Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

I stayed in a hotel for the first time in almost a year. It was very weird

Have hotels invested heavily in technology during Covid? Has technology, in fact, replaced some essential service aspects? I went to find out.

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If you want peace, technology may not be able to deliver it.

Screenshot by ZDNet

Vaccination makes you a little more daring.

Or, perhaps, merely human.

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Having been to Costco and had a little Johnson and Johnson injected into me, I thought I'd venture out more into the world.

Last summer, my wife and I took a trip and risked staying in a hotel. Back then, it really did feel like a risk. We believed every surface harbored a sliver of virus -- since proven not to be true.

A vaccine didn't exist, so everything -- animate or not -- represented potential danger.

Would it now be different? Moreover, would hotels have used the time of COVID-19 to invest in technology and jettison some of the more human touches?

COVID-19 is, after all, an excellent excuse not to hire humans and to replace their functions with non-touch versions.

We were celebrating our wedding anniversary, so we wafted up to northern California's Wine Country and booked two hotels. The first, for a night. The second, for two. Each was well-starred and promised the usual bluster of serentiy and service.

Hotel Number One. A Heart Of Glass.

If I'd expected this hotel -- part of a so-called boutique group -- to have hands-free, talk-free check-in, that impression was quickly dispelled.

Yes, a pane of glass divided us from the check-in person. Otherwise, the process was as normal as it had ever been.

There were no perceptible technological bells, whistles or any other sounds. There were no temperature checks. A perfectly charming check-in person wished us a pleasant stay and told us the restaurant was fully open for breakfast and dinner.

The only difference, indeed, was that we were informed our room had been previously cleaned and wouldn't be cleaned during our stay.

Still, at least the elevators might now enjoy some elevated type of technology. But no. You pushed the button, the elevator came, you pushed another button inside and up it went.

There were no entreaties to sanitize. There were no rules -- as in our previous COVID-19 hotel experience -- that only one party could be in the elevator at the same time.

This was the old normal, rather than the new. It was just that everyone was wearing a mask.

The room was, in all honesty, a ripoff. It was dowdy. The bath was extremely well worn. The walls looked grimy. Perhaps, though, breakfast would be technologically charged.

It wasn't. No iPads. No touchscreen ordering. Just a paper menu, a server and some bacon and eggs, all served at our table. This contrasted with boxed breakfasts in our last hotel stay.

Where was this promised future of hotels that are sleek and deeply impersonal? Had it not materialized? Had this hotel simply not had the money to make tech investments?

Perhaps our next hotel would be different. It was a little posher, so surely had more money.

Hotel Number Two. Welcome Back, Civilization.

Surely this hotel would have teched itself up. It was barely a couple of hours drive from Silicon Valley. So many winery owners are people who made their money in the Valley and decided to buy some credibility. Or, at least, a vast ego trip.

We arrived early. Four hours before the appointed check-in time. We'd stayed at this hotel before and liked it. Frankly, we were concerned that it would have turned into a tech-driven paradise (I mean, hell.)

Instead, humans behind the check-in counter. Not one, but two. While one was busy with customers, we chatted with the other about Spanish football (saacker).

There was no glass to separate us. There were no social distance markers on the ground. And this was all before the state of California had relaxed its COVID-19 measures.

Check-in was a delight. Yes, the lovely human behind the desk said she could get us into a room immediately. My wife had to work and I had to watch a football match on my laptop. The check-in person wished my team luck. They always need it.

Nothing had changed. Literally nothing.  

Somehow, this hotel had also decided it was better -- could it also be cheaper? -- to have humans greet customers, offer them a personal service and smile at them with their eyes.

I confess I was surprised. Surely, the long-term solution is technological. You check in with your phone. You open your hotel door with your phone. You pour drinks with your phone (I feel sure some Peter Thiel-backed company is working on this right now.)

The rest of the stay was wonderful. The room was completely inviting. The bar was open. There was even the normal room-cleaning service. The only real difference is that there was no longer a buffet breakfast. Instead, the hotel gave you vouchers to eat at a local breakfast place.

Tech Takes Money. A Lot Of Money.

It comes down to lucre, of course.

Though the hotels we stayed at may have been high-margin businesses, they apparently saw no need to invest in post-COVID-19 gizmotics.

Their margins were created by people and feelings, not tech tricks. 

Yes, the pandemic had affected their business, but they were recouping their losses by, at least party, charging a little more. (Or, in the case of the first hotel, ridiculously more.)

It's the larger chains, the worldwide chains that may invest more in technology first. They see economies of scale where the more boutique hotels may see few to none, even if Kayak has just opened a boutique hotel in Miami, promising tech to be at its heart.

The big chains have traditionally been geared toward business travelers who want the ins and outs to be easy. They have little time for the personal touch.

Perhaps, then, there will be a greater coming contrast. Stay at a big brand hotel for more efficiency and more impersonality. But if you really want peace, relaxation and, yes, civilization, the human aspects still can't be beaten, COVID-19 or not.