Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

How necessary are humans to hospitality?

More than 10 years ago, I heard Barry Sternlicht, founder and former CEO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts and current developer of Baccarat and 1 Hotels, tell a collection of travel industry CEOs at a World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit that if it weren't for human employees, he could run a flawless hotel operation.

Systems can be perfected, but if they have to be carried out by people, errors will be introduced, mistakes will be made and guests will experience some disappointment.

I thought about that after checking into my hotel at 3:30 a.m. in Beijing last month.

I had arranged through the hotel to be picked up at the airport and was happily surprised to see my name on a signboard as soon as I exited the jet bridge. I was escorted to customs, met again by my handler at the luggage carousel and brought to my driver.

An attendant opened the car door upon arrival at the hotel, greeted me by name and told me there was no need to stop by the front desk, that he would take me directly to my room and check me in there.

In the wee hours of the morning after a long flight, I was very appreciative of such attentive service.

But then ...

The gentleman brought me to the wrong floor (and wrong door). Realizing his mistake, he apologized profusely, got me to the right room, checked me in and left.

But as I prepared for bed, I noticed that he had forgotten his portable credit-card processing machine on my dresser. I called the front desk, got dressed again and waited for him to come back and retrieve it.

During those 20 minutes, I thought of how nice it would have been if the hotel simply had deployed the technology that sends a room number, and the means to unlock the door, to a guest's phone. I'd no doubt be asleep.

Sternlicht's observation, which provoked laughter when he said it, was prescient. The challenge of getting the just-right balance among human staff, technology, service and guest autonomy is perhaps one of the more perplexing operational tasks a general manager faces. In that one continuous arc of experience that began at the jet bridge and ended as I turned out the light, I had experienced a GM's best- and worst-case scenarios for well-intentioned service.

The following week I met with Jeremy Hopkins, general manager of London's Athenaeum. Though I had stayed there less than a year before, he told me I wouldn't recognize it today.

"We've done away with the reception desk," he said. He showed me photos of the newly reconfigured lobby, which has more seating and an open mezzanine above.

He said that guests will be seated, rather than stand in a line, and be escorted to their rooms to be checked in by iPad.

Thinking of the ups and downs of my recent experience in Beijing, I asked Hopkins how he balanced a guest's desire for efficiency and personal service.

"People like interaction in five- and six-star hotels," he said. "However, talking to people can also be an inconvenience. It's like a police officer: You don't really want to talk to one until you need one."

But even with that understanding, I wondered if one can deliver service that makes a lasting impression via technology. New, cutting-edge systems can impress, but wouldn't a key benefit of technology -- consistency -- commoditize service standards and erode loyalty?

"I honestly don't know," Hopkins said. "Fifty percent of me says that's the way the world's going, and 50% says no. It will become more technological, I'm sure it will, but yes, how do you build loyalty without human interaction?"

Regarding staff fallibility, he was sanguine. "Things go wrong," he said. "Or the guest arrives at 6 a.m. after a long flight and can be irrational and rude."

And therein lies a key complication. Hotels work hard to capture guest preference data, but the same guest can have different moods, whims, time pressures, levels of irritability and desires as well as variable needs for rest and refreshment. Having humans involved in service means service will be inconsistent, but the fact is that human guests are themselves inconsistent.

Unless guests are willing to submit to a physical, emotional and psychological scan upon entering a hotel, a well-trained human is likely the best assessment tool of a guest's state of being, both upon arrival and throughout a stay. If things do go wrong in human service, there is human recourse; when technology misreads humans, frustration levels can rise much more quickly.

At the end of the day, Hopkins sees a formula for guest satisfaction: "What everyone really wants is service, a good night's sleep and a plate of good food."

The myriad ways and settings in which those three things can come together is what makes each hotel distinctive.

I like technology that removes friction from mundane tasks -- checking in, checking out, ordering room service -- but despite occasional lapses and forgotten credit card machines, I would sorely miss interaction with imperfect, inconsistent humans in my hotels.

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