By Pierre Boettner
The front desk was once the epicenter of the hotel, where guests did so much more than check in and check out. It was the place where they received answers to their questions, called in for a pillow or a hairdryer or a ride, ordered things up and got things sent down, and even made their next reservation. For requests that didn't "belong" there, like housekeeping or a reservation at the restaurant, the guest's only choice was to use the front desk as home base.
The past several years have seen important efforts to decentralize the hotel experience, from equipping staff with tablets to allow them more mobility to giving guests mobile apps to communicate more directly with the service departments. As a result, the role of the front desk has become more singularly focused on processing guests in and out of the hotel. Despite this seemingly single focus, the resulting guest reviews don't seem to indicate that guests are particularly satisfied with the services they receive. Have guest expectations really changed during that same time? Sometimes I wonder if we are conflating means and needs – the means of communication certainly have changed, the needs much less so. The bed is still where you snuggle in the first night to feel the crisp crinkles of freshly pressed and starched linen you wouldn't expect in an Airbnb. The fabulous view of the ocean is still what made you want to get away from your daily routine. Stepping out on a balcony still allows you to inhale that first breath of morning breeze while taking in the scenery of the city that wakes from its nightly slumber.
There is a different truth here – room service, housekeeping, and many other guest services have a very clear focus. Their resources are generally speaking not fungible, and where they are, they generally reflect a simplicity similar to that of airplane seats. For every order, there is an expectation of a particular delivery during an allotted period of time that produces the service. Compare that to the front desk. What is the desk actually delivering; what is their service to the guest; and how do we measure its success rate?
Each day, front office staff are dealing with arrivals that need to be accommodated and departures that need to be processed. Where the arrivals can potentially be placed is dependent on a large number of factors:
- What was sold to the guest and what requests did they make?
- By how much were which products oversold to begin with?
- Which departing guests might extend their stay?
- Which arrivals might cancel or no-show?
- Which in-house reservations are staying?
- Which rooms will be ready when which guests arrive?
- How will their requirements differ from those on their reservation?
We are in a naturally reactive business, so our focus has always been to accommodate whatever we can right now. But we never get to ask ourselves what the right decisions really were, and which were the wrong ones? Maybe that one guest should not have been upgraded, but instead asked to wait a few minutes while a different room was being readied. Should that guest yesterday have been upsold to that Junior Suite, because now we don't have the King bedded upgrade room for a loyal customer arriving today? Maybe we would have fewer downgrades as a result of – wait, downgrades; we don't EVER! We look at the front desk in the same way we did 20, 30, or even 40 years ago, while their tasks have changed in more fundamental ways than just the introduction of systems.
I wholeheartedly agree with giving the guests as many means to communicate as seamlessly as possible, but I also believe that the front desk serves a greater purpose than that to which it is being reduced. In fact, it still is your business card, the 'friendly face' of your hotel. The front desk can be reduced to be the processor of arrivals and departures, or it can be managed to be the center of fulfillment of our core product and promise, namely the hotel room. For that, we need to start objectively measuring what the front desk does, and how it achieves what it does. Having measured millions of arrivals and departures over the last few years, I will tell you with a significant degree of certainty that you too are downgrading some of your guests – of course only if unavoidable and any front office manager worth her salt will make sure that this will not affect the 'wrong' guests. But it DOES happen, and more than likely, it does cost you something – if not in monetary terms, then in guest satisfaction and, ultimately, reputation. We need to ask ourselves what is the correlation between upgrades and upsells, and the resulting cost through even more upgrades, unfulfilled guest requests, or even downgrades? It is a much harder question to answer, but even that starts by actually measuring and understanding the scale of what is happening. We also need to be fiercely honest about our performance and face any shortcomings with determination. Only then can we start managing and improving our operations more fundamentally.
We need to re-envision the way we rate performance at the front desk, not semi-blindly re-envision how it operates, at least not just yet. We are still very much focused on the same sales-oriented measurements, such as occupancy and ADR and by extension RevPAR, arrivals and departures, and the often miniscule ADR improvement through upselling. Instead, we need to measure up and downgrades and their cost, the level of feature fulfillment, and the number of fully or partially delivered loyalty-based upgrades. We need to understand when what occurred and have a full image of the hotel at that particular time.
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