By Doug Kennedy

Recently I read an article from the CEO of a technology company asking the question: “Is it time to remove the front desk from hotels?” The article cited a survey showing that 54% of respondents wanted to use their mobile device to check-in and 57% to check-out. One obvious question is what about the other 46% and 43%?

The writer says that “The big granite front desk is really just a refuge for hotel staff. Hotel guests have no love for the front desk, and it generally proves to be an annoyance more than anything else.”

I have been reading articles such as this for over three decades now. When I launched my first training company in 1989 I named it “Check-Inn Training Corporation,” as the focus was largely on front desk hospitality and sales. I recall sharing my business plan with some of the top visionaries in the industry prior to my launch. Most predicted this was a bad name to pick, as very soon the front desk staff would be completely eliminated. Around the same time articles began appearing like “Front Desk Staff To Be Replaced By Kiosk Check-In Machines.” Ironically, 27 Years later I write this while on the plane to California for two days of front desk staff training for a top tier hotel company.

True, the front desk itself should continue to evolve. Starting in the 1990’s many designers replaced the tall, long granite desk with individual podium-style check-in stations allowing the front desk colleague to walk around to greet you. Others have implemented seated check-in.

Yet consistently the vast majority of today’s travelers still reject fully automated check-in. Brand after brand has rolled-out automated check-in, most commonly via the ATM style machines. To name names would be to shame them as the investment ended up being a waste and most pulled the machines entirely. I recall many times standing in long lines at the front desk of large convention hotels, yet virtually no one left to go to the machine unless they were escorted by a front office colleague. While attending the HiTech conference a while back I was standing in an exceptionally long line with many other conference waiting to check-in. To the right I saw three check-in machines sitting idle; despite that we were all hoteliers involved with technology, none of us walked over to use them.

Now this is not to say that we should not pursue automated check-in nor ignore the positive changes that emerging technology can bring. Certainly some guests might already prefer this. Much has been said of the Millennials and the way they embrace technology. Yet my own late teenage children – who by most definitions are part of the “post-Millennial generation” – embrace technology even more so. Whereas Millennials love their Twitter and Instagram, my kids are all about SnapChat and Facetime. I asked my son the other day to check the weather for my upcoming trip on and he instead asked Siri. In 4 more years their as yet un-named generation will begin graduating college. However, like the generations before them, their lives will become more and more busy with work and family. At that time will they still love doing everything themselves on their smartphones? Or will they too come to appreciate the value of human engagement such as a warm welcome while being a strange land?

For now, let’s say eventually there will be a tipping point at which time more guests will prefer to check-in via mobile than in person. Yet even then to eliminate the front desk completely would be a bad move. Instead, the role of the front desk should move back to the original concept of being the “greeters” of the hotel. When I started my career my mentors told me about an old association of front office managers in major US cities that was called “The Greeters.” Perhaps that is what the role will return to being.

True, one can “Yelp” your way to a restaurant or nightclub if you are in a strange city. (Yes, like “Uber,” “Yelp” is now a verb!) However online tools cannot suggest nor recommend. I used Yelp just last month when I was in San Francisco with my wife for the weekend. It led us to a nightclub that was out of business. We found a restaurant on Yelp that had a menu item my wife truly loved yet when we got there the menu was completely changed. It was also one of the worst restaurant service experiences we have ever had despite the good Yelp reviews.

Rather than replacing the front desk, it should be embraced as the best tool possible for building your brand’s online reputation. When you check out reviews at TripAdvisor and on the OTA’s, it is easy to see the department talked about the most is front desk. The “five star” reviewers rave, while the one-star reviewers rant, but both groups write about their front desk experiences.

Especially for business travelers, the travel can be dehumanizing, dull and lonely. If an ATM spits out your boarding pass (or you get it on your smartphone app), if you order your onboard snack from the in-seat media panel, and if Avis sends you an IM with your car’s space number, chances are that the only human interaction you might have all day is the front desk colleague who warmly welcomes you and asks about your day. Even when traveling on leisure, when I have had travel disruptions and drama, it definitely makes me feel better to have someone to empathize. The front desk colleague’s helpful tips also help avoid confusion, and their warm welcome sets the tone for your entire stay.

The writer who asked if the front desk was a dinosaur referenced two hotels that had eliminated the front desk entirely. I decided to check out their online reviews, which were mostly positive. Yet it was interesting to read this comment:

The only disappointment was that there appeared to be no reception staff… The only person available to hear our story of how we spent our honeymoon in that hotel and how special it had been for us was the bellboy, who, to be honest, was not in the least interested. Somehow, I had imagined that the staff would have been interested in a honeymoon couple not only still together after 36 years, but would wish to celebrate it with us. Instead we had a drink at the outside bar with a bartender who was likewise uninterested. Sad reflections on what had been a fabulous honeymoon.

On the other hand, recently I was traveling to New York City with my daughter who is a Senior in high school to look at colleges. When I shared this with Greg, who checked us in at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, he took a moment to acknowledge how special this visit was and shared how he one day hoped his 8 year old daughter and he would take such a trip. “It goes quickly, eh Mr. Kennedy?” he said. “Yes it does Greg, yes it does” I said. The empathy us two fathers shared for that brief moment can never be replicated by a machine nor app.

If hotels completely eliminate the front desk experience, and continue to copy each other’s amenities and business models, the hotel brands of today will continue to become a commodity and one perhaps hotel owners and guests will wonder “Why do we need a brand anymore?”