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The Front Desk Is Dead. Long Live the [New] Front Desk


by Terence Ronson, ISHC 
August 30, 2010

The King is dead. Long live the King (French: Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!) is a traditional proclamation made following the accession of a new monarch in various countries, such as the United Kingdom.

In hotel parlance - I shall interpret this to read: The Front Desk is dead. Long live the [new] Front Desk.

The Front Desk as we knew and once loved it has to go! It's a false barrier between the Hotel [You] and the Guest - it no longer works - and should not be used in Hotels. 

When first conceived, the Front Desk was to be exactly that - a Desk where certain Guest-facing staff would work from and interact with the Guest. In those early days, it was decked out with leather bound ledgers that Guests were required to sign-into. They morphed into filing trays containing Guest-related correspondence and heavy paper stock registration cards that got time-punched when a Guest checked-in. The centerpiece of any significant Hotel Front Desk pre-computerization was a Whitney Rack. This simple yet complex system became the foundation of today's PMS. 

Pre-electronic door locks, the Front Desk was the repository for metal keys attached to over-sized fobs. As the years went by, the Front Desk rapidly filled up with all manner of electronic devices to include, but not be limited to: Computer terminals, credit card machines, phones, mice, key encoders, Passport/ID scanners, counterfeit money detectors, tax receipt machines, calculators and folio printers. Look around, and you will easily observe that some Hotels so overfill their Front Desks with equipment that it could easily be mistaken as something out of NASA's Mission Control.

Now with the arrival of mobile and wearable computers, surface technology, soft copy correspondence, omnipresent Wi-Fi, and the desire by many hotels to 'room Guests', this place where staff seek refuge behind [and sometimes position themselves as more superior in status than their Guests] no longer has a justifiable position in a Hotel Lobby.


I recall back in the 70's, when working at the now defunct Hilton Hong Kong, we had 842 rooms, ran extremely high levels of occupancy all year round, and had a Front Desk which stretched the entire length of a wall - maybe 60 feet. This monster was divided into three parts: Reception, Money Changer and Cashier. Often times these three positions were manned by more that 10 persons, 7x24. The only form of automation we had were NCR 42 mechanical posting machines at the Cashier's desk, some typewriters in the Back Office, telephone meters [to record units of Guest calls], and desk phones. Everything else was manual - most prominently, the Abacus used by the Money-changer.

Often times, on the morning shift, the Front Desk staffers would be faced with a deluge of metal keys being dropped off at the counter along with their heavy-duty Chinese style fobs - designed as a deterrent to stop people running off with the keys. These needed to be sorted and placed into pigeonholes located along the back wall. Here we would also keep snail mail and any messages for the Guest. Imagine this size of hotel - running 80% year round and all Guests have to drop off their keys (and pick them up) - what a nightmare that was! Still, it had to be done. Now with electronic door locks, this chore has thankfully disappeared.

Then in the early 80's came computers. The promises of improved data processing, less paperwork and more time for face-to-face interaction with the Guest were some of the key reasons these were implemented. Well, if we look at this objectively - what have those promises become in reality?

State of Play

Firstly, the majority of these new generation staff cannot manage without the Computer let alone possess cursive writing skills. Approach any Front Desk and say you want to check-in - give them your Passport or ID, and as is often the case - the staffer won't fully recognize you until your data magically appears on the screen in front of them. Chances are they have not familiarized themselves with an Arrival List and are not  expecting you [as we did in those BC days - before computers], and may your God help you if your name is not in the Computer.

Then, if you think computers have improved face-to-face interactions with the Guest - dream on! Apart from the fact that staffs don't know much about you unless it's in the computer, those computers are often so badly positioned behind the Front Desk, that the staff are hunched over [with bad posture] while they peer into the screen. Add to this poor eyesight, and undersized screens with less than acceptable resolution, and you have a recipe for disaster. 

It's true that computers have given us improved data processing. No longer do we have to sift through Registration cards and manually generate a Geographic Origin of Business or Source of Business reports. Another benefit is the one-touch Night Audit function that in reality can be done anytime in a 24-hour period and 99.999% of the time balances without any human intervention.

But I can't quite fathom why so many computers are put behind the Front Desk (like 6 positions) when quite often only 2 or 3 people are there. Surely if Guests are pre-registered, and you room them, and you also don't prescribe to the concept of queuing, and staff are not doing data entry or Night Audit - then why are there so many workstations at the desk? Does this abundance of tech lull you into a false sense of security?

So - if Front Desks are so bad - why do we keep them? Why do we prolong the inevitable? Are hotels so stuck in their traditional ways that they can't take this leap of faith?

Some Movers and Shakers

Admittedly, a growing number of hotels are taking baby steps towards this NEXTGEN type of operation. One of those that I admire is Andaz [Los Angeles]. They have no Front Desk; just a small circular hightable in the Lobby which is used as a resting place and charging station for Notebooks. The Hosts as I believe they like to be referred to, operate in a totally mobile mode - checking you in as you sit on a comfy sofa and enjoy a Welcome Drink. They can even swipe your credit card via an attached reader [SOCKET via PCMCIA], and at the same time encode your room key card.

And, when it comes to checkout, if the Guest requires a hard copy the bill versus one sent by email, the Host will retrieve it from a printer neatly hidden away in a drawer on the back wall.

Another Hotel, which has made great in-roads into this kind of operation is The Upper House [Hong Kong]. By collaborating with Micros Financial Systems [China] they developed a homegrown solution called "mini-kiosk" that comprises a Hypercom M4100 hand-held terminal equipped with a built-in credit card reader.  Since they room all Guests, most of the check-in process is completed in-room. However, they don't have total integration of all systems, so the staffer needs to carry some additional hardware. I suspect this will change as vendors get with the program and concede to the business demands placed upon them. The check-out process takes place at a small multi-purpose desk by the Hotel entrance. A similar operation happens at the W Hong Kong.

The Trader's Hotel in Kuala Lumpur has implemented 'pods' into their Lobby which are small desks where you can check-in and check-out. This is a first-step towards the removal of a Front desk. 

The PuLi [Shanghai] and Hudson [New York] have cleverly and artistically transitioned their Front Desks into a place of social gathering by converting them into an extension of the Lobby Bar - supporting the concept once spawned by Ian Schrager - of Lobby Socializing.

In Europe, citizenM have created some funky aspects to their entire experience to include self check-in, and you can watch a video to explain this.

VENU the lifestyle brand of Jumeirah will take this one step further by utilizing Multi-touch technology to assist with the Check-in process as well as provide guest related services and access to Social media.

Going Forward

So what do we need to make this happen?

In my opinion - there are two parts - the willingness for the Hotel to adapt to this concept (the mindset), and secondly for the necessary hardware and software to be available (the tools). Some may say there is a third component - the Guest. But in all honesty, I truly believe if we get numbers one and two right, number three will surely happen as night follows day.

Addressing number two - many of the tools are readily available:

  • Mobile computing hardware - both affordable and practical
  • Wireless networks converged into the Back Office Network that is both secure and affordable
  • Wireless voice systems with discreet headsets
  • Ability for the Guest to view their folio on-screen
  • PMS feature to email folios even with expenditure analysis
  • Credit card interfaces and mobile terminals
  • Built-in key encoder
  • Small hand-held scanners to scan ID, if required
Where some work is still required is in the area of eRegistration cards with digital signature capture - although in the retail environment, this is already being successfully practiced in Apple stores. On the other hand, in Hospitality, you still need a few components to actually make this happen - but since iPads were born - there should be no excuse for this additional hardware and interfacing. High street Banks already offer a similar service at their counters, so why not Hotels?

Getting staff out from behind The Desk - practicing MBWA (Management By Wandering About) and having them directly interact with Guests on-the-floor not only bridges the gap between the operation and the Guest, but more importantly, greatly enhances services levels and helps have the staff get to know the Guest. This will surely add to the enjoyable experience a Guest will have at your property, and bestow a significant ROI on your brand.

(c) Terence Ronson ISHC


Terence Ronson

Also See: Fairmont Hotels Installing Self-service Kiosks in All North America Hotels; Includes Guestroom Mapping and Airline Check-In Features / June 2005
Hilton Tests New Check-In/Check-Out Self Service Kiosks at Two Flagship Properties / Sept 2003

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