We can't let technology replace hospitality

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Millennials want a seamless hotel "swipe and sleep" accommodation.

Hank Freid & Brandon Freid
Hank Freid & Brandon Freid

And then again, sometimes not.

Boomers want a seasoned concierge to greet and guide them through their stay.

And then again, sometimes not.

In an era when technology, demographic shifts and online platforms are roiling the hospitality industry, hotels seeking to ensure customer loyalty need to navigate a broad spectrum of guest expectations.

Technology might be automating the traditional check-in, but guests won't remember a blinking light and a green phosphor screen that says "credit card accepted." They will far better remember their first encounter with a hotel employee who offered a warm smile coupled with a genuine desire to please.

The conflict facing the industry was perhaps best articulated by Gerard Laize, general manager of VIA, a France-based interior design institute, who was quoted as having said, "As far as lobbies go, there are currently two concerns: a general exasperation with welcoming guests like bank tellers ... and a will for speed and efficiency."

While hotels are undergoing a literal revolution when it comes to guests' expectations at check-in, the industry would be making a strategic error if it dismisses the basic premise that we are, first and foremost, a service and hospitality industry.

Whether you are cleaning the room, carrying the bags, using a contact to get guests their last-minute theater tickets or checking to see if their bags followed them to their room, it is the all-powerful human factor that creates a lasting impression. Appreciating this fact can make or break a destination's reputation. It needs to remain at the core of our industry's DNA.

Cultural institutions have also arrived at this conclusion -- perhaps just in time, given reduced attendance and fiscal stress.

Typically, the New York Philharmonic positions smiling, engaged greeters at the entry doors, escalators and even at security posts, offering a warm "hello" on the way in and a "safe trip home" on the way out. It reflects a corporate credo that Disney invented: Each employee, regardless of assignment or title, is a hospitality ambassador.

That approach to individual service needs to be woven into the 21st-century reality of how many hotel guests prefer to register. The advantage that our industry has now is that Big Data can help identify which guests wish to be greeted by name by a hospitality representative and which are seeking what they view as a "frictionless" access to booking, check-in and guest services, using their own devices to connect but in some cases not wanting to connect to a hotel's mobile app.

Big Data will tell us which guests demand a daily change of towels and which guests insist that a hotel be committed to the environment and embrace the latest green technology.

An industry report issued in 2018, titled "Hotels 2020," suggested the end of the traditional lobby, with guests viewing their hotel rooms as an extension of their homes and hotels having the ability to cater to their individual preferences, among other innovations.

With 2020 now upon us, some of the futuristic elements have arrived, and some remain aspirational. At a time of continued industry turmoil and competitive challenges to our shared business models, little can be certain but uncertainty.

Yet we know this much: Guest-driven technology doesn't account for the ability of owners to be agile in anticipating changes in the market, the requirement for prompt guest gratification, staff diversity, courtesy, a shared purpose, management vision and employee teamwork.

We should embrace 21st-century guest technology but not permit it to strip the name "hospitality" from our industry.

Hank Freid is founder and CEO and Brandon Freid is co-owner and COO of Impulsive Group, a New York-based company that builds, owns and operates luxury boutique hotels.

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