ONE of the key challenges faced by hotel front desk managers such as Bay Hotel Singapore's Nigel Vsandh, is dealing with the negative feedback that frequently arises when a large number of guests arrive at a hotel all at once.
"The first impression is always very important. After a long flight in, if a guest enters the hotel lobby only to find a queue for check-in and another long wait, naturally he's going to be upset," says Mr Vsandh.
Some hotels tackle this by lengthening their check-in hours, but that was not feasible for Bay Hotel. Instead, the hotel chose to make use of the now ubiquitous mobile phone.
"Since most guests would carry one these days, why not get them to check in via the phone before they even reach the hotel?" Mr Vsandh says.
They wouldn't even need a smartphone, as all the mobile phone check-in system requires is for the guest to reply to the hotel's prompt via text message.
That then alerts the front desk staff, who are able to prepare the necessary documentation, key-cards, and other materials ahead of time.
Bay Hotel believes it is the first in Singapore to adopt such a check-in system and Mr Vsandh says that the hotel has been able to shave its check-in time from the usual 10 minutes down to one to two minutes.
That is, for the half of its guests who have been making use of the system. Business guests under corporate bookings tend to check in on their phones most consistently and make up about 40 per cent of all guests.
But take-up from tourists has also been climbing. About 10 per cent of the hotel's guests - leisure travellers - now check in via phone before they arrive at the hotel.
Feedback from users so far has been good. That is encouraging, because the introduction of technology - especially at as crucial a juncture of the guest's experience as the first welcome - could cut both ways, says Mr Vsandh.
The front desk staff too, appreciate how the system - known as Qikinn - helps them spread out work rather than getting frazzled under the waiting gaze of tired guests, helping them to improve the service delivered.
After all, as much as the hotel is harnessing technology to become more efficient, that efficiency has to benefit guests, he says. "It wasn't just about reducing the human traffic in the lobby, although that is good. We want to treat our guests as guests."
"In a way, now all our guests are treated as VIPs. We've rolled it out to every guest - local foreign, corporate, leisure - and we've said you tell us whenever you're on your way, we'll be ready for you."
Another means by which this is achieved is the Qikinn system's "QikPad" which allows staff to complete the necessary guest registration on an iPad - all the guest does is sign on it. "So we can check you in at the lobby, while you walk to the elevator, at the restaurant, anywhere you want to be," Mr Vsandh says.
While he declined to disclose how much the system cost to put in place, he said that implementation was made easier by the fact that Bay Hotel was both a new hotel - it only officially opened last year - and did not belong to a large hospitality group with set ways of operating.
The management team thus decided from a very early stage of planning to adopt the mobile phone check-in process and integrate it fully with the hotel's property management system.
An initial hurdle was the fact that Qikinn is provided by Ubic Global Solutions, a relatively new vendor on the scene. "We were faced with many questions initially. Why didn't we go to the usual vendors, the big ones, why go for an unknown? But we discussed and saw a lot of potential in using this new system, so we took the challenge of going with Wishnet (Ubiq's property management system)," he says.
And the hotel now "uses the system to the max". All employees carry a mobile phone which receives text prompts when there are tasks to be done, for instance, rooms to be turned over, complaints to be attended to, or towels to be delivered.
It also has a room release system, which is not new on the market, but which Mr Vsandh believes is not always fully utilised. "A lot of hotels don't want to use it because they are afraid and don't trust the staff. So they prefer to have the supervisor check the room first before releasing it," he says.
At Bay Hotel, the housekeeping staff pick up the phone, key in a pin number to change the status of the room on the central property management system immediately.
"It gives them more ownership, reduces time needed to check on rooms, and helps the supervisors and housekeepers to release rooms across the hotel more quickly," says Mr Vsandh.
Despite the current manpower crunch - keenly felt throughout the hospitality industry - Mr Vsandh is adamant that Bay Hotel's adoption of these software systems was not meant to help it cut down on manpower needs.
"I don't think the mobile phone system has allowed fewer people to be at the front desk. The aim is not to cut manpower by replacing people with systems. What this does do is it enhances the service we offer. People are faster, more productive, learn more things, go for training and spend more time on service," he says.
In his view therefore, the Job Flexibility for Productivity Programme which was piloted in October last year by the Ministry of Manpower and the Singapore Tourism Board to allow hotel employees to take on multiple roles within the hotel - and not just the stated function on their work permit - is helpful.
Such job flexibility and cross-training has already been in place for local employees at Bay Hotel. "Front desk staff are rotated to the reservations team. This requires training and time but it means that our front desk staff are equipped to handle reservations matters too," says Mr Vsandh
"In my previous organisation, we wanted to push our foreign colleagues but were unable to do that. They had good attitude and were keen to learn but we were restricted in this area," he says.
But the hotel as a whole does have to watch its headcount carefully to ensure it does not breach now tighter foreign worker quotas, referred to as the dependency ratio ceilings.
The bulk of these foreign worker hiring quotas is allocated to departments with more demand for foreign employees - such as housekeeping.
"We work with what we have, but there have definitely been constraints. The hotel itself needs to review and see which departments require more manpower and get its game plan out," says Mr Vsandh.
His front-office team of 16 is "efficient and sufficient" also thanks to Bay Hotel's "all-in-one" concept that folds all the functions of concierge, check-in and bell-man that exist separately in most hotels, into a single job scope.
"Staff not only handle the front-desk, they are also very well-equipped to deliver concierge services. I would not say we're doing this to maximise manpower. The objective is to develop people."
That there are only two foreigners on his team is also in part by design, says Mr Vsandh. "I wanted to rely on and give opportunities to my fellow Singaporeans, so this is one of the things I focused on."
He thinks he was able to hire Singaporeans with ease because he also chose to look outside the hotels sector. "When I took the staff in, none of them were from the hospitality industry," he says.
One goal then, was to have a service-oriented counter, but one which had intelligent people working behind it. "We wanted to broaden their jobs, to a very different idea of the hospitality industry," he says. An element of that "being different" comes through in the front office uniform of denim jeans too.
Staff are encouraged to come up with their own ideas and given a good amount of empowerment to make a judgment call when a guest files a complaint or offers feedback.
So far, none on his team has left for another job. He takes the low turnover and medical leave rates as indications that his efforts are bearing fruit among colleagues too. "I think bringing new people into the industry was a success. We need to manage the locals we have, instead of complaining about the labour shortage," he says.
There are more plans involving technology improvements in the pipeline. For instance, Bay Hotel intends to link their property management system to the Internet Protocol TV so that guests can read their bills and messages there and is looking into how to make its restaurants more productive.
But making sure that the efficiencies gained translate into higher guest satisfaction and more time for hotel staff to be developed as individuals, remain priorities.
"Technology has developed a lot but as people, we too need to develop," says Mr Vsandh.