Ideas With Impact: Maintaining the Human Touch in a Contactless World

By: Nicole McQuiddy-Davis
A person checks into a hotel using a tablet.

Contactless and touchless technology have the potential to elevate the guest experience without compromising connection. Striking a balance between exciting technological advances and genuine human connection is the key.

With the Covid-19 pandemic hitting travel and the hospitality industry especially hard, this March Medallia, in collaboration with the School of Hotel Administration’s (SHA) Center for Hospitality Research, launched an online hospitality community to crowdsource ideas with impact. Conceived as a place for hospitality thought leaders—from industry professionals to SHA professors and alumni—to support each other with innovative ideas and solutions to the industry’s most pressing issues and challenges, the community has already grown to 276 members.

Since its launch, the community has come up with 24 original ideas in response to the three challenges that were posed. In this series of articles, we’ll cover each challenge, along with the top-voted ideas and insights for each one.

Challenge 2: How can organizations create a hospitable environment in a contactless society?

In the last year, “contactless” and “touchless” have become vital buzzwords in the hospitality industry. With pandemic health guidelines mandating social distancing and increased cleanliness, hotels have sought contactless and touchless technology to help them adapt their operations to this new environment. Even though these concepts sound similar, there is a distinct difference between the two. Contactless technology is all about zero in-person human interaction and sometimes no human interaction at all (e.g. virtual or self-check-in kiosks or robotic housekeepers), whereas touchless technology requires no physical contact but can still include in-person human interaction (e.g. keyless room entry or QR codes), and there’s overlap between the two, as well—contactless technology can be touchless and vice versa (e.g. voice-activated room features, palm scanners, or tap-to-pay terminals).

At first glance, contactless hospitality sounds like an oxymoron. To many people, the hallmark of hospitality is the human touch and personal connection, and we wonder, “How can we provide guests with exceptional, personal service without a warm smile upon check-in, a helping hand with luggage, or a friendly conversation at breakfast?” It’s a challenge for sure, but the technology is here to stay, and embracing it doesn’t have to be a trade-off. In fact, contactless and touchless technology promises to enhance the guest experience by removing friction, enabling more personalization, and bringing us closer to a truly seamless journey, all of which have the potential to increase guest satisfaction, loyalty, efficiency, and performance. And, while today’s hospitality experience might look drastically different than that of a decade ago, the industry’s move toward contactless and touchless technology has been ushered in by guests, whose needs and expectations are evolving as quickly as the technology itself.

We asked community members to share ways that the industry could embrace contactless technology and elevate the guest experience without compromising connection, and here’s what they came up with.

Enhanced communication

When face-to-face communication is not ideal, it’s no surprise that the community voted alternative forms of communication like text and video messaging to the top of the list. Much like the virtual meetings we’ve all become accustomed to, giving guests a chance to chat with staff and ask questions over video can provide a sense of connection when they’re unable to be in the same physical location. Video messaging could be used for a virtual check-in experience while the guest makes their way to the hotel property, special access to staff for VIP-level guests, or simply as an alternative to a phone call if a guest wants to see a smiling face as they order room service.

Another popular form of guest communication is personalized texting. One member suggests sending texts to guests with pre-arrival updates on available onsite services, recommendations for dinner or events, and for life events like birthdays and anniversaries. Once guests are on property, capturing additional information about their preferences and interactions can be used to build a profile to make their future stays extra special and personalized.

To support enhanced guest communication, modernization of the contact center is a must. An omni-channel contact center that provides a seamless experience across platforms, devices, and apps ensures that guests can reach the right people from wherever they initiate contact. The integrated channels offer simplicity and remove friction for guests and staff, who, with only a single hub to monitor on the back end, can work more efficiently. Modern contact centers can be designed to automate repetitive and simple tasks, freeing up staff to handle more meaningful guest interactions.

Connection, convenience, and personalization are key, so hospitality workers should make themselves available on the communication channels that  guests choose, whether that’s voice, text, video, social, or email.

Contactless contextual service

With mobile phones in everyone’s pockets, guests are more accessible than ever, but that doesn’t mean they should be bombarded with constant communications. Rather, if guests have opted in, hotels should aim to send communications based on context—like time of day, location, or activity—in anticipation of guests’ needs. Additionally, hotels can strategically place QR codes around the property for guests to scan and make common requests—e.g. a QR code in the gym might give guests a few options: request towels, request water, and other, so guests can make unique requests. The hotel service center can then pinpoint the guest based on the QR code’s location and dispatch an associate to respond to the request. One community member stressed, “Don’t make me walk to the front desk to stand in line to explain my need. Reach me [on] my phone, where I stand!”

A person scans a QR code from a kiosk using their mobile phone.
No more walking to the front desk, locating a house phone or associate, or searching the web for the customer service number. Simply access your mobile phone’s camera and scan where you stand. Strategically placed QR codes enable guests to make common, location-based service requests—like more towels at the gym or car service at the entrance—from anywhere on the property.

Personalized in-room technology hubs

Giving guests the power to control and design every aspect of their stay is the ultimate personalized experience. With in-room, voice-activated tablets, anything and everything is within guests’ reach—they can order food, dim the lights, cool the room, play music, opt in or out of housekeeping services, check out, leave a review, and even book another stay before leaving.

The tablets elevate the guest experience, and also provide serious benefits to the hotel. As guests use the tablets, hotels can capture and analyze data insights to build more detailed guest profiles for personalizing future stays, measure guest sentiment, fix pain points, encourage repeat business and loyalty, and increase operational efficiency.

Voice-activated, in-room tablets, of course, raise privacy concerns. Guests wishing to have a tablet-free stay should be able to do so, and guests who opt to use tablets, should have their data and privacy protected by the hotel.

In service of guests’ changing needs and expectations

Hospitality is about creating unforgettable experiences for guests, and as their preferences change, adapting operations and design to integrate new technologies will be crucial in retaining loyal customers and attracting new ones. Striking a balance between exciting technological advances and genuine human connection is the key.

Learn more about the Center for Hospitality Research, a hub for students, faculty, hospitality industry leaders, and innovators to connect and drive cutting edge research and thought leadership. Read the community’s ideas from Challenge 1: “What can hospitality organizations do to support employees and frontline staff?”.

Nicole McQuiddy-Davis

Nicole McQuiddy-Davis

Nicole McQuiddy-Davis, program manager for the Center for Hospitality Research at the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, joined the team in 2019. She is responsible for the day-to-day management and operations of the center, which includes program development, industry collaboration, fundraising, event planning, marketing, publications, support of research activities and various other projects. She has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology, Law, and Society from the University of California, Irvine, where she was a member of the Social Ecology Honors Program. Nicole resides in Ithaca, NY, with her husband, Damek, and their two dogs.

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