Wednesday, March 3, 2010

High-Tech versus High-Touch

There's an interesting experiment going on right now at an Aloft Hotel in Lexington, Mass. Do its guests prefer high-tech stays or high-touch hospitality? That's what Aloft, a brand of behemoth Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, wants to find out. So, it's launched a pilot program at the Lexington property that allows guests to check in by using a keycard and skip the lobby reception desk entirely.

Is this a noble experiment or a small portent of a brave new world of travel that some of us would not easily warm up to? I'm not sure, but intuitively it feels a bit creepy - no, not creepy, exactly, but chilly - to cater to the notion that I as a guest am so darn busy and so self-absorbed, I want skip lobby check-in and just not deal with carbon-based lifeforms when I can embrace electronics instead.

In any case, the experiment, according to Aloft ( entails, first, signing up for the Starwood Preferred Guest program. Next, a text message using a RFID sent to your mobile device gives you your room number and the entry code for your room. Now that you've got the code - you receive it about 24 hours before arrival - you stride briskly through the lobby and go straight to your room, using the keycard to get in. You never have to have a transaction or a conversation with a person wearing a hotel name-tag.

Cool, huh? Aloft thinks so. This streamlining adds to the hotels' 24/7 Wi-Fi service and other high-tech touches at Aloft properties.

"All Aloft hotels feature CAT-6 high thru (sic) put wires, which means that all hotels are wired to accommodate future technologies,'' according to the Aloft Web site. "Guest rooms provide a calm oasis that is combined high-tech office and entertainment center, thanks to the plug & play, a one-stop connectivity solution that links multiple electronic gadgets at once, such as PDAs, cell phones, mp3 players and laptops, to a 42-inch flat-panel HDTV-ready television for optimal sound and viewing.''

The closest I've come to this fervent commitment to hotel technology was in London, when my wife and stayed just over a year ago in the first-ever Andaz property, owned by Hyatt Hotels (but not overtly branded by Hyatt). There was no check-in keycard, but no reservation desk either. We checked-in at the East End property, located hard by the Liverpool Street Underground station, by wandering about in the spacious lobby with our luggage till we found a staffer with a handheld device, who checked us in whilst wesat at a low table and sipped wine. I'm still not sure what the advantage of the Andaz London system is to the traveler, but, as noted, the Lexington Aloft takes things one step further.

Aloft will roll out this system more broadly if consumers like it, and may diversify it, using coded keycards for multiple purposes, not just check-in. The card, according to the Aloft site, "may eventually act as an all-access pass throughout the Aloft stay, allowing guests to purchase coctails and bites'' and load up on other offerings, as well.

Aloft operates about 40 properties inside the United States and outside the U.S., Starwood's home country. The Aloft brand is expanding fast, and will next adorn a hotel in Tulsa, Okla. Aloft is aimed chiefly at young business travelers. According to a report in the New York Times, room nights average $125 USD.

Me, I still prefer a well-trained, smartly attuned hotel staff. I don't find dealing with people who are good at what they do to be such a heinous chore. But that's just me. For more information: check out or, in the U.S., telephone 1 877 GO ALOFT.

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