is frankly silly that all major brands have not done the same. I understand the desire to get guests to download the app and join the loyalty program, but the evidence is that as a strategy, that has not worked. For those guests who will use it, great; for others, it is time to move on and try something else.

While many mobile apps are custom developed for larger brands, there are also third-party providers, many of which provide mobile keys as well as a variety of other guest services. However, most of these may support only a limited set of lock manufacturers, models, versions, and configurations, so it is important to check whether the ones you need are supported by any app you are considering. Zaplox offers a mobile app that supports mobile key across many lock options.

Mobile keys are perhaps the most challenging component. Based on the design of common mobile devices (iOS and Android) and the security required for door locks, they require either an app that the guest has downloaded, or more expensive online door locks. All the major lock manufacturers require an app because the only way to ensure security for a key on a mobile device is to store it in the phone’s secure element, which can only be accessed by approved apps. While it may be possible to unlock doors without an app (and some third-party vendors can do this), doing so is considered insecure and is likely to void the lock manufacturer’s warranty and/or service agreement.

Unlocking a door using an app typically requires that the phone be charged, turned on, unlocked, the app opened, and held up to the door lock. One hotel group’s timing studies indicate that this process takes on average about 30 seconds, compared with about six seconds for a traditional keycard. Not exactly frictionless! Most brands I have spoken with say that with few exceptions, the percentage of guests who use it at hotels that offer it is, even with COVID, only in the single digits.

All but one of the lock manufacturers I spoke with use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) communication for mobile keys, even though they and other experts agreed that this provided a poor user experience compared with the Near Field Communications (NFC) technology used by most plastic keycards. BLE requires that the phone be adequately charged, turned on, unlocked, and in an app, all of which imposes time and inconvenience to the user. None of these are requirements for NFC.

Most BLE elements in door locks also need to be “woken up” before they can communicate with the phone. This typically happens by placing a metal detector in each lock that can sense the metal in a nearby phone. However, detection can be hampered by certain phone cases, and can cost a couple more seconds even in the best case. This wakeup call can be avoided if the BLE lock is configured in advertising mode, but this requires much more frequent battery replacement (every six months or so) as well as careful tuning to avoid unlocking the door in response to someone with a valid key walking past the door without intending to enter. BLE signal strength and protocols also vary significantly across Android phone manufacturers, which can mean inconsistent results or failures with some phones.

NFC is already built into most hotel locks to support plastic keycards. It is also used for both card and mobile-phone activation in other commercial applications such as payment for public transit and unlocking college dorm rooms. Unlike BLE, NFC with a mobile phone is basically tap-and-go; it can work when the phone is off and often even when the battery is dead, it can function on ancillary devices such as watches or rings, and it works most existing post-magstripe locks without upgrades. The only complication is that because NFC can work at a greater distance than BLE, compensations are again required to ensure intent open the door. Manufacturers have found multiple ways to address this without affecting the user experience.

So why don’t hotel locks use NFC for mobile key? The answer is mobile phone support. Apple made a commercial decision not to enable NFC keys for the hotel market, although they support it in other markets. This decision could change, of course, but experts familiar with Apple’s thinking are skeptical that this will happen anytime soon. For Android, where there are many different manufacturers of mobile phones, NFC is often omitted from lower-end devices, and there is lack of version consistency where it is included. Nevertheless, if a hotel wanted to enable NFC for Android phone owners, it could work for many guests. And even though Android is in the minority for hotel guest mobile phones in much of the world, many hotels could still enable mobile key for a larger number of guests than have and use a hotel app at most hotels – and the experience would be much better than with BLE.

Whereas most current generation locks support NFC natively, there are pitfalls with upgrading existing locks for BLE. Not all locks are upgradeable, and upgrades may require new firmware that may entail additional cost. Not all upgrades will be compatible with all locks or doors; in some cases you may be unable to upgrade to BLE without replacing the doors themselves, a major expense. And the minimum cost of upgrading is in the range of $50 per lock in capex, plus labor, maintenance, rooms out-of-service, and other costs. It is little wonder that many hotel owners have questioned the cost of BLE lock upgrades when every room needs to be upgraded but only a small percentage of guests end up using it.

Major lock manufacturers offering NFC keycards and mobile BLE keys in hospitality include Assa Abloy Global Solutions, Dormakaba, Onity, and Salto Systems. Hotel brands that have hotels using multiple lock manufacturers, models, or even versions may also benefit from a company like Zaplox, which provides a single application programming interface (API) that can integrate with most of the commonly used locks, avoiding the need for multiple integrations to the hotel’s mobile app. Zaplox also offers its own mobile app that works with any supported lock, for hotels that do not have their own.

One company with an intriguing, soon-to-be-launched approach to BLE mobile key is Simpello. As designed, it could simplify the BLE door opening process significantly, allowing the phone to remain in a pocket or purse. It uses add-on lock hardware that geofences a small area near the door; when a phone with the correct key enters the zone, the door unlocks. The guest need not pre-download any app; rather they can scan a QR code or tap an NFC tag, for example at a kiosk, which downloads an App Clip or Google Play Instant. These are basically pieces of a full app that can run in the background and that disappear after use. They can cause a kiosk to dispense a keycard automatically and/or can give the user the option to get a mobile key. If the user chooses a mobile key, then the full app can be automatically downloaded. While the solution is not app-less, it sounds like a lot less friction than traditional BLE mobile keys. It is built on technologies Simpello has proved out in other industries, and the company’s management knows the hotel industry, so I am hopeful that it will become a viable option soon.

An alternative approach to BLE is online locks, where the physical or mobile key simply identifies the guest. When the lock is activated by a key, it communicates with the control system over the network to decide whether to grant access to the keyholder. The biggest advantage of online locks is that they do not require an app for mobile key, because the key only identifies the guest, versus storing the cryptographic key that can unlock the door.

Online locks require either wireless mesh networking such as ZigBee, or hard wiring to support power, network, or both. The experts I spoke to considered mesh networking adequate for configuring or updating online locks but too slow for unlocking them, where consistent sub-second response is expected. Wired power to the locks may be an option for some hotels but is impractical for most; it is also expensive and still less seamless than NFC. It requires that the phone be on, connected to Wi-Fi or GSM, and that the user open a web page or app and press a button to activate the lock.  Network reliability and redundancy are issues with cloud-based online systems; a network outage means doors cannot be opened by guests unless there is some sort of local server or GSM network failover. On the other hand, fully online locks are likely to be more future-proof, as they are software-upgradable for many potential future technologies.

The only company I found that offers an online door lock system with significant traction in hospitality is 4Suites. It uses a proprietary network connected to a VLAN on the hotel’s Internet and ultimately to a cloud-based controller; an optional GSM backup provides redundancy. While still a young company, it has deployed a significant number of hotels for the large ownership group Pandox in Europe; its first deployments in the U.S. are scheduled for later this year. The company claims guest usage rates much higher than for BLE-based mobile keys, so high that I will not quote them because I have not verified them independently, but compelling if true. Unlike most of the BLE and NFC options, the proximity detection is normally unnecessary because the intent to open a door (as opposed to passing by in the hallway) is indicated by the user pressing a button on their screen. Base costs to upgrade existing locks are on the order of twice the cost of BLE upgrades, although specifics will vary by hotel.

Kiosks have been around for decades but had limited acceptance in mainstream hotels; they have long been common in some European roadside hotels that have unattended front desks. In part because of desire for reduced contact brought by COVID, many larger groups are now rethinking the role of kiosks. Once large, slow and clunky, today there is a good choice of space-efficient, sleek, and responsive machines on the market, both independent ones that integrate with hotels’ current solutions, and “all in one” solutions as part of a PMS suite.

The kiosk experience should support mobile check-in via the app and also enable guests who do not have or use the app to complete check-in details via an emailed or texted web link prior to arrival. Typically, those who do so get a QR code that can be scanned at the kiosk to generate keys. Some kiosks can also scan identity documents and/or do facial recognition to verify the identity where required; most can also accept payment via credit card if the information has not been entered previously or if the hotel wants to verify presence of the actual card. Guests who have not already completed the check-in details can do so at the kiosk. This will likely not be contactless but is important for the many guests who did not use mobile check-in but still want to avoid lines (or contact) at the front desk.

Key encoding and dispensing at a kiosk are tricky. Guests may want a mobile key (where available) and/or one or more traditional keycards; for contactless check-in the question as to how many and which type may need to be asked during the mobile check-in process. Hotels that have used kiosks where keys are delivered via a dispenser slot have found that it can be challenging for staff to keep the keycard bin stocked. Guests also may try to return used keys to the same slot, which can cause jams if the dispenser is not able to either prevent returns entirely, to store returned keys, or to accept them but spit them back out. Many kiosks accept returned keys to start their check-out process.

Some hotels have found that an easier check-in solution is to make unencoded keys available for guests to take, and then provide a clearly labeled place on the kiosk for the guest to place the key for encoding. However, the encoders supplied by lock manufacturers are not designed for use by consumers and the failure rate can be high. The kiosk should provide visual cues on how to use the encoder and should confirm to the guest whether the key has been successfully encoded. If the keycard bin is internal, then a low keycard-stock status should generate an alert, work order, or signal light (or more than one of these) so that hotel staff can address it quickly.

Kiosk design has evolved significantly; many kiosks now have high-quality finishes and can be mounted inside attractive furniture. Experience in other industries, including airlines, rental cars, banking, and even fast food have shown that many customers prefer self-service, at least some of the time. Given current guest expectations and current technology, I believe kiosks now represent a desirable option for check-in and/or key pickup for most hotels. And for hotels unable to hire enough staff, they could be a lifesaver for helping to maintain guest satisfaction scores.

Hotels often object to kiosks because they want guests to be greeted by colleagues. This is an excellent objective but not a valid reason to reject them.

  • First, if a hotel offers a choice of an adequately staffed front desk and a kiosk, and the guest chooses the kiosk, he or she has a reason for doing so that should be respected.
  • Second, there is nothing to stop the hotel from stationing a welcoming colleague near the kiosks to greet guests, answer questions, help with the kiosk if needed, and even perform the one or two required steps that might not be supported by the kiosk. The citizenM hotel group has staffed its kiosk areas with ambassadors for 12 years, has no front desk, and it works well; it can work equally well when there is also a traditional front desk.
  • Third, many hotels cannot ensure an adequately staffed front desk for every situation, and kiosks provide an option whenever guests find the lines too long.
  • Finally, at most hotels, the interaction between the guest and the front desk colleague consists primarily of the colleague looking at the computer screen and/or typing; hotels that think otherwise should review the security video footage of busy check-in periods and measure how much true “hospitality greeting” is being provided.

While older generations of kiosks could be very expensive, modern ones are generally made from inexpensive electronic components. The more significant costs will be adapting the workflow to match the needs of your hotel(s), interfacing with other systems, and incorporating design elements and furniture that are appropriate for your brand and lobby design. Every fully functional arrival kiosk project will require integration with mobile apps and/or mobile web check-in, the PMS, the payment provider, and the door lock provider. These costs may be significant, but they are often one-time costs that can be spread across multiple properties. All-in-one solutions can avoid some of the pain and cost but may not be practical for many hotels.

Kiosk requirements will vary substantially from country to country, so it is important to check for support of the local regulations. This can include any or all of identity document scanning (which may be needed for each guest over a certain age), document validation, matching a live face to the photo, verification of the document with the issuing authority, and real-time transmission to a governmental agency. In some cases, multiple documents may need to be scanned for each guest, such as a passport and visa or travel authorization; new requirements such as verification of vaccination status may appear in coming months. While there are third-party solutions that the kiosk vendors can and do use to simplify meeting these requirements, it is important to get commitments for the necessary processes and integrations for each location where a kiosk will be used.

Finally, it is important to consider whether and how staff-assisted transactions can be supported by a kiosk solution, since very few kiosks will successfully handle 100% of check-ins. A simple approach, if staff are nearby, is to place a PMS workstation near the kiosks; a help button on the kiosk screen can be used to get the attention of the hotel associate or, in some versions, to connect the user to someone elsewhere via telephone or video chat.

Ariane, Enzosystems, and NEC all offer kiosk solutions that address these issues in different ways and they all have credible hospitality user bases; there are also numerous smaller players. New to the market in coming months will be Uniguest, a major player in public-facing hotel technology that has an agreement to begin deployment soon with one of the major U.S.-based hotel groups.

Complete Solutions

Within the past year or two, due in part to COVID but perhaps even more to generational trends and evolving vendor offerings, it has become feasible for most hotels to offer a frictionless arrival process for all or virtually all guests; for those that cannot, it is still possible to reduce friction to the minimum. Use of frictionless check-in options will vary depending on several factors, but done right, experience at some hotels suggest that 30% to 95% of guests will use it, much higher than most experience with mobile app plus mobile key. That can represent huge cost savings for front desk staffing.

I will focus here on traditional hotels with guest rooms and a common arrival lobby; others, such as geographically dispersed vacation rentals where guests arrive directly to their unit, will require different solutions.

These solutions cover all aspects common to check-in, although some may not be needed or desirable based on local or hotel requirements or desired service levels. Those include:

  1. Finding the reservation
  2. Verifying the guest’s identity if required
  3. Collecting and storing or forwarding documents required for compliance and reporting
  4. Securing or verifying a means of payment
  5. Checking the guest in and assigning a room, and
  6. Issuing keys (traditional, mobile, or both).

Some or all of the first five steps can be supported by three options: a mobile app (if the hotel has one); a web link sent by e-mail or text prior to arrival that opens a responsive web page that collects the necessary information. The final step, if the guest wants only a mobile key, can only be completed by the app or a progressive web app, optionally in conjunction with the kiosk. However, if the guests want physical keys (as most do), the kiosk is essential.

When arriving at the kiosk, a guest who has already used one of the mobile check-in options typically scans a QR code to obtain their room keys. If a guest has not completed all of the check-in steps prior to arrival, they can complete them at the kiosk.

The most common variations are at hotels where, due to governmental policy, a stronger verification of identity is required and possibly documented for reporting to authorities, or where banking practices require the physical presentation of a payment card. Depending on the specifics of the requirement, some of these can often be supported by mobile apps, progressive web apps, and kiosk providers.

In some cases, identity might be assumed, such as for a logged in user on a brand’s mobile app. If the hotel wants more certainty, some apps have the ability to import a copy of an identity document and match it to a selfie, which can include a test of “liveness” (i.e. not taking a picture of a picture) and even location and time (if the verification must occur on the hotel premises at check-in). A kiosk with a passport/ID card scanner and dual-lens camera can also do this. Both apps and kiosks can use software to validate the format of an identity document, and many can use optical character recognition to capture information for the PMS if needed. It is also possible to connect with governmental agencies to verify validity using third-party services; this can however be expensive, and since it is typically not done with manual check-in processes, it is likely optional for automated ones. In some jurisdictions, governments that require copies of identity documents are starting to accept them electronically, which is supported by some kiosk vendors and typically incurs no transaction cost.

Even where identity must still be checked by a hotel colleague, there are ways to streamline the process with kiosks. Most of the vendors support flexible workflows and many offer models that include cameras and microphones. It takes only a few seconds for a hotel colleague to look at a passport and face to ensure they match, and this can be done by having someone staff the kiosk area or remotely by video. None of the technologies are difficult, it is simply a matter of defining a workflow that the hotel can support and that minimizes wasted time for the guest and hotel staff.

It is possible, though not necessarily advisable, to reuse validated documents on future guest stays. It is generally not a good idea to keep copies of identity documents, as they represent personally identifiable information and can be subject to theft or challenging regulatory requirements. Many guests may, however, permit the hotel (or brand) to store their picture if it can expedite their arrival process on future stays. Some airline club rooms offer this option and many members take advantage of it, since it eliminates the need for them to produce identification each time they enter a club room.

If local banks or hotel policy requires that the guest physically present a payment card, it can be swiped, dipped, or tapped at most kiosks. If a signature is required, it can be captured with a signature pad on the kiosk, although a better solution for proving the intent for a guest to authorize payment might be to retain video camera evidence instead.

Conclusion

The technologies to streamline guest arrivals continue to evolve but with the exception of mobile key, have greatly improved in recent years. There are significant opportunities to improve guest satisfaction scores and reduce front desk labor requirements at the same time. It is time for hotels to rethink the roles of mobile apps, progressive web pages, kiosks, and mobile key in light of what works best for each of their customer groups, and their ability to integrate with their PMS, payment providers and door locks. To be sure, this is not a simple exercise, but hotels that can find a way forward will surely benefit.

Douglas Rice
Email: douglas.rice@hosptech.net
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ricedouglas

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