By Joe Brancatelli
September 22, 2010 -- The hotel front desk has a long and honorable, even cinematic, tradition of service.

Would Hitchcock's North by Northwest be as witty if Cary Grant hadn't urbanely sparred with an officious front-desk clerk at the Ambassador East in Chicago? Wouldn't Forgetting Sarah Marshall be even more forgettable had not the morose Jason Segel fallen in love at the front desk of Hawaii's Turtle Bay Resort? And while few saw the 2008 Samuel L. Jackson-Bernie Mac buddy flick called Soul Men, it did have a hilarious scene at the front desk of The Peabody in Memphis. Don't we all expect loud sirens and a computerized listing of our lodging indiscretions whenever we approach the front desk at a swanky, out-of-our-league hotel?

For all of its utility and celluloid fame, however, the days of the traditional hotel front desk may be numbered. For years, some deluxe hotels have whisked guests directly to their rooms and conducted the check-in formalities there. Now mid-market hotel chains are revamping their lobbies and replacing imposing front desks with little pedestals manned by customer-service agents. Some hotels have dispensed with stationary furniture altogether. They've turned the task of checking in guests over to roving "hosts" equipped with portable computers. And a few new-wave properties don't even have people. They assume arriving customers can handle their own check-ins via the lodging equivalent of automated-teller machines.

"The front desk we knew and once loved—it has to go," says hotel consultant Terence Ronson. "It's a false barrier between the hotel and the guest. It no longer works and should not be used."

The Courtyard by Marriott chain is doing just that. Its recent lobby redesign dumps the big, imposing central desk in favor of "welcome pedestals." Small areas where lobby personnel can handle the check-in and check-out formalities, the pedestals are designed to allow the hotel employee to step forward and assist guests with other needs too.

Our people "spend a lot of time in front of the pedestal," explains Janis Milham, vice president and global brand manager of Courtyard. "When you walk in, you can see the new pedestals. The message you're getting is that the artificial barrier of the front desk is gone."

Almost 200 of the 800 Courtyard properties in the United States have the new lobby and their welcome pedestals. One of Courtyard's hottest new competitors, the Hyatt Place chain, has also eliminated front desks. It, too, features smaller, walk-around pedestals.

But Hyatt's newest brand, called Andaz, has no desks or pedestals. Arriving guests are met by hosts who circulate around the lobby. You're invited to sit down and are offered a complimentary glass of wine or a cup of coffee. (Andaz properties have a barista on duty 24/7 in a lobby café.) The host then completes the check-in on a tablet computer. (Hyatt officials say the tablets will be replaced by iPads later this year.) When you're finished sipping and signing, the host escorts you to your guestroom.

"Andaz is about giving great service in a relaxed way," says Toni Hinterstoisser, general manager of the Andaz on Wall Street, which opened in February. "A host's job is very different [than a front-desk clerk's]. They are supposed to be like the conductor of a symphony. We want them to anticipate your needs when you check in, make you relaxed, and be the person you call throughout your stay when you need help."

The Andaz chain is small (it also has branches in London, Hollywood, San Diego, and on Fifth Avenue) and still working out its service concept. On two recent stays at the Wall Street outpost, which was carved out of the former headquarters of Barclays Bank, I found the check-in process somewhat peculiar.

Lacking a traditional front desk, the lobby (designed by David Rockwell) does feel more like an upscale lounge than the transactional center of a hotel. Most arriving guests do seem delighted by the prospect of a free beverage and a quick sit-down. But for experienced, Type A business travelers, the sip, schmooze, and sign process seems cumbersome, artificial, and slow.

On my first visit, the lobby's WiFi was down, so the host's tablet computer didn't work. On my second visit, the host seemed flummoxed when I turned down a drink, didn't want to sit down, and stressed that I just wanted to get to my room fast. He then laboriously pecked out the letters of my name with his tablet computer resting uncomfortably on his wrist.

Hinterstoisser, whose own hotel-keeping background is at luxury properties with a traditional front-desk arrangement, admits that his hosts sometime "push too much" to get arriving guests to accept a beverage and relax. "I stress to them that Andaz is about choice. They should have offered to take you directly to your room to do the check-in."

Hinterstoisser also told me that a small bank of unmarked computers tucked away in an unobtrusive area of the lobby allowed guests to check themselves in. "A lot of our returning guests now go directly to the computers and do it themselves," he explains.

The self-check-in philosophy is one of the high-tech memes driving citizenM, another new chain that has opened hotels at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, in downtown Amsterdam, and in Glasgow, Scotland. Among the hotel's innovation: totally automated check-in.

When you arrive at a citizenM, there is no traditional lobby and certainly no front desk. The lobby is dominated by a quick-serve café called canteenM. It sells prepared dishes (think the British Pret a Manger chain), coffee drinks created by a barista, and evening cocktails. There is also a series of "living rooms" where guests relax, work, or take meetings. To check in, you go to kiosks near the entryway. You swipe your credit card, confirm your details, and a plastic keycard is created. If you need assistance, one of the lobby's service staff comes over to help.

"We're changing the perception of what a hotel lobby does," says Robin Chadha, the chain's marketing expert, who I met when I stayed at the citizenM at Amsterdam Airport. "Today's traveler is more tech savvy and much less interested in the traditional relationship between hotels and guests."

That may be, but I've asked the same question to all of the hotel experts who are predicting (or replacing) that most iconic bit of lobby furniture: "Have guests ever complained to you about the existence of a traditional front desk?"

The answers are always a variation of the one I got from Milham of Courtyard. "I don't think the customer ever saw the front desk as a barrier," she said. "But the emerging business traveler is a Gen X/Gen Y type, and they do want something different. So even if they don't complain, you as the hotel operator have to realize the experience has to change."

The Fine Print…
Although the end of the old-style front desk may be inevitable, there remain notable dissenters. New York's Alex Hotel, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, has maintained a traditional front desk, despite its contemporary design and service standards. "People's main sense of contact with a hotel is the front desk," explains Michael Schneider, the director of sales and marketing. "Nine out of 10 people contact the front desk if they have a problem or need a service, so why get rid of it?"
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.