A Marriott hotels pilot is replacing desk clerks with automated kiosks

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Desk clerks are poised to become the latest coronavirus casualty at some Marriott hotels.

The world’s biggest hotel chain said it is testing automated kiosks equipped with touch screens that can check in guests and spit out room keys, as well as giant vending machines it calls “grab-and-go marketplaces” that can dispense everything from coffee to breakfast sandwiches and cereal.

The new kiosks are being tested at two New York City hotels — the Moxy in Times Square and the Courtyard New York Manhattan/Midtown East. They also are being piloted at the TownePlace Suites in Monroe, Louisiana. A test also is scheduled for the Moxy in Miami.

Marriott said the so-called “contactless arrival kiosks” are meant to ease customers’ fears about getting COVID-19 by interacting with hotel staff. As such, they are equipped with “antimicrobial technology baked into the touchscreen glass, powered by UV light to kill bacteria and viruses,” Marriott said in a Monday press release.

“The pandemic has accelerated the demand for contactless services and we continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of our guests,” Stephanie Linnartz, president of Marriott International said in a statement.

Marriott said 65 percent of travelers say they want the latest technologies to make them feel safe and that 87 percent of US customers say they would like to see companies continue to offer options that limit in-person service. Social media posts including the phrase “self-service” increased by 170 percent year-over-year from 2019 to 2020, the company said.

But industry experts see the kiosks as a cost-cutting move — and a step towards self-checkout automation that has been pioneered in recent years by grocery stores, big-box retailers and fast-food restaurants including McDonald’s, which has installed kiosks at some locations to take customers’ orders.

“We’re potentially months from a return to normal in the US, so to use these statistics to justify long-term changes that will be implemented years down the road at many properties is disingenuous,” said hospitality blogger Ben Schlappig.

His blog “One Mile at a Time” greeted Marriott’s release with the words “Ugh” and “Awful,” and noted that Marriott’s mobile apps are still riddled with bugs.

For better or worse, automation “is fast coming to the hotel industry,” said consultant Geoffrey Mills, president of GAM Hospitality. “All the hotels are going to look for labor savings” following a pandemic that has cost hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide across the sector.

Still, hotels should think twice about axing their front desk clerks, warn industry experts.

As they continue to strip away services and the personnel that greet guests when they arrive, they are creating a product that resembles Airbnb,” said Sean Hennessey, president of Lodging Advisors and a New York University professor of hospitality. “And so people might eventually ask what’s the difference between a hotel and Airbnb.”

Marriott’s pilot notwithstanding, don’t expect luxury hotels like the Ritz-Carlton on St. Regis, which are also owned by Marriott, to eliminate the personal touch.

“They’ll want the customer interaction and the opportunity to upsell clients to a suite or a room with a view or by the pool,” Mills said.

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