Depersonalizing personal service

New technology and shifting attitudes theatres to change personalized service in high-end hotels

High-end luxury hotels distinguish themselves not just with finer bedding and well-stocked mini-bars; they also offer attentive, personalized service. Traditionally, that has meant staff who courteously see to your every request. But new technology and shifting attitudes threaten to change that.

Consider the four-star InterContinental on Toronto's Front Street, which recently rolled out something it calls the TeleCentre: an integrated phone, laptop computer and Internet device. The units, which are on the desks in all 586 guest rooms, have a phone handset, keyboard, a mouse, and a seven-inch colour touch screen, through which guests can access information about hotel services, dining menus, show, restaurant and retail listings, and the Internet. They can even reserve and pay for tickets to local attractions. “All of a sudden, you're going to realize you don't need your laptop,” says Steve Brinn, the hotel's director of marketing. Or, perhaps, much hotel staff.

Self-service is becoming more common in hotels, like the option of checking out via the TV. Some hotels are even experimenting with lobby kiosks. But some experts think it can leave a poor impression. “I think it's inconsistent with a high-end offering,” says Frank Bourree, a Victoria-based partner with Grant Thornton LLP who consults for the tourism industry. “People who use high-end hotels are looking for a human experience.”

For the InterContinental, though, which links to a convention centre, the new system offers attractions for group bookings (planners can send multimedia messages and change agendas). It can also function as an advertising channel for trade show exhibitors. Interestingly, the hotel continues to retain two full-time, internationally accredited human concierges. Seems not all guests are ready to do everything themselves–or have the person taken out of personalized service.