limited-service hotels front desk

Motivation Monday: 8 Strategies to Improve the Hotel Group Check-In Process

People dislike lines—especially long ones. Whether it’s at the grocery store, the airport, or the DMV (the scene of notoriously endless lines), waiting can make people impatient and cranky. This has clear implications for customer satisfaction at hotels, particularly during group check-ins.

Research from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration examined how long a wait was required to decrease guest satisfaction by 50 points (on a scale of 100). For Americans, it took a mere 5 minutes—the shortest time among the countries studied. Thankfully, researchers known as ‘queueing theorists’ have also researched what people hate most about waiting in line, and what makes them less frustrated—even happier—when waiting is unavoidable.  

Read on to learn how queuing science can help hotels take the sting out of ‘perceived wait time’— the real psychological foe when it comes to waiting—and other tech and hospitality strategies to reduce the actual wait time during large group check-ins.  

Explore 8 new ways to improve the hotel check-in process

1. Personalize the experience for groups

For big groups, it’s essential to assign a point person to greet event planners and organizers on their arrival day. When there’s a risk of a logjam at the check-in desk, group members appreciate direction so they don’t waste time wondering where to go next, or worry they’re waiting in the wrong line. 

Personalized, high-touch service can make the difference between having a frustrated or happy group on your hands. When people feel welcomed and cared for, the perceived value of your hotel’s hospitality increases—and people are more willing to wait for an item or service of greater perceived value. (Think of how patiently you’d wait for soup and salad at a fine restaurant, versus how patiently you might wait for the same combination at a hole-in-the-wall.) 

Keep in mind that a group’s point person often collaborates with a sales manager in the lead-up to arrival, but this may not be their contact on the day of arrival. It is thoughtful to send an advance email introducing the event planner or group leader to the hotel manager or contact they’ll interact with during their stay. 

Beyond a personal greeting, other tips for personalized service during group arrivals include:

  • Let the group organizer know when the point person is available and when they’ll deal with others. (“I’ll be here today and tomorrow, but my colleague Keisha will be here to assist you on the last day of your stay.”)
  • Introduce the group’s point person to the concierge.
  • Make sure all employees helping with the group’s stay have a rundown of the schedule and special requirements.
The Ultimate Group Sales Playbook

2. Offer a remote check-in option

One outstanding strategy to improve check-in is to reduce or eliminate the wait altogether. As long as remote check-in is easy to use and functional, it tends to be a slam dunk with Millennials and many Gen Xers and Boomers. These crowds are used to remote check-in options with airlines and will appreciate the same convenience at your hotel. Tips for seamless remote check-in: 

  • Use text messages or push notifications on the day of arrival to invite guests to use the app to check in. 
  • Pair remote check-in with mobile door keys for a digital, line-free experience. Groups walk into the hotel and straight to their rooms, using their mobile devices to unlock their doors. Here, personalization inside the room is smart. Even something as simple as complimentary mints or bottled water with a personalized sleeve (“Celebrate love! Gerald + Beth’s Wedding”) can welcome groups without making them wait in line for the experience.
  • Use web portals to offer an early check-in option. The chain Accor, for example, sends an email with a web link allowing guests to check-in up to two days in advance. Guests pick up their room key on arrival, and to check out they simply return the key. The valuable perk is only available for direct bookers and members of the loyalty program.

3. Install kiosks

Self check-in kiosks are outstanding for straightforward individual check-ins when a big group arrives all at once. They free up the front desk staff to handle more complicated group check-ins, like when members of a group request splitting a room charge. Kiosks may especially appeal to Millennials, who often prefer handling check-in themselves.

Kiosks can also reduce perceived wait times. Since they are facing the same screen, guests in a kiosk line can (in a general way) observe the progress of the guests ahead of them, which makes the process ‘feel’ faster. A status bar at the top or bottom of the screen can show people visually how far along in the check-in process they are. 

Look for ways to help hotel guests feel welcome even during kiosk check-ins. Opt for a simple, uncluttered user interface, and maybe include a smile. (An emoticon 🙂  is now processed by the human brain the same way as a real smile.) 

And if guests need to pick up a key card, maybe they can pick up a bonus or welcome item at the same time. (It can be the same item for everyone, or guests can choose from icons on the kiosk screen. In that case, capture this information! Then you can track choices by customer segment, as well as the preferences of individual customers.)

4. Arrange the line and the lobby for success

According to queueing science, a single line (in which the person at the front of the line is served by the next available employee) is far less stressful for customers than multiple lines—which burden people with ‘queue calculus’ as they select what they think will be the fastest line. Frustration and a sense of unfairness arise when another person gets on a different line later but enjoys speedier service because they chose a quicker line. People generally have no positive reaction when theirs is the faster line…so the only response to multiple lines is negative. 

The single-line or ‘serpentine’ method produces the same average wait times as the multiple-line method, but in the single-line method, all wait times are very close to average. In multiple lines, on the other hand, wait times can vary widely: Some people will have a much longer wait time than average, and some much shorter—which feels unfair to the people with a longer wait. 

In a story told to Slate, queue scientist and MIT professor Dick Larson described the scene after a ‘queueing theory’ conference. Basically, the theorists went rogue: “We insisted on forming our own serpentine line,” Larson said. “The lobby wasn’t designed for it and it looked extremely messy. The hotel manager was unhappy. If we’d just dispersed into six parallel lines at the checkout desk the wait might have been shorter and less chaotic. But it would have been less fair.” 

There you have it: Professional queue scientists choose to check out using a single-line setup. Guide groups with stanchions, ropes, and a “Please wait here” sign. People are used to this set-up—they’ll take it from there. At off-peak times, remove the stanchions and ropes, leaving only the stanchion with the sign.

Other aspects of lobby design that help streamline check-in and improve group experiences:

  • Offer comfortable seating where weary travelers can sit while keeping an eye on their party in the line.
  • Arrange furniture so all guests can easily maneuver past with luggage in tow. 
  • Finally, when a big group is scheduled to arrive, prioritize maximum availability of luggage carts and line them up near the door.

5. Get the timing right on exceptional customer service 

A customer’s overall experience of a line is disproportionately affected by the last few moments in the line. When these moments are positive, guests rate the overall waiting experience as positive, even if they felt very negative during most of the wait.

Make those last few moments count. Have the guest called to the desk with a calm and cheerful smile. Carefully select customer-facing staff for warmth, train them well for knowledge of procedures (both routine and out-of-the-ordinary), and consider an employee reward program for outstanding service.

Personalize the experience, using robust systems to harness behind-the-scenes data and make it useful at the front lines. For example, post a daily event summary pulled from the CRM. Take notes on guests’ or groups’ preferences or special needs, and include ideas for personalization. Set up a protocol for automatic or manual transfer of these notes and special requests between CRM and PMS, so front desk staff only need to refer to a single system. (Prioritize easy-to-use systems that integrate well.)

Think about other ways to make the process smooth. At hotels that see a lot of international groups, communication difficulties have the potential to slow things down and build frustration. Hire multilingual customer-facing employees when possible, and train staff to utilize a translation tool like Google Translate. 

Keep group guests happy with better relationship management

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6. Keep guest hunger and thirst at bay

Even in the best of circumstances, hunger and thirst make it difficult for people to stay happy. (The Oxford English Dictionary now includes an entry for ‘hangry.’) Add waiting in line to the mix, and you have a pretty dependable recipe for crankiness. 

Allow groups the opportunity to take the edge off hunger and thirst as soon as they arrive in your lobby. They will feel relieved and grateful—plus the sustenance will provide a natural mood boost. Remember to check notes about F&B preferences stored in your CRM software to see what options this group or similar groups have liked in the past.

Think ease and a bit of variety. Some ideas to run with:

  • A big bowl of apples is attractive, keeps well, and provides quick energy to even the most health-conscious travelers. 
  • Meet wedding attendees with a glass of sparkling wine or the wedding’s signature cocktail. 
  • Push through an app nudge about an hour before arrival letting guests know they can order food remotely. Many weary travelers would love to handle check-in before they even arrive and have a burger waiting at the bar or in-room.
  • Big cookies under glass will also provide quick energy, plus a welcome feeling of indulgence. 
  • A beverage station with water, coffee, and tea. (Tea drinkers appreciate water kept in a separate carafe or whole separate system, so their tea doesn’t taste of coffee.) 

7. Provide distraction to help with ‘perceived’ wait time

You know that saying, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”? 

Well, when it comes to lines, it’s not the wait, it’s the perception of the wait. People find boredom during a wait particularly objectionable. It increases perceived wait time as well as dissatisfaction with the wait.

Most travelers have smartphones, books, or magazines with them, but they’re probably ready for a change-up by the time they reach your lobby. Closed-captioned TV screens can help, as can easy-to-browse local publications and brochures for nearby attractions. Guests might also enjoy a large fish tank for a relaxing place to rest their eyes; post information about a few of the fish or species to focus attention inside the tank.

The check-in process is a particular pain point for groups traveling with kids; chaperones and parents appreciate any and all help. Consider creating ‘I Spy’ scavenger hunt cards for the lobby. For example, the cards could have a list of items to check off: I spy a plant with purple leaves. [Include a line drawing of a plant to engage pre-readers and help them remember.] I spy a picture of a bird. I spy someone smiling. Have fun placing a few ‘I Spy’ items around the lobby. Change up the items and cards every so often. (Are there any front desk employees who would love this kind of creative task?)

Children (and their parents or chaperones) might also appreciate a small welcome gift to help them wait cheerfully one more time. Ages 3 and up might like something as simple as, say, a small rubber ducky. It could give them something to focus positive attention on, delighting and distracting them in the lobby as well as in the room.

8. Remember to thank guests for their patience

If you have a monitor displaying a rotating carousel of slides, create one that says “Good things come to those who wait… Thank you for your patience.” And make sure to follow through on that promise!

Train staff to keep guests in the loop about the steps in the check-in process as they’re occurring; knowing what’s going on helps people feel more patient. A small box at the desk could say, “As you wait, please select a travel goodie,” allowing guests to choose from items like hand sanitizer, mints, granola bars, small energy drinks, single-serve peanut butter packets, gum, or other small items.

Give staff the power to waive incidentals, provide a free amenity, offer an upgrade or otherwise address customer dissatisfaction if the wait has been extraordinary. According to the Harvard Business Review, “the most successful companies, such as American Express, focus on ensuring that frontline workers have the skills, permission, and the desire to reduce customer effort.”

Apply some or all of these tips to this critical hospitality touch point and you’ll increase customer satisfaction and streamline the overall check-in process—no waiting!

Need more material for hospitality brainstorming? Look at these seven ways to provide the best hotel customer service, or check out tips for hotel hospitality in the digital age

Group Segmentation Workbook