In the course of the coronavirus pandemic, a large number of jobs within the hospitality industry were shed as record-low bookings battered hotels and stripped them of much-needed revenue. But while many of those jobs were cut out of necessity, some additional jobs may be on the line, too -- specifically, front desk jobs.
The reason? One hotel chain is piloting a program to replace welcome staff with check-in kiosks. And if it proves successful, machines could make hotel desk clerks obsolete.
Marriott International (NYSE: MAR) is testing a new system of using kiosks equipped with touch screens to check guests into their hotel rooms and distribute room keys. These kiosks are being piloted at two New York City properties: the Moxy in Times Square and the Courtyard New York Manhattan/Midtown East.
Kiosks are also being tested at the TownePlace Suites in Monroe, Louisiana. And there's a test in the works for the Moxy in Miami.
The purpose of these kiosks is to provide guests an opportunity to check into their rooms in a contact-free manner. In the age of coronavirus, that's a feature more people may be looking for. Marriott's kiosks are also equipped with antimicrobial technology that's designed to kill bacteria and viruses, so guests don't have to worry about using those touch screens. (It's also worth noting that the CDC has changed its tune a bit on surface coronavirus transmission, acknowledging that while it's possible, most cases don't happen that way.)
The hotel giant says that its shift to contactless check-in is an attempt to make guests feel more at ease at a time when social distancing is still necessary. In fact, according to Marriott, 65% of travelers want to see new technology that promotes guest safety, while 87% would like to see companies continue to offer options that limit person-to-person contact.
But while Marriott may be attempting to fill a specific need, a shift to machine-fueled check-ins could also result in major savings. And coming off of a miserable 2020, hotels may be eager to slash as many expenses as they can.
The downside of losing that personal touch
Even before the pandemic, many businesses had begun to replace humans with machines. Self- checkout lanes have been a supermarket and big-box store mainstay for years, for example.
But while check-in kiosks at hotels may seem like a good idea, guests may not warm to them once the pandemic is over. Travelers who arrive at hotels -- especially higher-end ones -- tend to expect personal service, and machines clearly can't emulate humans in that regard.
Furthermore, while many people are currently eager to minimize contact with others due to the ongoing health crisis, once the pandemic ends, the need for social distancing could wane completely. At that point, consumers in general may want their live customer service back -- and that extends to hotel check-ins.
It's also unclear as to whether check-in kiosks will bottleneck hotel lobbies or help expedite the process of getting guests into rooms. If the former happens, it won't serve hotels very well.
It's too soon to know if machines will come to replace desk clerks at hotels, but one thing's for sure: Even the friendliest mechanical voice may not be able to take the place of a warm smile on a human's face. And for an industry that's rooted in customer service, that's a question hotels will absolutely need to answer before they roll out check-in kiosks globally.