The Dark Side of Contactless Check-in

The front desk is where hotel guests may have their only exchange with an employee. But digital check-ins, a trend that has taken off during the pandemic, does away with that interpersonal aspect — and makes it easier for potential human trafficking to occur.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Human trafficking

Contactless check-ins at hotels makes it easier for human trafficking to take place.

We can chalk up the preference for contactless check-ins to people’s perception that it’s safer to limit the potential for COVID-19 exposure through interactions with others, as well as the idea that digital check-in offers a more seamless experience. Whatever the reason, “there is an increased desire for more contactless experiences throughout the travel journey,” Tammy Routh, senior vice president of global sales at Marriott International, told Convene earlier this year. “We are leveraging contactless technologies available to help reimagine the guest experience.”

Likewise for Hyatt: “The impact of the pandemic has led us to accelerate digital transformation across the hotel experience,” said Asad Ahmed, Hyatt’s senior vice president of commercial service. “These efforts to evolve our technology also reduce some of the transactional elements of the front-desk experience.”

Independent hotels also are embracing this trend. Nashville’s The Gallatin advises potential guests on its website that “there will not be an employee on-site to check in/out with.” Instead, guests are emailed a unique QR code that gives them access to the building and their room.

Sandy Bibeck

Sandy Biback

Sandy Biback, CMP Emeritus, CMM, is not a fan. “I have a real problem with the contactless check-in,” Biback, founder of Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking (MPAHT), told Convene. Staff who have been trained in how to recognize sex trafficking may get a sense that someone coming up to the front desk could be a trafficker or a victim, she said. “But if I’m walking through the lobby and I already have my key in my hand,” it may not come to staff’s attention that something is suspicious.

Biback said she is aware that this is what the business traveler is asking for. “That’s fine, but there’s so much money laundering involved in trafficking,” she said, “that you can catch in the bud if they’re checking in at the front desk.”

In July, when Marriott announced that it will launch an updated version of its human trafficking awareness training, the company acknowledged that “COVID-19 has ushered in more contactless and mobile hotel experiences, which can make it more difficult to spot potential indicators of trafficking.” The new training, according to the press release, features “increased guidance on how to respond to potential situations of human trafficking — critical enhancements based on hotel-level feedback to help associates turn awareness into action and continue the fight against multinational crime.”

While Biback has not seen the updated training, she said the fact the Marriott is making it available in early 2022 to the entire hospitality industry is “awesome.” It’s all about awareness, she said. “The more we become aware, the more we can do.”


‘An Even Greater Impact’

Marriott International collaborated with ECPAT-USA and Polaris, two nonprofits dedicated to combatting human trafficking, to launch its original human trafficking awareness training in 2016, making it mandatory for all on-property staff. The training has been delivered to more than 850,000 associates, according to a Marriott press release, “which has helped identify instances of human trafficking, protect associates and guests, and support victims and survivors.”

That original training was donated to the entire hospitality industry, a move Marriott will repeat with the updated version, working with ECPAT-USA and the American Hotel and Lodging Association Foundation. “Half a million hotel associates [from other companies] have already completed the existing e-learning program since we made it available in 2020,” Lori L. Cohen, ECPAT-USA’s CEO, said in the release, “and the new information and innovative features of this updated training will facilitate an even greater impact.”

Learn more about Marriott’s updated training on the ECPAT-USA blog.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.


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