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Check out the new check-in style

March 22, 2009|Valli Herman

Moments after stepping from the taxi in front of the Andaz hotel in West Hollywood, Elise Faur settled into a padded leather chair, a thick rug beneath her feet.

"I'm so relaxed right now," said Faur, a regional manager for Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Healdsburg, Calif.

A hotel "host" delivered a bottle of water and knelt at her side, swiftly tapping on a hand-held computer no bigger than a stenographer's notebook. Quickly, the host used the device to confirm her reservation information, swipe her credit card and activate her guest room keys.

What? No front desk? Has check-in become obsolete? No, hotel experts say, but the ritual is certainly changing.

Faur never stood in line, never waited for a clerk to retype her reservation information and never was ignored so the clerk could answer the phone.

Andaz, a new, hip hotel brand from Hyatt, has no lobby telephones or agents behind imposing counters. A communal table set with jars of candy, bowls of fruit and a selection of wine is as close as you'll get to the front desk of old.

Andaz is one of the first U.S. hotels to do away with a front desk. Elsewhere, automated kiosks allow some travelers to confirm their reservations at airport terminals or in hotel lobbies. At the new Aloft chain, which has a hotel in Rancho Cucamonga, guests can use a lobby kiosk to check in and obtain keys, or consult with a nearby human to complete the process.

Hoteliers are closely watching the West Hollywood Andaz as they consider how to streamline and improve their service.

"The reliance on the front desk is going to diminish greatly because technology will allow it," says Laurence Barron, chief information officer for the American Hotel & Lodging Assn. in Orlando, Fla.

"Online reservations have come around to the point where that process does most of the information gathering. At the front desk, you're just validating the credit card and confirming that the person who made the reservation is the person showing up."

Now the front desk functions less like an administrative center, Barron says, and "more like a concierge desk." "Now the clerks can ask, 'While you're here, will you be going to the spa? Would you like dinner reservations? What else can we help you with?' "

Many luxury hotels have ushered in the idea of a speedier check-in process but used old-fashioned hand-holding. Many developed pre-registration processes that helped gather guest information ahead of arrival. Even as technology now performs many of the same functions, luxury hoteliers know they can't give up individual attention.

"Check-in is usually the most impersonal experience -- as if you're making a visa application from a cholera-infested country," says Ali Kasikci, managing director of Montage Beverly Hills, a new luxury hotel. Arriving guests, hoteliers have realized, are ready for some relief.

"Some hotels use high-tech to increase efficiency," Kasikci says. "We use high-tech to enhance high-touch."

At Montage, guests who book a limousine through the hotel also get a driver who calls the hotel 10 minutes before arrival to let valet attendants know who is sitting where in the car so that arriving guests can be greeted by name. The bellman radios the names to the front desk clerk, who has a folder with the guest's reservation information, keys, confirmation of in-room preferences and messages. A staff member dedicated to the check-in process usually escorts the guest to the room.

"There has to be always a human interaction," says Kasikci, who emphasizes that even as hotels and their services evolve, they cannot ignore personal contact, the root of hospitality. (A similar process is used at the Peninsula Beverly Hills, where Kasikci was formerly managing director.)

Though technology and pressure to operate hotels efficiently can hinder pampering, even ordinary folks can find ways to streamline the check-in process: Just follow the example of celebrities.

They, or rather their assistants, send copies of the front and back of the credit card, along with other paperwork the hotel needs, says Rod Gruendyke, general manager of the celebrity-heavy Sunset Marquis Hotel. Check-in can take as little as 45 seconds and provide a valuable contact point.

It may be shortsighted to abolish or diminish the function of a front desk clerk, Gruendyke says: "In my 35 years of being in the hotel business, I've found that when you actually get to the hotel, the front desk is your ally."

Those clerks have "more power than you think," he says, including the ability to upgrade your room, deliver on your requests promptly and remember you next time, especially if you tip them at the end of your stay.

Still, harried travelers seem to appreciate the efficiency that technology and new procedures have allowed. Faur, of Jordan Winery, wasn't in a hurry to get up from her comfy chair at Andaz.

"The check-in line is usually the last line you stand in at the end of the day," she says. "The last thing you want to do is wait."

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travel@latimes.com

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