Business

Is the hotel front desk check-in a relic of the past?

Hotels strive to keep up with new travelers with mobile room keys

General manager Bryan Stolz of the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center laughs as he talks with front desk associate Matt Kelsey at the hotel in Coralville, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
General manager Bryan Stolz of the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center laughs as he talks with front desk associate Matt Kelsey at the hotel in Coralville, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Starting next month, workers at the Coralville Marriott Hotel will begin upgrading the locks on all the hotel’s 286 guest rooms.

“You can have a mobile key issued, and in essence you can check in without having to stop at the front desk,” said Bryan Stolz, general manager of the hotel and conference center.

The “mobile key” links to a smartphone app the hotel has used for about a year to connect with guests before arrival.

“If you book a reservation and you have that app, it’s going to text you and ask you what needs you have, what time you intend to check in,” Stolz said.

Tech-enabled conveniences are helping Corridor hotels meet the expectations of travelers who have new options for their stay — think Airbnb — and for booking rooms — on platforms such as Expedia.

Beyond convenience, many travelers are seeking more of a connection to the host community. Their desires are guiding everything from community links to room design.

“Technology — from being able to book online, check in on your smartphone, have a keyless entry system that’s delivered to your smartphone — basically provides the guest the option of never having to speak to a human and get into their guest room,” said Jackie Bohr, general manager of The Hotel at Kirkwood Center. “That’s important for different people, but then there are other people who travel for the experience.

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“That’s extremely important that they do have that contact and welcome experience.”

Bohr also is an adjunct faculty member in Kirkwood Community College’s Hospitality Arts program. Students work alongside the hotel’s 120 paid staff, from front desk to housekeeping to its restaurant and banquet halls.

“We’ve found that a lot of our guests don’t know this is a teaching hotel,” said first-year student Carly Schaus, working the front desk one recent morning. “It’s really cool to see people come and they realize that.”

The Kirkwood connection is an advantage, Bohr said. The college’s livestock, horticulture and winery programs provide beef, produce and wine for its restaurant, and guests soon will be able to use a three-hole golf course being developed by the turf management program.

Schaus of Pella got interested in the business while accompanying her mother to business conferences. A convention trip to Hawaii set her career plans.

“I decided I wanted to go into the field of event planning,” she said. ”I just like making guests happy. I like seeing people in general are having a good day.”

Personal touches are an advantage for hotels against Airbnb and similar services, said David Horsfield, Kirkwood’s Hospitality Arts chairman.

“What we teach our students going into the industry is, principally, hospitality is service,” Horsfield said. Airbnb “is there and there’s no use denying it. It is taking away pieces from hotels.

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“But there’s always going to be a segment of the market which is looking for service and what’s convenient.”

Stolz said some guests prefer the safety and security a hotel can offer.

“And there are the amenities, and being able to walk out to restaurants and entertainment,” he said. “We’re usually going to be in a better entertainment district.”

Micro-tourism

Travelers, especially millennials, are looking for such connections to the host community.

“The local experience, the local nature, micro-tourism, is really taking off,” Horsfield said. “People come here and they want to know where’s the local beer come from, where’s the local dairy? We try and connect with local resources where we can and create that pathway.”

“We find a lot of the younger guests, they’re really very interested in, are there any restaurants nearby?” Schaus said. “We send them downtown, and we’ll recommend a couple places to go.”

Stolz said Marriott’s smartphone app will be upgraded over the next year to link guests to area attractions.

“It might be sporting event,” he said. “You get connected with the local marinas for boat rentals if they want to get out on the river. It could be highlighting the Amana Colonies and offering some discounts at some of the establishments.”

While travelers can compare rates on booking platforms such as Expedia and Priceline, hotels counter with loyalty programs and lowest-rate guarantees on their own websites.

“There’s a different kind of person who books online, and it’s been from my experience someone who’s not the road-warrior traveler who loves the points and loves the perks that come with the loyalty program,” Bohr said.

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“But every hotel chain matches the lowest rate that’s offered on an online travel agency. So going to the home page for whatever chain you want to stay at matches that rate. Then you get your same benefits.”

“We’re assuring you that our rates that you’re going to find on those channels are going to be comparable to what we’re going to offer you,” Stolz said. “It is a way to kind of compete with those channels as well, or reduce the dependency on them.”

Redesigns

Stolz said the Coralville Marriott, opened in 2006, will upgrade its rooms in two or three years. In addition to tech improvements, the redesign will include features favored by younger travelers.

“Less surface space, open closets, walk-in showers versus tubs,” he said. “TVs are mounted to the wall, so your surface space is open to set your electronic devices on, all of your chargers.

“Desks are kind of a thing of the past. We’ll have portable tables — you can sit on a chair or lie on the bed and pull your laptop up. Hard floors, no more rugs, platform beds rather than the traditional four-legged beds.

“Instead of a door swinging out into the space it’s sliding so the space is larger.”

Younger travelers are willing to trade room space for enhanced public spaces to mingle with other guests.

“Our lobby is still on the cutting edge of what millennials are looking for,” said Jean Rogers, director of sales at the Kirkwood hotel, opened in 2010. “People get checked into their guest rooms, but they’ll bring their laptops down and sit at the lobby bar.”

Expect food and beverage options beyond the traditional restaurant and coffee shop, too.

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“You’ll see a hotel guest come in with more of a casual beverage offering that they’re going to eat in their room, or they’re going to eat in the lobby as they work with their laptop,” Stolz said. “We’ve got more of a grab-and-go opportunity for our customers.

Stolz believes following travelers’ wants and needs may revive a traditional hotel function.

“As the technology allows us to have fewer interactions, trends are showing the customer wants a more personalized experience in the area,” he said. ”So we find ourselves moving into that niche — a true concierge who can answer, ‘What’s going on in the area, how can I get tickets, can you get me into this restaurant?’

“A lot of our repeat customers, they value that interaction. They want it to be efficient, but they purposefully stop at the front desk. They want to be recognized.”

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