Self Service with a Smile

By George Koroneos Contributing Editor | March 01, 2007

Although hospitality is the life essence of the hotel industry, more and more travelers are looking for a self-service experience — particularly frequent customers and business travelers.

To appease the demand for more self-service applications, hotels are investing in a bevy of tools, including check-in kiosks, in-room ordering services, and painless payment processing. "We are giving people an option," explains Robert Bansfield, vice president of information technology at Hyatt Hotels. "People who are familiar and comfortable with new technology can use self-service applications to bypass the front desk all together if they choose."

A popular feature in many hotels is folio access from the room television. The Hyatt group has installed this feature in many of its properties. Guests simply view all of their charges on the screen and remotely check out. They then head down to the lobby and pick up their physical folio from an NCR ( www.ncr.com ) kiosk. "For consumers and business travelers, this service has become a logical extension of the self-service check-in kiosk that is being used at airlines."

These kiosks are also mobile, a plus for convention hotels that have large groups frequently coming in and out of the building. The units can be moved in front of the meeting room to draw large crowds away from the front desk and speed up the check-in/out process.

Hyatt also helped alleviate the dilemma of late night munchies by installing a series of self-service food delivery systems by MSI (ww.msisolutions.com ). Guests who are traveling at odd hours or off peak times can place an order at a kiosk located in the lobby and the food is served in the gallery area.

24-hour party room
TWELVE Hotels and Residences, a new boutique hotel brand from Novare Group, installed a Micros ( www.micros.com ) kiosk that allows guests to check in and check out without waiting in line at the front desk. The system is also connected to local airlines offering remote boarding pass printing. "If we have repeat guests, why should they have to stand in line to check in, when they know the hotel?" says Daniel Bassett, TWELVE Hotels' chief information officer. "It allows a person to serve themselves if they choose to."

The hotel took self service one step further by installing a touch screen information terminal in every room. This thin-client application includes a Dell ( www.dell.com ) 17-inch monitor, keyboard and mouse, much like a small home computer. By simply touching the screen, guests can order room service, ask for towels, or request anything that they would normally pick up the phone to request. Additionally, the computer can be used to check out and request that valet bring a car to the front door.

"So many people are doing things online. By making requests through the computer they can be very specific about their requests and there is nothing lost in translation," Bassett says. "It's how people want to be served — people buy every thing online — and in a hotel, we've given them an option to control their hotel experience online." Bassett says that nearly 60 percent of guests are using the application, and age does not seem to be a factor.

The program also has Web access, so guests can access their e-mail, get directions or just surf the Internet. However, the computer does not include file transfer or manipulation. "We specifically did not want to include word processing from a maintenance and liability stand point," Bassett says. "We didn't want to have peoples' data saved on the computers." The hotel, however, offers a Microsoft Excel and Word viewer so business customers can peruse their files.

RFID now
One technology that has taken a while to penetrate the hospitality market is radio frequency technology (RFID) — tiny microchips that store tons of information, which are read by radio waves. At three Great Wolf resorts, the chips are embedded into wristbands that can be scanned at RFID readers on pay stations throughout the hotel. Guests wishing to pay for items — ranging from food to video games — can have their accounts debited right from their wrists.

Since Hospitality Technology last chatted with Great Wolf CIO Rajiv Castellino, the resort has upgraded to an entirely cashless system. Instead of allotting a certain amount of money on the wristband, the RFID chip actually charges the guest's hotel bill directly.

Originally, guests could only perform a limited number of transactions on each wristband, because the actual cash value was burned onto the RFID chip. If the guest didn't spend all the money on the band, a refund had to be issued. Now, the band is more like an ATM card, charging all purchases directly to the room.

When the guest checks into the hotel, they are given the wristband, which serves as their room key. The guest then has two ways to create accounts. Adults can tether a debit account that charges directly to their room folio, or parents can associate a set dollar limit to their children's bands, allowing the children a certain amount of financial freedom. "It eliminates the need to carry cash or worry that a child might lose their money," says Castellino, whose hotel maintains a water park — an ideal environment to allow guests the flexibility of leaving wallets safely locked away.

To add money to the wristband, guests can stop by a smart kiosk or any POS terminal located throughout the lodge or at the front desk. The resort uses Texas Instrument's ( www.ti.com ) RFID chips that are not reusable and are on the high end of the RFID cost scale. "It's pretty expensive; there's no doubt about that," Castellino says. "But it's a huge convenience factor to the guest." 

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