By Doug Kennedy
For probably a decade now, I have almost daily been reading articles and blog posts about how today’s hotel guests prefer to interact with technology rather than humans. Of course, it is not by coincidence that most of these are authored by executives who are peddling the latest “essential” guest technology. Often these articles and blogs are accompanied by survey results to supposedly support the theme. Yet when I look for details on sample size and methodology, I usually find there is no mention of these, or I find that the survey was conducted “online” with a very small, self-selected sample size.
At first, those who peddled this tech pushed what I call the Millennial Myth, which is that everyone born between a certain range of years is a homogenous group that dislikes human interaction because they grew up with computers and smartphones. Now of course it could be called the “Gen Z Myth,” since the first Millennials have reached their early 40’s as Gen Zers enter their mid-twenties.
Years ago, when I first read the book “Generations” from which such theories originally evolved and learned about Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, I have to say I did find it interesting, as I consider myself still to be a student of sociology.
However, to lump an entire population into a classification, and what’s more, to assume that group’s preferences will stay static as they age, is shortsighted. Instead, I have always believed that any given guest’s preference to use, or not use tech, is based more on their situation or circumstances. As a case in point, if I am traveling alone for a one-night business trip to call on clients, I am probably going to book a room on an OTA or brand app based on location, price, and ratings. However, if I’m more emotionally invested in the trip, such as if it is for a special occasion, a vacation, or if traveling with a pet, an elderly parent, or my baby grandnieces, I am much more likely to call with questions. If I am ordering a continental breakfast for an early wake-up, I might use an app or TV system, but if I want a really nice meal to start my day I prefer to call in my breakfast preferences.
More recently at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seemed to me the peddlers of tech were salivating like hungry pets waiting for bowls when it was first thought that Covid spread through droplets landing on surfaces. Guests, we were told, would now prefer to text from their own smartphone instead of picking up the in-room guest phone, and that they would prefer to check-in on an app, even though most systems still require stopping by the front desk to get a key card.
Now that science has determined that the Coronavirus is mostly spread via airborne transmission vs. contaminated surfaces, it seems that the tech companies want us to believe that guests have now been converted to preferring contactless service, which I think should be more appropriately called “humanless service.”
Who are and where are these guests? Now, I’m certain that this article will result in my in-box receiving a flood of emails and messages from people who truly do prefer tech over touch, and I acknowledge that you are out there. I’m betting that the age demographics of those who will message me is going to include a wide range, as I am sure some Gen Xers and ‘Boomers prefer tech over touch.
Yet based on experiences in traveling extensively since May 2020, to literally this very day as I write aboard a flight to speak at a lodging conference, the people I talk to on planes, on rental car buses, at breakfast buffets, as well as my extensive network of friends, my Gen Z age kids, and their friends, and my 8 Millennial nieces and nephews, people still enjoy human interactions especially when they have a need that is time-sensitive or personalized. In fact, if anything, I sense in the winds of change that a tech backlash is blowing, especially from the younger age groups.
Also, having checked in to an average of 6 hotels each month this past year, I have yet to see a single guest who has used a pre-check-in app approach the desk. Contrarily, I still see a lot of people of all ages and travel attire patiently waiting in lines with me for a personalized welcome and key.
I am sure also that I will get emails from those at brands and tech providers telling me how many guests are actually using services such as self-check-in and app messaging. However, utilization does not necessarily indicate preference. For example, when my local CVS or Target store has failed to schedule enough staff to work the cashier lines, I do use self-checkout. However, the end result too often is that I have some type of error code with a scan or coupon, causing the station light to flash, and I still have to wait for assistance to clear it. If the lines are not long, I always prefer a human cashier over a machine.
Admittedly, my evidence is anecdotal. I also want to make it clear that I am not anti-tech. On the contrary, I do think that hotels should embrace emerging tech that can help improve guest service efficiency. But let us not as an industry become so obsessed with tech that we forget that it is always the people that create guest experience ultimately resulting in loyalty and social media buzz.
In this era where hotel brands constantly copy one another’s latest amenity, lobby design, or F&B presentation, if we force guests to use tech out of a thinly disguised objective to cut labor costs, then hotel rooms will become a commodity with the only remaining differentiator being price.