By Dean Minett

De-cluttering is a big business. Successful books like The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo demonstrate the world’s appetite for simplified living, while consultants have popped up all over Australia to help the people get rid of what they don’t need.

Similar thinking has found its way into business and technology. The Economist ran a piece in 2014 called “De-Cluttering the Company” in which the costly entrapments of bureaucracy are discussed. Eliminating clutter is also a hallmark of commercial technology. Disk drives and cable ports on laptop computers are becoming extinct as data is transferred increasingly through the air. Even massive hard drives are losing their attraction as more and more is stored in the cloud.

Given these developments, it should come as no surprise that hotels – at least some of them – are doing away with the hallowed institution of the front desk. After all, we breeze through airports with mobile check-in, and we certainly don’t wait in line at the box office to buy concert tickets. Why should we queue up in the hotel lobby in order to gain access to a room? Could the process be streamlined, or even automated, in order to better serve guests?

Plenty of industry insiders say yes; and the argument is straightforward. Travel (especially air travel) involves a lot of waiting around, so that when you finally arrive at the hotel, the last thing you want is another lengthy gateway through which everybody – including you – has to be processed.

And do guests really need advice on restaurants or dry cleaning? And should precious minutes really be devoted to pointing out elevators and describing hotel amenities? Or do people want to slip as directly as possible into the comforts of the room itself?

As usual, big names are among the first to experiment. Overseas, Courtyard by Marriott and Hyatt Place have opted for pedestals situated around the lobby, from which hotel staff process arriving guests in a more casual manner. Andaz, another Hyatt brand, has employees moving about the extended lounge area with tablets, chatting with incoming guests and offering complimentary drinks. “We are a world without walls,” says the Andaz web site, “meant to create an open exchange of stories, ideas and moments.”

The potential here for creating a warm and personal impression is obvious; yet tired or busy guests have expressed frustration with de-cluttered check-in concepts. If you just want to get to your room, but the employee is following a script in which the guest is supposed to sit down with a beverage and have a leisurely chat, the net value of the interaction can potentially be negative.

The end of the spectrum is, of course, a totally automated check-in process in which human interaction is unnecessary. The Dutch-based boutique citizenM is betting on this approach, in which new arrivals are greeted by a self-serve café and digital kiosks for dispensing room keys. Human assistance is available at the touch of a button, but the brand is courting people who probably don’t need or want it. Other brands have done this before this of course (eg Formula1) and even much smaller operators have been using self-service kiosks for after hours checkin.

Where does your hotel belong on the spectrum? Are front-desks really on their way out, or is this just another temporary disruption that fades away in time?

Some industry experts have suggested that lobbies should retain a fixed human element precisely because the world is becoming more digitized. With the rise of chat bots and digital room controls, the guest experience runs a risk of becoming too automated and, in a manner of speaking, less human. If the chain of automation affecting other industries is recklessly implemented by hoteliers, your average guest experience might look more like a robotic assembly plant than a display of hospitality.

Now, I have to make an admission at this point. I started my hotel working life as a receptionist. And I have to admit that I started before computers were widespread – in fact, the paper-based Whitney system was THE go-to system and it was really effective.

The introduction of computers was meant to save time and create more time to interact with customers…but it didn’t. Instead we ended up with staff looking at monitors instead of faces and getting frustrated because “the computer is a bit slow today”. We have computer glitches now that lose reservations or the upgrade that didn’t work. Instead of relying on local tradespeople we rely on global behemoths to ensure our systems are working.

Of course I am not suggesting that we return to the paper-based system (although it has it’s attractions!) but the growing reliance on third party providers and their systems means that we DO need to rely even more on our humans to provide the solutions.

Technology will continue to evolve, and the hotel industry will find new ways to eliminate clutter and remove friction from the guest experience. Just because we can, however, doesn’t always mean we should. As the travel experience becomes increasingly automated, whether or not an actual desk is involved, the institution of the front desk – and the people staffing the front desk –– may become a valuable differentiator in a world dominated by digital.