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Hospitality, not apps and QR codes, creates guest loyalty

Technology should enhance hospitality, not replace it by Doug Kennedy

Although my 2020-2021 travels slowed just a bit to 80 hotel nights per year, this year I am back on the road on target for my usual 150-plus hotel nights. My travels have taken me to literally all segments of lodging from luxury to midscale, from branded to boutique, and from traditional to short-term rental/vacation rental and to small luxury inns.

Despite all I hear about staffing challenges, the staff I have encountered are doing a great job at delivering hospitality. Where I have found service gaps, it seems to be more with a lack of leadership and coaching, such as preparing staff to answer FAQs and provide local insider’s tips.

Ironically, the biggest challenges I have experienced as a guest across all market segments have been with the “tech” that has supposedly been put in place because guests are demanding it. While I think most of these innovations are a good thing in the long term, the whole idea that tech innovations are key to personalised hospitality experiences and guest loyalty has been grossly oversold.

Now I am sure some readers will prejudge that a, I don’t like tech and b, I’m not very good at using it. False!

While the stereotype is that millennials grew up with tech, it is actually my age group that truly did! We were the first to get video games — Atari — and first to own home computers, starting with my IBM PS 1. Since ‘Help’ chat and FAQs were not around yet, we grew up figuring things out ourselves!

Now, as the parent of smart and tech-savvy 22 and 24-year-old Gen-Zers, I find that it is often me helping them navigate life online, especially when it comes to healthcare, insurance, local and state governments, and the filing of electronic tax returns. Having hopefully headed off ageism bias, let me get back on point.

Rather than staffing issues, the frustrations I experience these days have to do with the tech put in place for my “convenience.”

Let’s start with QR codes to bring up menus. From what staff are telling me, guests of all age groups are having trouble because they have inadvertently turned off the ‘scan QR code’ feature on their phones. Secondly, the menus themselves are very hard to read, and it is definitely not my ‘over-40 eyes’ as I easily read other documents on my phone.

The problem is that many of those putting menus into digital formats keep the same layout, fancy fonts, font size and spacing of the original print menu. Reading on a phone screen requires ‘stretching’ images, making it harder to compare offerings.

Next, after scanning, accessing the right menu is often difficult at hotels that have multiple outlets, as the scan takes you to a webpage offering a list of all menus.

Finally, those pushing guests to ‘QR code only’ access seem to have forgotten that often at the end of a long day of travels, my phone battery is shot and, if still powering up, has gone into ‘battery-saving’ mode, thus reducing screen brightness. As it has long since been proven that COVID-19 is not spread by surface contact, maybe it’s time to put menus back on tables in rooms.

Now let’s talk about the pre-arrival apps, texts, and emails. Besides having received the original confirmations from my airline, rental car company and lodging provider, I find my inbox and app notifications buzzing with ‘helpful’ reminders, updates and ‘alerts.’

Argh! Do they forget that, at least for business travelers, app notifications from our ‘work tech’ are already overwhelming us? Or that leisure guests may want a break from tech during their vacations?

For my ‘convenience’, I am reminded several times that I can now check in from my smartphone. This was really cool to do the first time, like seven years ago.

But since then I feel like I have been pushed to the self-checkout line at a Walmart even if I am staying at a branded, $1,000-a-night resort.

OK, at Walmart or CVS, I do use the self-checkout, but only because they have cut back on staff that the lines for humans are way too long. I’m willing to wait there for the cheap prices, but I am not willing to wait at upscale and luxury resorts.

Although our resort clients were the first to re-engage me for on-site training, I am now once again staying at urban, suburban, airport and convention hotels. I recently began asking the front-desk staff, “Hey, I’m just curious, what percentage of guests use the app — or other automated — check-in these days?”

The most common answer is, “Well, actually not that many.” I had to laugh when one recently said, “Oh, here we have a lot actually because most of our guests are frequent travelers, so at least 20 percent or sometimes 30 percent.”

Recently, as the opening keynote speaker at a lodging conference, I found myself at a core-branded, big-box hotel. As the welcome reception was Sunday night, most of us were checking in late afternoon and the line was huge. Despite that night being a predictable heavy arrival, there were only two amazingly hospitable front-desk staff patiently working us through.

At first I figured this was due to a labor shortage, but then I noticed two managers, who were either MOD’s or rooms executives, coming and going behind the desk.

Are they not cross-trained anymore to jump in and help? Probably too busy working out kinks in an API connection.

Later I asked around those who I’d seen in the line if they were loyalty members who, like me, had each received the pre-arrival notices pushing us to check in online ‘for your convenience.’ Mind you these were all hoteliers, and therefore, I’m pretty sure all tech-savvy.

But, like me, they mostly said they didn’t want to have to deal with another app after a long day of travel. The solution? Offer app check-in, but keep your front desk properly staffed and cross-train all managers to pitch in during peak arrivals.

I’m sure that I will get several emails, LinkedIn messages or other correspondence from hotel tech providers calling me old or saying that I’m not computer-literate. I’m sure I will continue to read articles in industry publications about how the latest shiny, new tech is essential these days.

I agree it’s good to try new things. As the tech improves over time, adoption will surely increase. However, this industry’s recent obsession with tech as pathway to personalized hospitality experiences is very shortsighted.

If you want your guests to experience personalized hospitality that leads to guest loyalty and social media buzz, rather than spending hours talking with tech providers and working out API connections, let’s get back to training and coaching our staff to empathize with guests, engage in authentic conversations, and sharing the spirit of hospitality one welcome at a time.

Remember, this is the hospitality industry not the “room rental” industry. It’s your human staff that makes the most difference.

As previously published in Hotel News Now on

Doug Kennedy is President of the Kennedy Training Network, Inc. a leading provider of hotel sales, guest service, reservations, and front desk training programs and telephone mystery shopping services for the lodging and hospitality industry. His articles have been published worldwide and he is the author of “So You REALLY Like Working With People? – Five Principles for Hospitality Excellence.” 

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