Redefining Service

By Ed Rubinstein, Contributing Editor | May 01, 2005

As more airline travelers have become condition- ed to use kiosks to print out their own boarding passes, they are also taking their hotel check-in and out matters into their own hands. Leveraging that learning curve and exploiting new kiosk functions, namely integrated key encoding, bellwether hoteliers like Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott, continue to make major commitments to self-service check-in/check-out kiosks. Such kiosks save time for guests and have actually reduced labor costs through more efficient deployment of front desk staffs, according to some operators.

Hotel check-in kiosks were first tested during the mid-1990s. Guests had to take blank keys and insert them into separate encoding devices that were prone to errors. Current machines come equipped with built-in and more reliable encoders. "Then, the usage rates were low, but our customers have since received free training from the airlines. That was a key enabler for our self-service plans," states Chuck Scoggins, VP OnQ Customer Solutions for Hilton.

Those plans for the current calendar year call for Hilton and its longtime technology partner IBM (ibm.com) to install between 125 and 175 kiosks across all its brands, though primarily in Hilton full-service hotels in major metropolitan areas. And because the kiosks have built-in wireless network capabilities, Scoggins says that they can be transported wherever needed--for example, for groups attending meetings and conventions. Scoggins says that usage to date has exceeded expectations with 15 percent of all check-ins coming from the kiosks, and as high as 45 percent at some of Hilton's largest airport hotels. Hilton has even installed a kiosk at Honolulu International Airport, where travelers can check into their hotels while they wait for their luggage.

Focusing on guest service

A sizable self-service installation is underway at Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels after a six-month test of the EasyPoint Xpress Check-in kiosks from NCR (ncr.com) in New York City and Chicago. The kiosks combine hardware from NCR and software from It Just Works (itjustworks.com), whose software interfaces with Hyatt's Encore PMS. Hyatt's current goal is to have the kiosks in about 100 properties by the fall.

The kiosk can verify a reservation with a credit-card swipe and dispenses encoded room keys. Guests can also enter their Gold Passport numbers, request upgrades and room changes, and receive folio printouts upon check out. According to Gary Dollens, Hyatt's vice president of product and design, "we should realize some labor savings in terms of front office staffing, depending on the size of the hotel, but that's not the primary purpose for doing this. It's about giving our guests choices."

Similar NCR kiosks have been undergoing rigorous tests at marquee Marriott properties, including Newark Liberty Airport and Crystal Gateway.

Greeter kiosks

Elsewhere, some Las Vegas properties have experienced encouraging results from self-service kiosks that were initially used squarely for line-busting applications. The Riviera Hotel and Casino first deployed NCR check-in kiosks in 2002.

"We started off with three units then and now have six, but the way they are used has changed from the original concept. Placing them off to the side didn't encourage trial usage as much as we thought so we incorporated them right in the front of our main registration desks," recalls vice president of operations Brian Benschneider.

In order to coax any unsure guests, The Riviera borrowed a tried and true tactic from Wal-Mart by placing what Benschneider called "a greeter" at the front of the check-in lines. He says the moves resulted in kiosk usage rates soaring to about 55 percent of all check-ins compared to 10 percent after the initial installation.

And of all guests who use the kiosks, Benschneider boasts that 90 percent of them are successful at getting themselves checked in without any assistance, a metric that has eaten into the hotel's labor costs. "Now three guest-service windows equates to one guest service agent and I'd say that we've reduced our front-line labor costs by as much as 33 percent, plus service levels have improved due to faster moving lines," he adds.

Hyatt's Dollens contends that its kiosks will eventually allow Hyatt to offer various services across several hospitality segments. He compares this to the state of automated teller machines in the late 1970s. "In the early days of ATMs, you could only get your money from your own bank. Today, you can get funds from any machine in the world. It will be a similar evolution," he predicts.

Over time, hotel check-in kiosks will deliver an array of traditional and non-traditional services to guests, including ordering room service, setting wake-up calls, and printing driving directions. Long term, it is conceivable that such kiosks will dispense room keys, airline boarding passes, car rental keys, and maybe even cash.

Conventional standard

In Orlando, Florida, check-in kiosks appear ready to become a standard amenity for convention hotels. The Millennium Technology Group's two Rosen properties, Rosen Centre and Rosen Plaza, have 2,000 rooms filled primarily with conventioneers, which will grow when the Rosen Shingle Creek opens next year.

According to Jim Bina, IT director at the Millennium Technology Group, the recent self-service roll outs by Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt helped convince his company that the time was right for kiosk check-in. Millennium decided to keep the kiosk in the family selecting its PMS provider, Visual One Systems (visualonesystems.com). "With Visual One we have a a direct link with no interface to the PMS," he explains. "With an interface, a change to the system requires an update to the interface. This way we have one system with minimal maintenance."

Bina's biggest concern as he rolls out the system at the Rosen Centre is the lack of uniformity in check-in/ check-out systems. "Our industry does not necessarily standardize its approach," Bina argues. "If you go to an ATM machine—it doesn't matter where—the system ask the same questions. Hotel kiosks need to have a common approach so that guests do not need to re-learn the user interface every time."

Despite his concern, Bina sees self-service check-in as an important amenity. Millennium will install two kiosks at its 22-unit front desk. If the kiosks prove successful Bina will expand slowly, adding two additional units at the Rosen Centre and at the other properties.

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