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Hotels will never be the same

Contactless check-in and room service robots are the future — and reality — of hotels. That’s not all.

A luxury hotel room with a view and a desk set up with a workstation and an ergonomic chair.
The Mandarin Oriental’s MOBase rooms emphasize their office utility.
Mandarin Oriental

With half of all Americans over age 12 fully vaccinated, and Covid-19 cases in the country at a low, many are itching to travel. After a year in their homes, Americans are ready for mints on their pillows and room service.

Hold up, though. If you’re planning on staying at a hotel, you’ll quickly learn they’re not the same. From contactless check-in to vending machine meals, chatbot concierges to heightened cleanliness certifications, it’s all part of the new normal for travel.

Hotels are more tech-driven than before, with individualized, digital customer service. “We know that the key to recovery and growth is for us to advance technology at a time when such advancements are shaping the industry’s recovery,” said Chip Rogers, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Rogers said that everything from single-pack grab-and-go meals to flexible check-in and check-out times are part of “the new experience.”

“This also supports the new traveler trend toward ‘bleisure,’ the combination of business and leisure travel,” he said.

Bleisure travel — basically a couple of days of fun tacked onto the end of a business trip — has seen its rise over the past few years with young professionals, especially millennials.

Changes may start the moment you enter the hotel. Gone are the days where a hotel receptionist will hand you a set of keys and point you to the elevator. Chains like Marriott, Hyatt, citizenM, and Hilton have all opted for contactless check-in. Most major hotel brands have invested heavily in digital keys, so the guest can skip the front desk and use their phone as a room key.

iPads on platforms in a hotel lobby.
Contactless check-in at Marriott’s Moxy NYC hotel.
Courtesy of Marriott

That doesn’t mean you’re not being greeted at the door. Nowadays, hotels have temperature checks at the front (some use thermal imaging cameras that read each guest’s body temperature).

For confused travelers wondering why there’s no lobby check-in, “ambassadors” walk around to help hotel guests with contactless check-in on iPads (many boast self-cleaning screens). Or the hotel’s app has information on everything from room service to changing your room temperature.

Studio 54’s Ian Schrager, founder of New York City’s luxury Public Hotel, says, “There is no longer a need to make small talk or sit and have a glass of champagne while being checked in or checked out; people don’t want that anymore. They want to get up to their room as fast as possible and not stop by the front desk.” The technology, he explains, needs to add to the experience.

A similar philosophy can be found in the Edition Hotel chain. “While technology can help streamline hotel operating functions, a luxury hotel still relies on genuine human interactions to make guests feel good,” said Dan Flannery, senior vice president and managing director at Edition Hotels.

“We might not need a check-in desk, but the lobby won’t be empty,” said Torsten van Dullemen, the general manager and area vice president of operations for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in Washington, New York, and Boston. Lobbies may become a space for retail, he says, containing juice bars, florists, shops, and hair salons.

Upstairs, post-pandemic hotel rooms will have less bling and fanfare, opting for a more minimal and sanitary experience. For some hotels, expect that to be reflected in room design, including antimicrobial surfaces, even special resins used on the floors and walls (which prevent viruses from sticking), as well as auto-cleaning metals in bathrooms, according to hotel designer Jean-Michel Gathy.

Thompson properties offer smart-designed guest rooms (and contactless entry), where guests can adjust in-room preferences with a quick phone tap. Hotels are also offering smart mirrors in hotel bathrooms (watch the morning news as you brush your teeth) and voice-activated, contactless room control systems such as Volara (like Amazon Alexa).

Contactless room control is the future, according to the hotel wifi provider DeepBlue, which says guests will expect rooms to automatically adjust to preferred room and water temperatures (and TV channels) before they even arrive.

Dining will change, too. Many reports detail how the pandemic sounded the death knell for the breakfast buffet as it brought the end of shared serving utensils. But others beg to differ. “I think people still want choice,” said van Dullemen. “Dining has become more creative.”

At Mandarin Oriental in Washington, the hotel partnered with the owner of the Michelin star restaurant Rose’s Luxury to create in-room dining, where beds are shoved out of the way to make room for dining tables that fit up to six people. Don’t call it room service; it’s more like an upscale dinner in a hotel room.

“We’ve been booked out every night,” van Dullemen said. Some of the culinary experiences include “Dinner & Movie,” where streaming is paired with snacks and an upscale meal, as well as an in-room “Afternoon Tea,” which is typically held in the hotel’s Empress Lounge, but is now available in-room with a menu offering foie gras, scones, macarons, and champagne.

Breakfast has been replaced by vending machines as part of the grab-and-go meals at two Fairfield by Marriott hotels. The Marriott Bonvoy app allows guests to preorder meals, which they can get at the kiosks, including breakfast items like yogurt, fruit, muffins, and hot sandwiches.

Grab-and-go meals at Marriott’s vending kiosks.
Courtesy of Marriott

Beyond vending machines, though, most dining at hotels today can be preordered through an app (or scanned via QR code) and delivered to your table or directly to your room. HospitalityNet writes that the QR code “became the silent hero of pandemic operations,” ushering in the contactless menu.

“I hope QR codes stay, but not as a means of saving wages or costs; it offers opportunities to really focus on critical ways to make an impact on our guests,” said van Dullemen.

With the rise of smart tech at hotels, messenger chat and door delivery aim to be seamless; instead of hearing a knock at the door, you get a ping on your phone.

Open the door at the Sonesta San Jose to see a three-foot-tall robot wearing a bow-tie sticker. Under its lid: a preordered meal or slippers, delivered within 10 minutes of ordering. Steve Cousins, founder and CEO of Savioke, which makes the “Relay” bots, says they’re not meant to replace staff but rather to help make late-night deliveries or during rush hours.

“The robots are doing three times as many deliveries as they did before the pandemic,” said Cousins. “Guests who have experienced robot delivery usually ask for it the next time they need something. It is fast, it doesn’t seem to inconvenience the staff, and they do not have to tip it.”

But are apps just secretly cost-cutting measures for hotels? Will human staff be replaced by apps, AI, and robots?

Despite the technological innovation over the past year, Rogers says the opposite is true: There’s so much demand for hotel staff, there’s a staffing shortage.

“The opportunity to enter and move up in our industry has never been better,” said Rogers. “As hotels welcome the return of summer leisure travelers, we are facing a rapidly emerging issue of staffing shortages, so hotels around the country are engaged in robust recruiting efforts.”

But that won’t offset the 500,000 hospitality jobs that were lost in the pandemic. Rogers and the AHLA are calling on members of Congress to pass the Save Hotel Jobs Act, which would provide payroll grants and tax credits to aid hotel workers.

Cousins thinks hotels will use the robots long after the pandemic, but that’s not to say they’ll replace employees. “The bots are a tool hotel staff use to provide a higher level of service,” he said. “Relay robots allow a front desk agent to quickly respond to a phone request from a guest, while remaining at their post to greet the next guest that arrives.”

Another kind of bot on the rise at hotels is chat services, like the Four Seasons Chat, allowing Four Seasons guests to instant message hotel staff before, during, and after their stay. According to the hotel’s stats, the hotel received over six million chat messages in 2020, despite reduced hotel occupancy.

The Public Hotel in New York uses a similar technology, and there, contactless doesn’t lack human contact — as long as vacationers want it that way. The hotel’s app allows guests to control how much they interact with staff, who will still be on hand to help guests in the restaurant, on the elevator ride to the rooftop nightclub, or via live chat.

Remember when hotels offered locals maps of the area? The concierge’s hand-drawn recommendations of a nearby neighborhood have been replaced by digital versions. InterContinental Hotels Group’s Hotel Indigo uses a chatbot that allows guests to ask about local hot spots and get recommendations for restaurants, bars, and street art walks around the city.

Amenities are changing, too. Many hotels are offering to deliver fitness equipment to hotel rooms, from yoga mats to weights, which are likely to replace the communal hotel gym. There are fitness classes on smart TVs in some hotel rooms, and live video training.

All of these strategies were conjured up when hotels went dark during the toughest days of lockdown. Most hotels got creative with their plans to reopen. Apps now offer guests real-time updates on things like pool hours, elevator capacity, and controlling TV, lights, temperature, and meal orders.

Hotels are now used not only for guests but for local businesses, too. Over the past few months, there has been a rise in office “aparthotels,” where business travelers can practically live in hotel rooms, or long-term residences with designated office space in each room, part of the “working from hotel” movement.

A room offered as part of Mandarin Oriental’s MOBase program.
Mandarin Oriental

Mandarin Oriental’s Washington, DC, location offers MOBase, a new membership program for business people who need office space. For $4,500 a month, guests have a dedicated guest room with an ergonomic chair, office supplies including a printer, and access to the hotel’s business center for meetings or Zoom calls. The pricey membership also offers unlimited use of the hotel’s spa, pool, fitness center, storage, and dining.

“With remote working continuing for the foreseeable future, our goal is to offer guests, as well as locals, a space to live and work in a well-designed, safe, convenient, and productive atmosphere,” said van Dullemen.

These aparthotel rooms are going strong, with the hotel planning to devote an entire floor to them. They’re mostly being used by people who live just outside of the city but come regularly for work and don’t want to schlep their stuff around every week.

“The pandemic forced us to reassess our business model. Can we do other things?” said van Dullemen. “I don’t think it has created a new market; it was always there, but nobody thought about asking for it. We’ve had to deeply engage with our guests and try new things.”

“Only we can bring back hotels and do it together,” he added. “Not only as hotels, but as travelers, businesspeople, employees, and guests all together. More than ever before, our industry will require a personal touch. We’ll bounce back quicker than people might expect.”

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