Self-Service Sleeping

Customers love to check themselves in at the airport. Can they ever feel the same way about hotels?

Travelers have gotten comfortable checking in for a flight using a kiosk or the airline's Web page: More than 75% of passengers now handle the job themselves. That may have something to do with the fact that the airline industry is not exactly famous for its warm-and-cuddly customer service.

But hotels—places where guests still expect a personal touch—have had a tougher time getting people to embrace self-service: Just 10% to 25% of their customers use kiosks to check in or out when they are available. Hoping to increase those numbers (and shorten lines at the front desk), hotels are now letting guests use lobby kiosks to print airline boarding passes. "The more features and functionality we add to the kiosks, the greater the reason for the customer to try [them]," says Thomas Spitler, a vice president with Hilton Hotels Corp., which has added flight check-in to kiosks in about 40 hotels so far. "[But] we don't intend to follow the airline model, where the kiosk really replaces customer-service agents."

Hilton's touch-screen kiosk offers guests a choice of about 20 airlines, then connects to the carrier's Web site, where customers can enter a confirmation number, change their seat assignment, and so on. Other hotel chains trying flight check-in include Marriott, which has pilot programs in Detroit and New York; Holiday Inn; and Hyatt, which will have it in all of its hotels by this summer.

But when it comes to checking in or out of hotels, the kiosks lack some features guests really need. Sure, you can email your bill to your assistant, but most machines only let guests choose a room based on bed type, smoking preference, or price category, not by perusing a graphic or photographic layout. (Fairmont's kiosk at the Royal York in Toronto, Ontario, is an exception, displaying a map that shows which rooms are available on a particular floor.) Creating those graphics for hotels is tougher than it is for standard aircraft layouts. "We're not a cookie-cutter chain," says Mike Taylor, Fairmont's manager of public relations.

Is that functionality the issue, or is it simply that guests still hope to be treated like, well, guests? "Our research shows that more than 7 out of 10 hotel guests prefer to interact with a person when they check in," says Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco. "A hospitality business runs the risk of being overly automated." News worth sleeping on.

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