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Automated hotels: Checking-in to a Post-COVID world/ Check out the new check-in tech (Part I)

Why contactless technology will give properties an edge when the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The scenario is right out of a summer blockbuster – a highly contagious virus starts in an erstwhile anonymous city in China and spreads across the world with alarming speed and efficiency. Borders are shut down and economies grind to a halt as people batten down at home trying to avoid unnecessary contact with other people. Brutal and relentless, the COVID-19 pandemic has not left any country in the world untouched (except some remote islands in the South Pacific) and in its wake, all of mankind is changing its behaviour – whether its working/ schooling from home or something as mundane as buying groceries.

Whole industries have also had to adapt to this new normal. With the disruption of the entire travel ecosystem, the hospitality sector in particular has been profoundly impacted. The Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) projected that the industry’s room revenue losses for 2020 would come to approximately RM6.36 billion and that about 15% of Malaysian hotels may have to shut down for good. In Singapore, the city-state’s tourist board revealed that the hotel’s average occupancy has crashed by 37.5% compared to February 2019. 

Although the situation looks grim, at the same time, the hospitality sector is an adaptable creature, one that is opportunistic, responsive to trends, and eager to invest in the latest technology – especially if they are readily available. In fact pre-pandemic, hotel chains had been aggressively adopting technology such as data analytics to ensure a more bespoke customer experience to cope with competition from the likes of platforms like Airbnb. This led to those adopters enjoying a decade-long run of growth. Indeed technology now has become woven into the fabric of hotels who want to offer customers a seamless or unique experience whether it’s getting your room service from robots or Smart rooms. However as hotels rebound back post-COVID, technology may also now play a vital role in winning back custom.

Photo: Curtesy of PINN-S1E6 Hotel, Sapporo, Japan.

Automated hotels as a concept is not something new, having been around since a couple of years ago. In a nutshell, it allows guests to check themselves in to the hotel via a tablet or self-service kiosk. While baby boomers might balk at this idea, millennials aren’t fazed in the least, being accustomed with using quick and efficient self-service alternatives in various aspects of their lives ranging from supermarket check-outs to airline check-ins. Nonetheless in the larger context, automated hotels did not gain as much traction in South East Asia when the technology was first introduced but was well adopted in countries such as Japan and some parts of Europe. This may not come as a surprise in Japan where the people are comfortable interfacing with machines, ranging from sophisticated vending machines to adopting pet robot dogs. In Europe, where labour is at a premium, automated check-ins offer a practical alternative.

In light of the prevailing mood where anxiety is high about how to continue life post-COVID 19, hotels that offer guests convenient experiences that are also reassuringly safe will no doubt be favoured when it comes to choosing a hotel. There’s no more apt time to restructure and rebrand a property to embrace contactless customer service technology. Even though rebranding is often not a priority, being viewed as a cost center rather than a profit center, the advantages of an automated hotel are evident.    

For starters, in this new normal of social distancing, the idea of a crowded lobby and having to wait in line is off-putting. Whether the queue to check in may be because of its peak season or the front desk staff having a challenging day, contact-less check-ins avoid all this by allowing guests to check-in in a hassle-free and highly convenient manner. Particularly so if the process is equipped with intuitive design, clear typeface, and simple commands. On top of that, guests being able to check in at an hour which is convenient to them will immediately put them in a more calm and comfortable state. This is when they are most receptive and allows hotels the unique opportunity to up-sell other products and services. From value-added offers, amenities, in-house services to special packages for regular customers, guests can browse these add-ons on the tablets without any pressure which also means hotels can make targeted efforts to enhance their brand and revenue. Another huge benefit of contactless customer service technologies is that it enables hotels to work with smaller core teams. This is particularly significant in eliminating the requirement of staff on night-shifts which is usually an expensive resource. 

According to a recent report by Singapore Business Review, hotels in the city-state have been implementing extra measures to be in strong positions when the pandemic is overcome. In an attempt to lure visitors, they are “betting on automation and artificial intelligence” to reduce operating costs, so that self check-in kiosks, mobile check-in, chatbots, direct booking applications, contactless payments, and even digital in-room dining services could all become commonplace in the year ahead.


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