News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Kevin G. DeMarrais, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 3, 2003 - Time is precious to business travelers, which explains why major hotel chains around the nation are testing ways to speed customers from the front door to their rooms, and out again.
Advocates promise this new technology -- touch-screen kiosks, small portable computers, and off-site baggage checks -- will reduce waiting time. But only time will tell if customers will embrace the devices as great conveniences, or reject them as gimmicks.
Hotels and other service providers are looking to make the whole process as easy as possible, said Craig Mateer, president of an Orlando, Fla.-based company that is testing a system that allows airline passengers to check their bags through from a hotel to the airport far in advance of their flight.
"It's just good business," Mateer said.
Kiosks seem to be the hot item, as several chains are running tests to see if guests are willing to bypass the personal touch at the front desk in favor of a quicker check-in and check-out.
Marriott is among those in test mode, with trials under way at two hotels, one at Newark Liberty International Airport and the other near Washington, D.C.
Thus far, acceptance is slow, as the two kiosks in each hotel often sit idle in the lobby, flanking the front desk. "But we're picking up momentum," said Walt Ensminger, the general manager of the Newark hotel.
The tests are part of the hotels' search for new ways to attract and retain customers, a search that has taken on added emphasis since business fell off post-9/11.
Saving time is "absolutely critical," ranking right after security in what's important to guests, said Jim Gard, vice president of marketing services for Prime Hospitality Corp., a Fairfield-based company that owns, manages, and franchises 247 North American hotels.
"Time is probably more important to the modern business traveler than dollars," Gard said.
The Hilton Hotel Corp. brought kiosks to the forefront of the amenities competition in September when it announced it would begin testing them in New York and Chicago. Those trials are scheduled to begin in January, but kiosk tests are already under way at Sheraton Hotels in Boston and New York and the Marriotts in Newark and Washington.
"Today's frequent travelers are increasingly sophisticated technology users who have been using self-service technology X for several years," such as airport kiosks and automated teller machines, said Tim Harvey, Hilton's chief information officer.
"When people go to the airport, they look for kiosks as a faster way to check in," said Andrew Kraemer, senior director of technology for Cendant Corp.'s Parsippany-based hotel group. "They're more comfortable with the new technology." Hotel kiosks aren't new; they were tried and rejected in the past. But that doesn't mean they won't work now, at least in certain situations, Kraemer said.
For big, busy hotels that often have "queues to check in and check out, this is something you'd want to watch," Kraemer said. But it has less appeal at hotels where customers can go straight to the front desk, without waiting on line, and deal directly with a human.
"It's something we had for a while for our Wingate brand, but it didn't quite work for us," Kraemer said. "We found the business traveler preferred to be serviced by the customer service rep at the desk." Wingate hotels are at the top of Cendant's brands, which also include Ramada, Super 8, and Days Inn.
Even as the kiosk trials take place, Prime is testing a wireless check-in system at its Radisson Hotel in Secaucus, Gard said. Customers can use their personal digital assistants to check in before they arrive at the hotel, and stop at the front desk only to pick up the key.
One of the more unusual experiments began in Florida in August when Mateer's Baggage Airline Guest Services Inc., or BAGS, set up shop at the Rosen Centre, a 1,334-room hotel that is near the Orlando International Airport and next to the Orange County Convention Center, one of the nation's busiest exhibition halls.
The new service allows passengers to pay $10 to check their bags at the hotel up to 12 hours before a flight and not see them again until they get off the plane.
The key is that the baggage remains in a locked, secure location it is until trucked to the airport for pre-flight screening. Because of heightened security concerns after 9/11, as well as the need to work out technological bugs, it took 2 1/4 years to get the pilot program started as federal officials worked out security details, Mateer said. But it's "going wonderfully well" now, he added.
"In one sense, the timing couldn't have been worse, but it also couldn't have been better," Mateer said. "Now it's a nightmare at the airport; who wants to deal with the lines? The hassle factor associated with checking your bags is eliminated with our concept.
"The challenge is to change the mindset of how people check in. For a small price, you don't have to schlep your bags around anymore." BAGS is the first remote passenger check-in system in the country approved by the federal Transportation Security Authority, the company said. American, Continental, and Delta airlines are participating, and other airlines and hotels are expected to join in soon.
"We're really focusing on negotiating with major cities across the country and with hotel chains, and should have some announcements soon," Mateer said.
While Mateer speaks of benefits to business travelers, the service should also be attractive to leisure passengers, especially those with early checkouts and late flights, Kraemer said. "It gives them a little more free time." Whether it's advance check-in, kiosks, or PDAs, value-added services are what it's all about these days, officials say.
"The environment has changed significantly in the last five to 10 years, and people are much more savvy, much more price-conscious," Kraemer said. And hotels are trying to find ways to provide value to distinguish themselves from the competition.
That means access to high-speed Internet service in every room -- a must for today's business traveler, even in midprice hotels -- along with a host of other amenities, from free continental breakfasts and free fax service to on-site health clubs.
But food, faxes, and fitness facilities may not be enough to gain customer loyalty if getting in and out of the hotel are a hassle.
Many hotels now slip bills under the door during the night so guests with no late charges can leave without going through a formal check-out process. Others process check-out via the remote and the TV set in the room.
If the traveler needs a paid receipt, not just a final bill, hotels such as the Wingates offer the option to enter an email address during the TV check-out process so the paid receipt is delivered to the customer's office, Kraemer said.
"With that, I cruise by the desk," he said.
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