Goodbye to the reception desk

bell concierge blueI arrived very late at night. From the outside the hotel looked closed, inhospitable. The lights were off. The night shift employee was lying on a couch. I opened the sliding glass doors, and glanced over to see a monolithic figure of a uniformed person behind a dark service desk. The person didn’t look up. He just gestured in the comfort of his usual position. If anything, he only gave me formal greeting as I approached him, carrying my bags. His eyes were hidden behind thick lenses, inscrutable in the gloom. His breathing, even thicker than his glasses, evidenced the nocturnal condition. He accomplished his work with merit from the first moment, when he asked for my passport, the three mandatory signatures and a credit card… «As a guarantee that you will not leave without paying,» he added, with the courtesy he learned at the hospitality school. That was the receptionist.

That was last week. But it could have happened any night last month, last year, or at the end of the millennium. Or at any other time in my childhood when the kindness of the agent was complimented with a «May God be with you for many years.» The reception has always been the sanctum sanctorum of the bureaucracy in the hotel industry. That strange job where, instead of welcoming guests and helping to relieve them from the inconvenience of traveling, they are hindered with the regular processing of their registration and assurance of their purchasing power. An instant hold in that travel momentum, the memory of which always reminds me of a teller window of the treasury or the lottery office, without the urgency of the first or the exciting disorder of the second.

Once, I showed up at the counter designed by Pascua Ortega in the Ávila hostel, where a very old receptionist, close to his well-deserved retirement date, was working. For decades he had fulfilled with careful detail all the tasks assigned to him and that would not be an exception in his distinguished career. He received me with great civility, which included his cordial request of my identity documents and double signature of the contract, a usual custom in the tourist hostels twenty years ago. Immediately he noticed an important detail in completing this process: he had run out of the corresponding forms. He asked me to excuse him for a moment and he went for a ream at the accounting office which apparently was at the other side of the back door, his private chapel, where the slender figure of Santa Teresa reigned, which the interior designer, Ortega, had conceptualized in the baroque/minimalist altarpiece of the reception. One would think, with fondness for the elder age and with the historical sliver of the glorious national hostels, that the officer would come out fast and hasten the process to avoid causing the guest more discomfort. Wrong prediction! Duty and the ornate hanging over acted contrary to logic. With meticulous and professional neatness, the receptionist began to fold the pages of the contract, insert carbon paper pages and pile them one by one, with refined manual dexterity, to sort them over the counter, indifferent to my stunned expression. The wait lasted twenty minutes with my bags in my hands. At the end of the process, he smiled and proceeded with other rituals required by law to procure welcoming me, not without reminding me, «Duty comes first, sir.»

The first few weeks in operation, Hempel Hotel in London tested the reputation of its owner, Anouska Hempel, as an interior designer. In an overly minimalist effort, she conceived the lobby of its establishment as a great altar of hospitality supported by two lateral pyres burning in emphatic theatrical pose. In the background, an abstract line, in white as rigorous as the entire hall, meant the priory area, wherein three ectoplasms welcomed customers, scared unsuspecting guests. They were three ladies elegantly dressed in white who, logically, were camouflaged in the background of that counter. Having suffered by the rejection, the owner ordered the exchange of the white uniform of the receptionists with a black mourning uniform. And that led to the liturgies practiced by the priests in the temple of Amun-Ra.

I’ve found all reception desks of all colors and flavors, some brighter than others, some noisier than others. But all of them, or nearly all of them, are as boring as a ministry teller window or a waiting room of a morgue. It is not surprising that one day they could disappear from the architectural manual, as have the concierge stands, the manual switchboards or the keychain boards which were famous in the old hospitality industry. The new habits of guests require new spaces, new facilities and certainly, a hospitality concept more oriented towards liturgies, if one is looking for excitement, or towards machinated service, if you prefer the practical and economical.

Therefore, the Accor Group has announced that throughout 2014 it shall replace 1,000 of its 3,600 hotel reception desks with an automated service check-in and check-out from mobile apps. Other international chains such as Hyatt or Intercontinental already started such move a year ago with an automated registration process like those operating at airports. Other hotel companies are waiting to see the results before taking the steps to change their reception desks. And given the expectations created by the digital native culture of the millennials, it is highly probable that in the near future the reception will become a relic of museum hotels.

Some wonder what will happen to claims. How will guest complaints be addressed, and who shall appear before them to solve their problems? The times will call for the customer care practices that other business giants like Amazon promote from their technological domains: online chat, virtual concierge, superintelligent robots. Why not a self-diagnosis system as used today in any car repair shop? Why not the technological ability to recognize and anticipate customer needs? In terms of the hotel as a commodity, and in terms of the hotel as an experience, why not a personal assistant for customers as an experience?

Years ago we analyzed the possibility of the innovative and disruptive concept of not having a reception desk, or replacing an outdated facility in the 21st century, as is the reception front desk, with an altar in order to welcome guests in an automated or personal manner according to their needs (in the first case) or their aspirations (in the second). Making it happen is not a matter of cost, but the result of the definition of the hotel product. People shall be used for more creative purposes other than simple work routine duties.

In mechanical tasks, machines began replacing people in the 19th century.

Fernando Gallardo |

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