To secure a room at the Barbizon Hotel for Women—the famed salmon-pink sandstone building huddled in Manhattan’s Upper East Side—a woman needed to apply a year in advance, have at least three references, possess good manners, and, as was tacitly prescribed in the 1950s (or any time and place, really), she had to be “attractive.” The establishment had more of the qualities of a strict girls’ dormitory than a fine hotel, requiring its guests to sign in and out at the front desk, and frowning upon those who came in late.
In 1953, the poet Sylvia Plath stayed at the Barbizon for a few weeks, during which she suffered from food poisoning and was chastised for staying out late. The former incident was portrayed in her novel “The Bell Jar.” It was a fraught experience, and no measure of gleam and conciliatory gifts could change that.
As far as bad hotel experiences go, the infamous stories set in the Barbizon could likely be dismissed as extreme, isolated cases, but they nevertheless speak a certain truth: Perhaps it is not so much the clean sheets and the room service, the meticulously polished glasses and the excellent bars as it is the provision of impeccable service that makes for a good hotel experience. As Enderun Colleges’ Bel Castro said at last year’s F&B Summit: “Good service always saves a bad dining experience. No amount of free food can save a horrible service encounter.”
The app advantage
To speak of hotels now as places dedicated to boundless pampering is to suggest that good service is a recent development. It’s obviously not, but one only needs to look at innovations in the industry to gauge the kind of attitude hotels have taken on towards improving service. In 2011, the Manila Marriott Hotel launched its own mobile app with features that render trips to the front desk and face-to-face interactions between staff and guests unnecessary.
The app’s mobile check-in/check-out feature lets guests check in (as early as two days before their actual arrival) and check out without having to brave queues. The feature also comes with a function that lets guests indicate their estimated time of arrival as well as an alert function that notifies them when their rooms are ready. Phone calls to the hotel staff for certain requests are also no longer required, as guests can use the app to chat with any of the hotel’s customer service representatives.
More recently, Hyatt City of Dreams Manila has also launched its own mobile app and, much like the Marriott app, it banks on the idea of speed and efficiency as key components of good service. The features of the City of Dreams app are more or less similar to that of the Marriott’s, except it lets its guests locate the nearest Hyatt hotel branches. The City of Dreams app also remembers a guest’s hotel availability searches, which is an advantage to anyone who frequents a specific city. Further refinements that both hotels are looking into include using one’s smartphone as the key to their hotel room.
The story of technology serving as an efficient conduit to the otherwise rusty, often susceptible-to-failure personal interactions is not a new one, but what’s particularly interesting about it is the kind of market-specific response these apps have been met with, namely that the people in the country who use it are mostly foreigners. “Based on our monthly monitoring, most Filipinos are still adjusting to the idea of using a mobile app to manage their hotel bookings. Although they do become app users upon our recommendation,” says Manila Marriott Hotel’s Hope Velasco.
Other frequent app users include Filipino millennials and what the Marriott hotel staff calls “master blenders” or busy people highly engaged with the latest technologies. What accounts for such distinct divisions within a population generally well adjusted to highly digital ways? “The apps appeal to travelers with a millennial mindset, but we find that most Filipinos still prefer person-to-person engagement. Knowing our culture, this is totally understandable,” Hyatt City of Dreams Manila’s Jose Badelles explains.
The rationale behind preferences anchored by culture seems somehow incontestable and expected, partly because it so easily fits into the classic narrative of the inevitable rise of conflict between tradition and innovation: One either sticks to tradition or embraces innovation. In this context, guests either personally interact with the hotel staff or limit themselves to the use of the apps.
The story of technology serving as an efficient conduit to the otherwise rusty, often susceptible-to-failure personal interactions is not a new one, but what’s particularly interesting about it is the kind of market-specific response these apps have been met with, namely that the people in the country who use it are mostly foreigners.
Yet both Badelles and Velasco would be the first to deem that idea as too simplistic. What’s actually happening in hotels now is far more nuanced. “We thought a disadvantage of this technology would be that personal interaction between our associates and guests would decline, but we found that the app actually allows us to be more engaged with our guests. Using the app encourages personal interaction, as it lets other factors within our hotel come into play,” Badelles says.
The kind of efficiency these apps were meant to foster is founded on the idea of building and maintaining a loyal market—they were designed for guests who are loyalty program members, after all. The two apps let users earn points that can be converted to free room accommodations, upgrades, flight mileage, and shopping credits. “The app is really for guests who are seeking more rewarding stays that extend beyond a clean room or a huge bed,” Velasco says.
The reciprocity and loyalty at play here are clear demonstrations of the idea that good service doesn’t always mean a strict choice between technology and personal engagement. It is human needs, after all, that are the subject of this new technology.
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 15 No. 2