As technology continues to transform the hotel industry, one fixture remains a puzzling constant: the front desk. Step into the typical 50- to 200-room hotel, and you’ll usually find a tall counter where a guest makes a deposit and picks up a room key.

The persistence of the front desk seems odd. How could this antique setup defy so many trends?

Consumers ignore the box office when booking tickets for a concert or a movie. They have learned to skip the airline counter when flying. They no longer expect to find a sales counter when buying an iPhone at an Apple store.

Yet the front desk of 2018 is much like the front desk of 1928. It has merely ditched the bell and added a Dell.

The desk itself is outdated. Hotels no longer need a high barrier to keep robbers from stealing cash.

Hostile Reception

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Two reports sponsored by travel tech company Amadeus in 2010 and 2011 predicted that hoteliers would either promote or fire the front desk.

Today, threats to the status quo are intensifying.

Many consumers want to interact with hotels flexibly, whether by texting to request an early check-in or by unlocking their guest room with keyless entry powered by a mobile app.

Another force for change is the age-old desire to cut labor costs through automation.

But in a surprise, the front desk may be wrenched out of the floor by something new — a backlash against Big Tech.

In the past year, gateway platforms to internet services such as Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube are facing blowback from consumers, media, and regulators for having abused their trust. As Skift noted in January, a new skepticism about Big Tech has implications for travel.

Treating a traveler as nothing more than a walking, talking, grab bag of preferences, attributes, and emotional buttons to be exploited for upselling will backfire on hoteliers.

A management trainee a Pearl Continental Hotel Rawalpindi. Source: Flickr.

The front desk is one place where the permanxiety about Big Tech has a practical application.

As Skift has said, “The travel industry also needs to rethink its chase of digital tools and services as a proxy to the human experience, and build real social experiences as part of the social spaces it incorporates.”

Robotically reciting a script while looking down at a computer screen is out of sync with a broader cultural shift by people not wanting to be treated like gadgets — a shift that’s likely here to stay.

The Return to Hospitality

New guest experiences have popped up here and there, from “above” and “below.”

From above, at the high-end of the market, The Opposite House opened in Beijing in 2008 with clerks using mobile computers to check in guests.

It seems to have been the first luxury hotel to have opened with a front desk that was neither in front nor a desk.

The aim was to remove the barrier between guests and staff.

If face-to-face chats encouraged guests to lean into the property’s full suite of services, so much the better.

Two decades ago, innovation also came from “below,” in the budget category. France’s Hotel Formule 1 chain enabled many guests to check in and get access to rooms without speaking to any worker. Guests merely swiped a payment card at an electronic kiosk.

The budget brand, which is now being rebranded by AccorHotels as hotelF1, tried to minimize the front desk with a goal of keeping labor costs down. But it also appealed to impatient business travelers.

In other words, Formule 1 was replacing the front desk as long ago as the late 1990s, when Céline Deon’s theme song for Titanic was on the airwaves and lobbies still played radio.

Today most hotels have a front desk that is much the same as it was two decades ago.

Boutiques that have desk-less check-ins, such as Ian Schrager’s Public; Hyatt’s Andaz; and Marriott’s Aloft remain exceptions to the rule.

A front desk clerk at The Soho Hotel in London. Source: Flickr.

Why Can’t Our Systems Play Nicely?

Exhibit A: In February, Naumi Auckland, a 193-room property, opened at New Zealand’s largest airport.

It embraced tech in a big way. It claimed to be the first fully fiber optic hotel in New Zealand and Australia. Its use of fiber instead of copper cables dramatically shrunk the need for closets full of switches.

Guests can play their content from streaming services like Netflix off of guest room TVs. In suites, guests can use loaner Android devices to control the lights and the room temperature.

But despite their love of tech, the managers were often faced with old-school choices when it came to choosing behind-the-scenes software.

Take the property management system, the heart of any hotel front desk. The system stores guest reservation data, such as room rates, availability, and who is staying in the property tonight.

The company knew of one property management system that would particularly work well with the three other hotels in the Naumi portfolio.

But the vendor supplying the system would require Naumi Auckland to install servers on its property to run it. Server-based tech is a frustratingly old-school model. Internet-driven, or “cloud-based,” technology could better enhance the flexibility of a hotel’s operations.

Again and again, Naumi Auckland faced tradeoffs. Compatability issues, or the need to integrate tools with the hotel’s other systems, narrowed the list of available options for any given software quickly.

Managers found one payment gateway that was affordable and would sync well. But the system required guests to swipe their credit cards for processing in a way that might require too many manual steps.

The hotel was interested in one type of customer relationship management software because it had a good reputation for building guest profiles and enabling effective email marketing.

A top pick for tracking hotel revenue couldn’t take in data from the system the hotel used to track its catering and events business. Essentially, a staffer would need to tally the hotel’s meetings revenue in an Excel spreadsheet, and then another person would need to reconcile the data with the room reservation system’s numbers.

Costs and compatibility issues also complicated the decision to buy housekeeping management software. Could the managers get away with using old-school walkie-talkies and handwritten notes instead?

Eventually, the hotel settled on an acceptable mix of software in time to open last month. But general manager Christopher Dickinson said he found the process “exasperating.”

“We are shopping around and negotiating aggressively,” Dickinson said. His goal now is to swap out some systems.

Naumi is representative of most hotels of its size worldwide. It sometimes seems as if every cutting-edge hotel is shopping for a better set of tools but is frustrated by what’s available.

To suss out why we quizzed hoteliers and technologists worldwide about the challenges they face. We even lurked around a hotel reception to see things for ourselves.

We found that consumers are changing their expectations about how they should interact with a hotel, whether the industry likes it or not.

But hoteliers and vendors are locked in a struggle that is hindering progress.

We focused our reporting on the needs of a typical 50-to-200-room hotel that is privately owned that may or may not be flagged as a franchise of a major brand.

We concluded that the best advice for owners and managers was to consider the essential responsibilities of the front desk first. Then make your decisions on how to adapt, based on your budget, brand, level of service, and market.

Based on our interviews, we found 10 responsibilities of the evolving front desk.

Look Guests in the Eye

A host accepts a guest’s identification, takes a security deposit, assigns a room, and issues a key. These tasks require workers to keep their eyes on desktop screens.

That said, a manager wants their front desk hosts to achieve at least a baseline interaction with every guest, even if it’s not a boutique hotel.

A host can miss a lot of cues about a guest’s emotional state when their head is staring at a computer screen instead.

Is the purpose of their trip for a wedding or a funeral? For a honeymoon or for a business deal that’s falling apart?

A glance at facial expressions can tell the clerk whether or not pitching the hotel’s bar or the spa is appropriate and relevant.

Otherwise, you might as well take the “receptionist-in-a-box” approach and install robots at the front desk, like the Henn na Hotel in Japan has.

The front desk is run by robots at the Henn na Hotel at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki, Japan. The dinosaur-faced robot, right, speaks English. Source: Henn na Hotel.

Legacy technology is to blame, according to Mike Rodger, vice president guest experience and property management at Sabre Hospitality — who in his previous job oversaw the technology systems at Four Seasons.

Why do front desk workers stare at screens so much?

“Many systems are built to manage the real estate, so to speak,” Rodger said. “They force front desk agents to correlate the room to the guest via interfaces that aren’t intuitive to use.”

The next generation of software, though, is reducing what one might call “the heads-down effect.”

“By collecting data on guest preferences, systems will be able to pre-assign some rooms,” Rodger said. “They’ll use a sophisticated logic to match rooms with the best attributes to the right customers.”

“By default, guests will be in a ‘pre-check-in’ state,” he said. “A front desk agent can then click just one button to assign the room and just click one more to process a form of payment.”

A streamlined process like that would let clerks look up from their computers more often.

That tech holds promise.

But a couple of old hands in the industry countered that, while tech may help hosts “look guests in the eyes,” in-person coaching still matters the most. Seeking “personalization” via impersonal tools and processes can be a fool’s errand, they said.

Hosts should practice the scripts they use with customers to ensure consistent service regardless of whether they instinctively “like” the guest or not.

Training should spell out the difference between an empathetic conversation and either the host or the guest being waylaid by a conversation run amok.

Training must also account for how not all cultures value eye-to-eye contact equally in all contexts.

Caveats like those aside, a human connection remains the goal.

One tip from an industry professional: Tell the agent they need to make enough eye contact with the guest that they can be sure he or she isn’t a flesh-eating zombie.

Your staff will think you’re weird to say such a thing, but your instruction will be memorable enough that they’ll get in the habit of looking up.

Turn Room Assigners Into Direct Sellers

Over the past several months, we randomly asked some front desk clerks what they think their job is.

They typically said, “I check people in and out.”

That’s too narrow of a job description.

“The minimal obligation of the front desk is not just to check guests in,” said Aditya Sanghi, CEO of Hotelogix, a Bangalore-based tech provider. “It’s also to be accountable to your brand’s entire promise.”

“At a limited service hotel, that may mean clean sheets and air conditioning, while at a boutique that means a full set of services and a specific atmosphere,” Sanghi said.

Speed is the main thing missing today.

“The biggest frustration of working at the front desk was that the computers always ran slow,” said Jacob Tomsky, who recalled his years in hotel operations in his rollicking memoir Heads in Beds.

“After practice, I could type 10 keystrokes for different commands into the PMS [property management system] and wait for 10 seconds for the machine to catch up to me,” Tomsky said in an interview.

When machines are sluggish, hosts are tempted to skip trying to pitch a guest on buying a room upgrade.

“If I wanted to look up a better room, I had to squint at all these insane codes,” Tomsky said. “Like, DB meant ‘double bathroom,’ and PV meant ‘park view,’ and LC meant ‘little closet.’ Then I somehow had to paint a verbal picture about how nice the room was from that.”

Better software could support smarter selling.

“Given today’s technology, you should be able to pick up a tablet and show a guest some photos of the best suite,” Tomsky said. “Or even better, a digital 3D representation of the best suite.”

While ambitious, a vision like that suggests how front desk representatives could see their jobs as something more important than checking people in and out — and how they could sell upgrades more often.

For instance, workers should be able to make a quick-but-informed rate offer for a last-minute walk-up guest, based on a computerized check of vacancies and other factors.

Never Let Lines Form

Hoteliers can’t stop lines forming on their faces, but they stop lines forming in their lobbies.

“More than anything, when I get to a hotel, I don’t want to wait 10 minutes in line to check in,” Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel said at Skift Global Forum 2017.

“I want my phone to be the key everywhere, not just with the big chains that can afford to make big technology changes,” Fogel said. “I want every hotel to be like that.”

But it isn’t like that yet, even at many of the fanciest of brands.

“I queued for 10 minutes during checkout at a five-star hotel in Dubai last fall,” said Hauke Lenthe, vice president sales and general manager for Europe for Shiji Group, the Beijing-based hotel technology giant.

“That is not the future,” Lenthe said. “Hotels have to adapt their hotel operations to the technical possibilities which are already provided by so many other industries if they want to truly compete on guest experience.”

The reception desk at the Hotel Alpha-Palmiers in Lausanne, Switzerland. Source: Flickr.

Many hoteliers are listening.

One solution: Respond dynamically to surges in guest volume, like the evening “rush hour,” by bringing additional agents onto the floor.

At Hotel 48Lex in New York, so-called gallery hosts use two laptop computers to check in guests and encode keys for the 116-room property, part of the Independent Collection.

Arriving guests don’t see hosts behind the barrier of a desk. The hosts are instead fully visible. Their Lenovo ThinkPads rest on a short podium.

When lines form, hosts go to a back room to grab additional equipment that also runs Infor HMS management software. Then they start processing guests, too.

“We just switch it up,” said Rebecca Tisbe, director of rooms, said during a recent reporter’s visit.

Business hotel chains with repeat visitors can reduce lines by having guests download mobile apps that provide self-service alternatives.

A case in point is Nordic Choice Hotels, which has brands like Clarion and Comfort Inn at 189 properties across Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and the Baltics.

Its mobile app lets travelers check in from 3 p.m., receive a room assignment, access elevators, open a room door, and send requests via text-based chat.

Before the end of 2018, guests at some properties will begin to be able to use the app to choose their room from a map, said Lisa Farrar, chief digital officer.

At Nordic Choice Hotels, guests receive their room number and can open the guest room door via their mobile app. Source: Nordic Choice

Nordic Choice was able to make these moves because of its clientele. The bulk of its guests are repeat business travelers — a crowd that tends to be willing to download a mobile app specifically for one hotel company and tends to be eager to automate as many routine tasks as possible. Users have downloaded the app 140,000 times.

In December, 2017, MGM Resorts completed the rollout at all of its U.S. properties of the ability for guests to check in via its mobile websites and app, with the help of vendor StayNTouch.

The hotel company recently began testing self-service kiosks at the Park MGM in Las Vegas, too, said Cliff Atkinson, senior vice president of hotel strategy.

“Five years ago, 100 percent of our guests had to check in at our physical desks,” Atkinson said. “But in the foreseeable future, it could be half that.”

Some hotel groups, such as CitizenM, more or less build their self-service kiosks in-house.

But hotels with smaller capital expenditure budgets must instead turn to vendors. A hotel catering to transient leisure travelers might choose to rely on their mobile websites or generic tools from a third-party provider instead of building their an app.

Expedia Group and Booking Holdings are testing co-branded and white-label keyless entry tools. If successful, the companies may incorporate the tools into the mobile apps that consumers have already downloaded. Hotels could piggyback on that effort.

In all of these cases, digitizing routine tasks will help a hotel reduce lines and free up hosts to tackle more complex tasks.

Empower Anyone on the Team to Help Guests

Clearly, front desks can become chokepoints. A partial fix is to resolve guest questions and requests on the spot elsewhere on the property, rather than route guests to the front desk.

Task management software can help.

Employees at 48Lex are trained to handle guest requests even if they’re not tasked to the front desk. If an accountant, for instance, walks down a hallway and hears a guest would like more towels, they take action.

Each worker has downloaded a mobile app for issue management from vendor HotelExpert. Any of them can use it to capture tasks which are delegated to the best person on the team to handle them.

“It avoids the squawking noise of walkie-talkies,” said Megan Wright, assistant director of front office.

“By keeping a record of every action, we ensure accountability and can discover any recurring problems,” Tisbe said. “It also frees up the front desk from feeling like Grand Central station.”

Make Check-In and CheckOut Flexible

An increasingly popular request from guests is for a flexible check in or checkout time. Hotels see it as an opportunity to earn a customer’s loyalty or collect an additional fee for a new service.

Until recently, antiquated systems prevented most hotels from offering flexible checkout.

“I would tell guests that rooms aren’t ready when in fact the rooms were probably ready, but I had no idea about their status,” said Tomsky, who worked front desks at upscale New York properties over seven years.

Tracking which rooms are free has long been a logistical challenge.

“If a hotel has 200 rooms, one might be clean at 10 a.m. while the 200th might not be clean until 2 p.m., depending on the pace of housekeepers sweeping through,” Sanghi of Hotelogix said.

Housekeepers are supposed to alert the front office when a room is clean and ready, perhaps by punching in a code via the guest room phone that connects to the property management system — or, more simply, by handing off a piece of paper with their penciled markings.

Time often lags, though, until a manager can review all the rooms and decide which are available to release to new guests.

New hotel operations software is changing these workflows. Flexible check-ins and check-outs are becoming possible.

“Uber has done many positive innovations in car ordering that hotels are now applying to housekeeping,” said Scott Schaedle, founder and president of Quore, a hospitality tech vendor.

Housekeepers can use mobile apps from many providers, such as Quore, Expedia-backed Alice, and Amadeus Hospitality’s HotSOS, to instantly update front desk software when a room is clean and available for use.

Housekeepers can also often use the apps to take pictures of damage to report to maintenance teams, when necessary.

Eventually, housekeeping departments may be hired on-demand instead of as employees — similar to the model popularized by ride-hailing service Uber, Schaedle said.

The average guest may soon be routinely invited to rate the cleanliness of a room when they first enter it, via their smartphones. The ratings may impact the individual performance reviews of housekeepers who do good work, Schaedle said. The best could receive bonuses.

The front desk of the JW Marriott in New Orleans, Louisiana. Source: Flickr.

All of which are trends that give the front desk more discretion to provide flexibility and consistent quality service to guests.

It’s still early days. Look at startups like Dayuse, Recharge, and HotelFlex — which let guests book rooms by the hour.

While the startups claim success and simplicity, there has not exactly been a universal adoption of by-the-hour offerings at hotels worldwide. Many hotels feel unable to handle the complex operationally moves need to offer rooms by-the-hour. That also hurts their ability to hop on the trend in offering co-working spaces.

Hotels must overhaul their underlying property management system and related software as a first step before other innovations become possible.

Automate Tasks to Give Superpowers to Your Team

Another way to avoid front desks becoming chokepoints is to enable the staff throughout a property to address guest questions and requests.

Software makers have been rethinking how they design their enterprise tools.

“We’re moving from a task-based approach to a role-based approach,” said Chris Adams, vice president of hotel strategy and solutions at Oracle Hospitality.

“In the past, we offered a million ways to perform some function,” Adams said. “But now we’re looking at what a person, like a front desk agent, typically needs and just show them the simplest interface, drawing on what Oracle has learned about designing business tools in other industries.”

Be Smarter About Loyalty

“If you’ve stayed with a brand for years and you walk up to the front desk, and the agent coldly asks, ‘Have you stayed with us before?’ the hotel has reset my relationship back to zero,” said Tim Sullivan, chief sales and marketing officer at Cendyn, a marketing software provider.

Sometimes hotels have no choice but to ask, though.

Unless a traveler has booked all of their stays directly through the booking engine on the hotel’s website, the brand may not be able to accurately match the data provided by a third-party channel, such as an online travel agency, with its records.

A hotel can finesse this difficulty if it talks face-to-face with the guest.

Consider an interaction that took place last year at the Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht.

A host was using a tablet to check in a small group of German visitors. The guests were curious to see what was on the screen.

They asked the host what the software knew about them.

Moments like that offer a hotel a chance to pull back some of the veils on what “secrets” it is keeping about guests in exchange for more trust.

In this case, the host showed them what was on the screen and used that as a moment to ask about the customers’ preferences. She said she could improve their stay if they volunteered some information about their likes, such as a favorite room type.

Conversations like that can instill more loyalty and create positive word-of-mouth than all of the email campaigns and personalization algorithms currently in existence.

Guests check in via a tablet at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort in Hawaii. Source: Andaz.

That said, for most property management systems and reservation systems, the most critical missing piece today is integration with customer relationship management tools — even for hotels without rewards programs.

By 2020, what’s the biggest software change to expect at front desks? Guest profile data will most likely move out of property management systems to nimbler, specialized customer relationship management systems, experts said.

If your system needs a pick-me-up in just one move, that would be your triple espresso.

Create Workflows to Collect Good Reviews

The relevance of review collection to the responsibilities of the front desk may not be apparent to people outside the industry. But during lulls in the pace of work, the front desk staff is often tasked with responding to reviews posted online or to managing the process of soliciting reviews.

The job of responding to reviews, social media comments, and text-based queries from guests often falls to the front desk, too.

Few hotel managers wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat about their property management systems.

But many have nightmares about their properties’ TripAdvisor scores.

Explaining how smarter software can help boost a hotel’s publicly posted reviews on third-party websites can be a successful part of a tech vendor’s sales pitch.

For example, some software will integrate with TripAdvisor’s Review Express tool, which prompts guests by email to post a review. The integration pushes guest email addresses from the property’s systems to TripAdvisor. Property owners may also send a short survey, with answers kept private.

By ensuring that a broad swath of guests is invited to provide reviews, the process boosts the chance that a hotel will receive a balanced distribution of ratings rather than merely cluster of complaints. After all, complainers are often more motivated to write reviews than happy people.

Some tech vendors offer similar integrations with similar third-parties, such as Google and Expedia, and front desk workers may monitor the reviews posted there.

Compete With Airbnb on Experiences

Some hotels have been attempting to respond to what you might call “the Airbnb-comparison problem.”

Airbnb, like other short-term and vacation rental booking companies, has attempted to appeal to travelers seeking experiences and authentic connections.

Hotels have retorted that they, too, can make possible memorable, non-commodity experiences.

“In the past seven years or so, I’ve noticed a change in guest requests for suggestions and activities,” said Tisbe of 48Lex.

“They used to ask about the classic tourist attractions and activities, like The Met or a Broadway show. But now they’re asking about where’s the best local shop to get an authentic bagel or which walking tour is actually legit.”

Tisbe’s property doesn’t have a concierge stand.

When a guest wants a restaurant or activity recommendation, the gallery hosts add the request into a shared messaging system. The collective knowledge of the staff comes up with an answer, and a staffer is tasked with emailing the suggestion to the guest.

Among chains, Aloft Hotels, a brand owned by Marriott International, was prescient when it debuted its hotel-as-community aesthetic with the opening of the first property in summer 2008 in Montréal.

At Aloft Hotels, customers who sign up in advance have the hotel text them with their room number when they arrive. Then the guests can use an app on their smartphone or Apple Watch to unlock the guest room door.

Recent digitalization has cut lines, which has enabled the chain to shrink the front desk to something that looks like a DJ booth.

The smaller footprint of the DJ booth aesthetic fits in better with the open layout and vibe the brand is going for in its lobbies, which usually include a bar, a pool table, and a 24-hour convenience food section, lit by as much natural light as possible.

Aloft is one of many hotel brands that have responded by reconfiguring the lobby to be a place where guests can connect with humans and internet when they’re up for socializing with strangers.

Replacing a stodgy front desk with something minimalistic can fit with the overall aesthetic mission.

Retail, food-and-beverage, and nightlife offerings can add to the magnetic pull of a lobby. Aloft goes so far as to offer acoustic performances at its properties periodically.

In short, the front desk host is no longer just being judged by guests relative to hosts at other hotels but also to the hosts of vacation rental properties via sites like Airbnb. The more informal but informed they can be, the better hotels can compete.

Keep in Mind Food and Beverage, and Meetings

As front desk agents become more like air-traffic controllers than key issuers, they can be trained to encourage guests to lean into the full suite of high-margin services at a property.

Today’s front desk systems tend to be siloed off from the ones for food-and-beverage.

If a guest reports a food allergy to a server in an on-property restaurant, the information isn’t permanently noted along with guest profile data so that if the guest reappears at the restaurant during a repeat visit, the allergy can be recalled.

More broadly, cutting-edge hotels are moving from just analyzing transaction-based or demographic-based data to “event-based data.” An “event” is whenever a guest takes does something on your site, app, or kiosk.

It’s rare for hotels to collect data in this way. By collecting data differently, software can analyze more effectively how to improve the sales. This analysis is even more valuable in the non-room part of the hotel’s business, given the more complex array of products and services a hotel can offer in their catering and events arms.

A front desk agent at First Hotels in Copenhagen uses a mobile tablet to check guests in and to issue keys. Source: StayNTouch.

Hotels may decide that, rather than use technology to eliminate the front desk, they may instead want to make the front desk the heart of any hotel operation.

“If a hotel connects its front desk systems with food-and-beverage, housekeeping, and other parts, processes can be made more efficient,” Sanghi said. “A clerk can communicate to the travel desk that an airport pickup will need to be made at a particular time.”

Choosing how to invest in tech remains tricky. Should one buy systems a la carte and piece them together or buy a full suite of services from a single vendor?

Farrar at Nordic Choice said, “We assess vendors by their products’ capability, interoperability, and scalability. We have a broad portfolio of brands, from five-star luxury to limited service, and we need to work with companies whose functionalities will adapt and scale.”

Meanwhile, in countries like India, Nigeria, and Brazil, many hotels in the 20-to-40-room range have only just become users of front desk software — having often only used computers for bookkeeping until now.

In some ways, these emerging markets may be able to leap ahead of hotels in established markets by skipping old tech and going straight to mobile-based software that runs on cloud-based systems and that vendors built for interoperability from the start.

“Software can bring accountability to tasks to find out if they’re being assigned and completed properly,” Sanghi said. “The computer should be able to say that, on the current guest count, the restaurant will need to prepare 30 free breakfasts the following morning.”

Wherever they are and whatever their size, hoteliers need to consider bringing any additional services, such as food-and-beverage or meetings room sales, into a synced-up, cross-referencing system, if they want to make guests feel recognized no matter where they are on the property.

Front desk at The Soho Hotel in London. This photo is from 2009 but a visit last year found it barely changed. Source: Flickr.

Opt for Open Platforms

The recent flurry in tech innovation has come at a cost, as any hotelier strolling the hall of a trade show knows well.

More than 250 front desk systems are for sale worldwide, according to an estimate by SiteMinder, a Sydney-based provider of online distribution management tools.

Choosing a solution can be a problem in itself — something that we call “vendor fatigue” and that Skift Research will address in a report this year on the hotel operator “tech stack.”

Some digital tools that sound great in theory struggle in practice.

“Several startups have created several clever ways to display a guest reservation on a tablet,” Adams, of Oracle Hospitality, said.

“But if the host has to walk to the back office to scan the guest’s passport as part of complying with local laws about documenting traveler identification, the speedy mobile-first concept falls down,” Adams said.

Oracle Hospitality — whose property management system has the most market share among hotel operators worldwide — said it has been switching to an approach of becoming a scalable platform that aspires to get the basics of security and language localization better than any other player.

It aims to let hotels overlay other nice-to-have tools on top of it.

“A few months ago, we opened and published on oracle.com several APIs [application programming interfaces, or methods of flexibly exchanging data],” said Adams.

“If a developer has a cool idea, like offering a kiosk-type self-service, they can use our APIs to build it on top of our systems already being used by hotels.”

Startups such as Apaleo and Mews pioneered the API-first approach. But as goes Oracle, so goes much of the industry.

Front desk agents at a luxury hotel in Oslo, Norway. Source: Nordic Choice Hotels.

It was as long ago as 1987 when the first hotel management software, Germany’s Fidelio (since acquired), gained popularity.

Since then, hundreds of software vendors have popped up. But tech in the hotel industry is lagging, relative to several other sectors, such as retail.

Why are the technology vendors, from startups to established players, still having trouble building systems that can sync with other tools?

One reason: Venture capitalists often want Uber-style user growth rates that enterprise software typically doesn’t offer because of lengthy sales and implementation cycles, said Chris Hemmeter, managing director of Thayer Ventures, an investment firm with a travel technology focus.

“That gives specialists taking the long-view an opportunity,” Hemmeter added.

“Some of these transformations are like open-heart surgery operations,” said Marco Benvenuti, co-founder and chief marketing and strategy officer of revenue management software provider Duetto.

The fractured state of hotel ownership also complicates matters. Owners of the real estate, brand executives, and general managers, all have different incentives that can result in uncoordinated plans or short-sighted capital expenditures.

Some hoteliers are also not technologists by background. They get more excited by lobby redesigns than property management system upgrades.

Front desk stands in the lobby of the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagay. Source: Flickr.

Trial and Error Can Be a Best Practice

As much as some tech vendors blame hoteliers for the slow pace of change, on balance, Skift’s reporting finds most of the blame seems to lie with the tech providers.

“We find that the large, established vendors don’t always have off-the-shelf products that work for us because of our complex offering,” Farrar of Nordic Choice said.

“Startups tend to be more adaptable,” she said, “But we find it’s case-by-case. Integrations between systems and scaling functions across properties can be challenges no matter who is the provider.”

Some startups take the approach of being enablers by adding services a hotel couldn’t provide before, such as how Alice digitizes hospitality operations at Nordic Choice that were often a manual process before. Others take a disruptive approach, such as Porter & Sail, which outsources out of existence in-house concierges.

Neither is bad, but working with vendors that have different approaches can compound the complexity of making a harmonious system.

Several forces industry-wide are prompting hotels to upgrade their front desk operational systems and the guest experience. Given the complexity involved, hoteliers may need to experiment relentlessly.

Because many new systems are cloud-based and sold on monthly subscriptions, swapping systems in and out is finally becoming practical for the industry.

A trainee practices front desk work at a vocational training college in Tokyo. Source: Japan Hotel School.

Beware of Orchestras Without Conductors

As noted above, a central challenge for a general manager is to make sure a hotel’s various systems will work well together.

This can be subtle. Systems may technically connect. But by asking for different information or not updating in real-time, they can cause discrepancies.

The numbers for occupied rooms, room revenue, and other metrics in a general ledger summary may not match the figures in the property management transaction report, the sales and catering software report, the revenue management system report, or a weekly performance report from a consultancy like STR Global (Smith Travel Research) or Kalibri Labs.

Go figure — literally.

Will all those systems work with the payments processing provider the hotel uses? Can the point-of-sale devices accept new types of payment like AliPay and Weixin Pay, two preferred payment methods of Chinese visitors, and can they interact with the company’s invoicing system?

Can a front desk let the hotel call and pay for Uber rides on behalf of a guest without a smartphone using a third-party system? Will the payments get properly billed to a guest account?

Will the mix of property management and customer relationship systems from different brands integrate well with RateGain, SiteMinder, or other software the hotel may use to upload rates and inventory to distribute via online travel agencies and price-comparison engines? How about with corporate booking tools from leading companies like HRS and Travelport?

Will the hotel’s digital marketing tools cooperate with review portals, such as TripAdvisor and Google? Will they sync with the booking engine for the hotel’s website provided by, say, vendors like Sabre Hospitality’s SynXis or Avvio?

You get the picture.

Midsize properties using the latest tech can often still get ensnarled in trouble.

“A few innovative hotels are realizing they can get a leg up on their competitors by understanding and engaging with their guests in more meaningful ways,” Roger said.

“As they do interesting things, and as Airbnb and companies like Expedia do interesting things in loyalty and mobile offerings, that will create a domino effect and be a catalyst for industry evolution.”

So technological change may finally push the front desk into a new era. Its arrival will be welcome and long overdue.

But at the fade of day, no software the front desk uses will beat a host’s empathy, smile, and relevant offer of help. When shopping for “personalization” tools, remember that no computer is renowned for its hospitality — but many hotel workers are.

Photo Credit: In February 2018, the Naumi Auckland Airport opened in New Zealand. Fitting with its name, pronounced "know me," the brand aims to make its front desk experience as personalized for guests as possible. Naumi Hospitality