Check in, out via kiosk

Experiment: Some hotel chains are installing automated kiosks so guests can avoid a line at the front desk.

March 06, 2004|By Kathy Bergen | Kathy Bergen,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Business traveler Richard Bergquist had one thing on his mind as he checked out of the Hilton Chicago on a recent morning.

Speed.

"All I want is to get my receipt and to get in and out fast," said the chief technology officer for PeopleSoft Inc., who was in town for a convention.

So Bergquist bypassed the smiling associates behind the polished marble front desk, turning instead to a newly installed 4-foot-tall kiosk, where he checked out in a matter of moments.

Chains such as Hilton Hotels Corp., Marriott Corp. and Starwood Hotels & Resorts are betting a lot of travelers share Bergquist's quest for fast, hassle-free travel. Hyatt Hotels Corp. hopes to test a system by the end of the year.

Toward that end they are stealing a page from the airlines by introducing automated check-in and checkout via computerized kiosks. They are testing the devices in big, urban hotel properties that draw large numbers of time-conscious business travelers.

"The airlines have trained our customers, so they have a penchant to go self-service," said Conrad M. Wangeman, general manager of the 2,035-room Hilton New York.

His hotel and the 1,544-room Hilton Chicago are the company's two test sites for the kiosks developed by International Business Machines Corp. Though the kiosks have been in place at the Hilton New York for less than two months, 5 percent to 20 percent of its customers use the kiosks on any given day, he estimated.

The hotel chain installed the kiosks at the Hilton Chicago last month with plans to expand the service to another 23 hotels by year's end, executives said Wednesday during a news briefing on the rollout.

Starwood is testing a similar product at the 1,215-room Sheraton Boston Hotel and the 509-room W New York-Times Square. It plans to expand the program to 20 or 30 properties by midyear.

And Multi-Systems Inc., which develops hotel property management systems, has sold kiosks to several hotels that are testing whether customers will use them.

"I believe a number of companies have been looking at it ... so it is likely to become something much more visible in the next few years," said Sean Hennessey, director of hotel consulting for PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York.

Hilton and Starwood both stress that the kiosks are merely an option and that staffed registration desks will remain in place for those who prefer speaking with an associate or have special requests or requirements.

"We'll actually have the same staff levels," said Robert Machen, a Hilton vice president. But some front desk staff will be reassigned to assist kiosk users.

"If someone's having a problem at the kiosk, the last thing we want to do is ask them to go into the front-desk line," Stephen P. Laughlin, a business consultant with IBM Global Services, said during the Hilton briefing. "This is a line-busting technology."

While hotel chains downplay the potential to cut their costs through use of the kiosks, that potential is definitely part of the equation, at least over the long run if the machines gain widespread acceptance.

"It's a matter of saving on labor - that's the largest expense item at all hotels," Hennessey said.

The kiosks, which industry experts say can cost $10,000 to $18,000, work much like the kiosks at airline counters.

At the Hiltons, customers insert a credit card or a hotel frequent-guest card to begin the process. Then they can confirm reservations, receive encoded key-cards and get a printout with room details all within a minute or two.

At the kiosk, they can also receive any messages left for them, get food or beverage coupons that come with their reservation and update their frequent-traveler or credit-card accounts.

Still, some observers remain uncertain about whether Americans will warm up to machines at hotels.

"Unless they are forced to use them, travelers won't use them," said Chris Hartmann, managing director at HVS Technology Strategies, a division of hotel consultant HVS International. "I've seen airport lines of 50 people or more, and then a row of empty kiosks. People still don't go up to them."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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