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Will Technology Replace Hospitality?
By Melanie Nayer ~ Exclusive Column
Wednesday, 1st June 2011
 
In a culture where hospitality knows no limits and pride is placed on personal service, will technology replace the human check-in?

Starwood's Aloft Hotels, which is planning to open 13 hotels in Asia over the next two years, announced it will roll out its automatic check-in at five Aloft Hotels worldwide - Brooklyn, Dallas, Jacksonville, Harlem and London. The hotel's Smart Check-In is the hotel industry's first automatic check-in program that allows guests to bypass the traditional check-in process by using a radio frequency identification chip (RFID) from their mobile device.

The hotel has seen significant success from this pilot program, but the question remains: will worldwide travelers adapt to the new, informal, way of entering a hotel?

Here's how it works: Starwood Preferred Guest members who choose to participate in the new program are handed a RFID keycard (branded with the Aloft name/logo). On the day of their stay, a text message is sent to the guest's cell phone with their room number. At that point, the keycard has also been tagged with the room number so when you arrive the Aloft hotel, you can skip the check-in line and go directly to your room.

It's no secret Aloft designed this concept to appeal to the digital generation, but will this concept transcend other generations, especially as the hotel brand moves into Asia?

One of the highlights of Asian hospitality is, in fact, the culture of hospitality. From check-in to check-out, hotels in China and India make every effort to accommodate guests needs and desires. Nothing beats being handed a jasmine-scented hot towel and green tea upon arrival, or being looked after with lotus flowers and orchid leis during the duration of you stay.

While many hotels in Asia have certainly adopted the technology generation (this is Asia, after all, and China especially is nothing if not inventive), would we still appreciate the hotel if all the personal attention was gone?

The concept of the keycard in the U.S. seems to fit. U.S. travelers, by nature, are consistently hurried and frantic. We tend to rush through the moment, including the hotel experience, and would probably appreciate the opportunity to check-in and check-out at our leisure, without the hassle of standing in lines or waiting for a front desk attendant.

But what if we arrive our key-carded room and we're unhappy? What about the automatic upgrades or personalized amenity gifts we often get by checking-in the old-fashioned way? Aloft does employ staff throughout the hotel that are available to help if there are any questions or concerns, but once the keycard is programmed is set, how easy is it to change things if a guest is unhappy? 

While Aloft has built its brand on allowing the guest to run the show on his/her own time, including purchasing cocktails and appetizers at the hotel bars and stock up on retail items from the gift shop all by using their RFID keycard, can the theory sustain itself in a country like China that spent centuries perfecting the art of personalization?

I'll be the first hotel guest to admit I love the cool technology that has been introduced over the years. I marvel at the lights that go on and off when I enter a room, and how the electronic window shades seem to predict the exact moment the sun sets. I enjoy the little perks like being able to connect with the concierge or book spa appointments on an iPad, like InterContinental has started to introduce in some of its hotels.

And, I can also appreciate the difference between the leisure and business traveler, which is precisely where Aloft is drawing the line. Business travelers do need a sense of immediacy and convenience that the leisure traveler can operate without, unless requested.

As Aloft prepares to move into China and India over the next few years, it will be interesting to see how the customer experience changes, if at all. But the concept of new technology does beg the question: have we, as travelers, lost our need for the traditional form of hospitality?

Only time will tell - and each hotel guest is different - but in the meantime, Aloft's keycard concept is certainly making strides to keep the hotel industry current and on pace with the busy traveler.

Melanie Nayer is a hotel reviewer and expert on luxury travel around the world. She has covered all aspects of hotels including corporate restructures, re-branding initiatives, historical aspects and the best of the best in luxury hotels around the world.

Melanie writes a weekly exclusive column for 4Hoteliers.com
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