By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/28/2010 9:47:50 AM ET 2010-10-28T13:47:50

As a marketing consultant for automotive dealerships, Ross Thornhill is no stranger to long days on the road. That’s why, on a recent business trip to Boston, he was pleased to pull into the Aloft hotel in Lexington, Mass., skip the check-in process at the front desk, and use a pre-programmed, RFID-enabled keycard to unlock the door to his room.

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“It’s nice to know that if I’m tired and I already know what room I’m going to, that I can just go,” said Thornhill, underscoring a burgeoning trend that promises to redefine the relationship between hotels and their guests.

If you want it done fast, goes the logic, sometimes it makes sense to do it yourself.

Related: Some hotel chains ditching the front desk

Your stay, your way
Clearly, the self-service genie is not going back in the hospitality bottle. More versatile kiosks, more web-enabled devices, changing demographics — all are contributing to the idea that much of the minutiae of travel can be handled by machines and even moderately tech-savvy travelers.

“Over the last four or five years, people have seen the airlines and rental car companies streamline their processes,” said Pascal Metivier, CEO of OpenWays, the developer of a cellphone-based, door-lock system currently being tested by Holiday Inn. “The hotel industry has had trouble addressing the issue.”

That’s slowly changing, thanks to improvements in technology and the realization among hoteliers that, for some travelers at least, the traditional front desk process is actually a hindrance to good hospitality. “The thought process is evolving,” said Metivier. “Excellence in customer service revolves around letting you, as a guest, choose the way you want to interact with the hotel.”

Vote: What hotel check-in option do you prefer?

'Self-service is consistent'
For Daniel Mount, an associate professor at the School of Hotel Management at Penn State, it’s all about providing a more consistent experience: “The delivery of service is a process, and the source of the greatest variation in the delivery of that process are human beings. Self-service is consistent — it’s not always outstanding, but it’s consistent.”

The Holiday Inn program forgoes keycards altogether, opting instead for a system in which guests can unlock their doors with their cell phones. Called MobileKey, it involves getting a travel-day text message, but one that includes a link to an encrypted audio tone that can be played back to open the door.

The system is currently being piloted at the Holiday Inn & Suites Chicago-O’Hare and Holiday Inn Express Houston Downtown with enrollment topping 200 in the first month of operation.

Tag your own bag
While hotels are just starting to roll out such efforts, the airline industry is already taking do-it-yourself travel to the next level. Next month, Air Canada and American Airlines are expected to begin testing a program at Logan Airport in which passengers will be able to print their own baggage tags before handing them off to customer-service agents. “We’re waiting on TSA to work through some of the details and sign off on the project,” said Steve Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association. “We hope to see the pilot launched fairly soon.”

Similar programs, he adds, are already common overseas, where 32 airlines, mostly in Europe, offer “bags ready to go” programs. In Canada, both Air Canada and WestJet let passengers print and affix their own baggage tags, although DHS/TSA rules still prohibit the service for U.S.-bound flights.

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“Most guests enjoy it,” said WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer. “It allows us to get out from behind the counters and interact more with our guests. It should also have a positive impact on on-time performance as we’ll be moving guests through the check-in process more quickly.”

Frequent flier Marie Lotode Chandra, for one, is all for it. As the founder of Via Her Inc., a producer of city guides for women business travelers, she already gets her boarding pass via cellphone whenever possible and self-tags her bags when overseas: “All I want to do is go from Point A to Point B as fast and smoothly as possible. If it speeds up the process, I’m all for it.”

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The human factor
Whatever the system, proponents of self-service travel insist it’s not about eliminating human contact, but rather changing the nature of it and, potentially, enhancing it. Those who prefer to interact with a human being will always have the option of doing so. “The same traveler who uses self-service on a business trip may want to visit the front desk when he’s traveling with his family,” said Metivier.

Others will swing by when heading to the pool or other places where they don’t want to carry their phone or wallet. The difference is that they’ll do so when it suits them, rather than as a prerequisite for getting into their room.

Likewise, such systems are clearly better suited for some market segments than others. “For certain hotels and certain segments, self-service makes sense,” said Mount, “but it’s not right for every situation. It probably won’t work in resorts where guests have a lot of questions — Where is this? Where is that? — or at high-end properties. The higher the average rate, the more people want human beings to wait on them.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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Vote: What hotel check-in option do you prefer?

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