Thanks to the pandemic-era push toward contactless services, vending machines are no longer relegated to second-class status, tucked away in small, nondescript chambers next to an ice machine.
Instead, they're nabbing prime real estate in a property's lobby.
Spearheading this shift in guest experience is automated retail specialist Swyft, which has partnered with retailer CVS Pharmacy to introduce its branded vending kiosks into hospitality.
Swyft, which has been in the branded vending business for more than 15 years, already plays in other parts of the travel sphere, with its machines ubiquitous in U.S. airports under partnerships with Best Buy and Benefit Cosmetics, among others.
"This is not your traditional, coil-loaded vending machine," said Matt Boelk, Swyft's vice president of location development. "This is a true, high-tech amenity that looks really great and provides an immediate upgrade to a hotel lobby."
Regardless of whether every general manager would view the addition of a vending machine in the lobby as an upgrade, the machines do provide an outlet for 2020 necessities, such as masks, gloves and sanitizer. Swyft's CVS machines also include phone chargers, toiletries, over-the-counter medications, batteries and more. In total, each kiosk has more than 70 unique items.
According to Boelk, the machines are currently in 40 hotels across the U.S., with that number expected to grow quickly amid the pandemic.
"Hotels have so much to worry about and are really stretched thin right now," said Boelk. "Most traditional hotel retail solutions aren't very profitable, especially if they're run by a third party, or they're just too much of a headache to manage yourself for the light return. But a unit like ours is unmanned. It basically just needs six feet along a wall and a plug, and your guests have 24/7 retail access."
Properties are also spared the labor involved in restocking, he said. When a machine's inventory records a certain level of sales, Swyft receives an automatic alert, and the company sends someone out to restock the machine.
A digital screen provides detailed product information for customers, and all purchases are made via credit card. The only potential customer service issue is that, should there be a problem with the product, the guest must go to a brick-and-mortar CVS location for a refund.
Meanwhile, hotels above 275 keys are generally able to avoid any sales minimums or machine rental fees, with Boelk calling the solution essentially "cost-free and risk-free" for larger properties. Hotels deploying the CVS kiosks receive a 10% share of a machine's revenue.
As for future vending machine opportunities, Boelk said he believes a food, drink and snack concept from Swyft could also prove successful. He envisions a high-end kiosk able to dispense not just packaged food items but also prepared fare like sushi and sandwiches.
"Even before Covid, there was a push in retail toward this customer desire for unmanned kiosks; things were already heading in that direction," he explained. "Newer generations these days will sometimes prefer to deal with a machine than a person. And people love the fact that they don't need to wait in line at the front desk to purchase some Tylenol anymore."