The SoBro Guest House has merged technology and philosophy by automating its check-in and check-out process to focus on engagement by texting with guests throughout their stay.
NASHVILLE, Tennessee—As the hotel industry experiments with different forms of guest communication through texting and messaging, a hotel in Nashville has based its entire operational model on engaging with guests through their phones.
The SoBro Guest House has no front desk. The only staff members guests will regularly see on property are housekeepers. Though there is a manager on duty at night, no one on staff stays on property overnight.
To check in and check out, to request a restaurant recommendation, to ask for something in the middle of the night, guests use their phones.
Starting the hotel
GM Kim Rittenberry said the concept of the hotel took into account Airbnb’s growing popularity and its “do-it-yourself guest experiences.” At the same time, the team also believed there were a lot of people who would be interested in something like Airbnb but hesitant to try it over privacy or safety concerns, she said.
The goal was to provide a real hotel setting run by a real hotel company with experienced hoteliers which, while meeting guests’ safety and cleanliness needs, would also make them feel like they’re staying in an apartment downtown rather than in a stark hotel room, Rittenberry said.
The old school of thought is check-in and check-out are the “alpha and omega, the pillars of the stay,” she said. By turning that into a mobile function, she said, the hotel staff is able to focus on what happens between check-in and check-out to build a stronger, more personalized relationship.
Rittenberry said she has been part of a number of failed attempts by hotels at various times to eliminate the lines at check-in. When she worked at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in 2000, the hotel implemented a kiosk system for guests to check in and out, she said.
“It was a total flop,” she said. “The guests were not ready to be checking themselves in and out. They were not of the mindset to do this back then.”
The technology wasn’t strong enough, Rittenberry said, and guests still had to wait in line to get their actual guestroom key. It wasn’t really solving the problem, because it made check-in more cumbersome, she said.
Now that technology has advanced enough, and people are generally addicted to their smartphones, the hotel industry is in a place where both the technology and guests are ready for the next step, Rittenberry said.
“We realized we had a real opportunity to make this happen and be successful with it, to do an Airbnb-type check-in with all the power of an experienced hotel team and hotel management company behind it,” she said.
When the 24-room hotel opened in October 2016, Rittenberry kept a close watch, waiting for the first mobile check-in to happen. “Once it did, I said, ‘Oh my god, this is going to work,’” she said.
How it works
The SoBro Guest House team worked with software developers who solidified the property management system and mobile tech for the check-in process.
The fully-automated system sends guests an email at 10 a.m. the day of their arrival, and is set to check them in as soon as the room is ready. A keyless lock system sends out the guestroom PIN via a text message.
“We envisioned people coming to the property, wearily dropping off their luggage and getting lunch,” Rittenberry said. “They can get a text message when the rooms with all of the details are ready.”
It’s important to provide this kind of arrival experience, so guests can start enjoying their time in Nashville while everything else happens behind the scenes, she said.
Guests can also request grocery service before or during their stay via email or text, and the staff can stock guestroom kitchens before guests arrive or deliver the groceries to the room during the stay.
Though there isn’t a traditional check-in and check-out, Rittenberry said the SoBro Guest House is a true hotel where guests can expect the services they would receive at other hotels.
There are three hotel managers who cover the hotel 24 hours a day, and the hotel employs three to four housekeepers for daily housekeeping. Guests generally understand the hotel is a blended concept and has a lean operating model, she said.
“We try to get guests to understand they will get the most engagement between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.,” she said. “After that, we’re not here at the property. If they need something, we will come back. For the most part, we don’t get too many calls late at night unless there is an issue.”
The staff can run the hotel remotely, with the exception of housekeeping.
“I ran the hotel from Houston for three weeks,” Rittenberry said.
Staff log in on about 18 different software systems. The PMS is linked to the extranet for everything from online travel agencies to guest surveys, social media and revenue management system.
Not all communications with guests is through email or text messages; the staff is also available by phone, Rittenberry said. She added that guests don’t seem to miss the face-to-face interaction because people are so used to communicating by text now.
“It’s interesting to read some of the remarks we’ve seen in reviews,” she said. “People said they thought they would miss out on seeing staff, but because the staff is so engaged in other ways, they didn’t miss that.”
Guests can interact with a virtual concierge through texts and get responses form the staff on duty, Rittenberry said. Each morning, a concierge text notifies guests of different nearby attractions.
Guests still feel like they are taken care of, and service is available when they want it and it’s not in their faces when they don’t want it, Rittenberry said.
“They get into the convenience of it,” she said. “They know it’s a live person on the other side.”
At traditional hotels, front-desk agents are sitting there waiting for interaction, Rittenberry said, and often those interactions can come off as scripted and feeling unnatural.
Because most of the interactions at the SoBro are by text and email, when guests do meet with staff, they’re pleasantly surprised to see someone and there’s already a relationship established, she said.
“We’re able to focus on the important moments of somebody’s experiences on vacation,” she said. “The important moment is not when they’re checking in or when they leave. The important moments are the memories they made, the interactions with the staff while they’re in the city doing their thing. We’re giving them recommendations every day, talking to them about their experiences.”