Most contactless service is awful. You can tell because the rich don’t do it.

Illustrated | iStock

COVID-19 isn’t easily transmitted by physical touch, as we’ve known for some time now. But we didn’t know that early in the pandemic, so many businesses sought to contain viral spread via contactless service. Now, as life reopens, lots of those changes are sticking around.

Hotels have self-serve iPad check-in, room service via vending machine, and chatbots instead of concierges — and if a recent Vox article is correct, this is “the new normal for travel.” In many restaurants, physical menus have disappeared, and diners are instead presented with a QR code they must scan with their smartphone camera. A Monday piece at Slate begs for the paper menu’s return, but its cri de coeur may go unheeded.

And that sucks. Most contactless service is awful, and industry blathering about convenience and customer preference shouldn’t convince you otherwise. It’s bad, you know it’s bad, and if you need outside verification, here it is: Rich people won’t go contactless.

Good, human service is the hallmark of a luxury experience. All the other stuff also matters, but when you pay a lot of money for a meal or hotel stay or shopping trip, the service is a central feature, and it cannot be replaced by a chatbot or a vending machine. Imagine you are a multi-millionaire, vacationing in extravagance. Maybe you’re staying in one of those overwater bungalows in the Maldives or at the Hôtel Ritz Paris or in the presidential suite of some palatial old pile where the nightly price isn’t listed on the website because if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

You will not do your own check-in on an iPad in the lobby, standing there with your greasy plane hair and your bags splayed out around you, punching a smudgy touch screen like a rube. You will not “speak” with a chatbot. You will not order your lobster thermidor from a vending machine eight doors down the hall. In fact, in the best hotels, you’ll get more human service, not less. The fanciest suites come with a dedicated concierge, a human one, with human knowledge of the surrounding area and its amenities that a bot with access to Google Maps will never, ever replicate.

The same is true of dining. Do you think Bill Gates bothers with a QR code menu? Does Jeff Bezos order a $800 bottle of wine from his phone, or does he talk to a sommelier? Does Barack Obama ask Michelle to read to him from the dessert PDF because his battery is just about dead and the battery-saver mode dimmed his screen and he can’t find his reading glasses and the print is really small?

Nah. The rich know — and pay for — better than this. I’ve been out to eat more than usual in the past couple months, and the fancier the place, the more human and normal the service has been. Three-star Michelin restaurants like Chicago’s Alinea, California’s The French Laundry and Atelier Crenn, and Virginia’s Inn at Little Washington are all printing their menus. These places realize — just as they did before the pandemic, when QR code menus were pitched as a novelty rather than a public health necessity — that contactless service in a sit-down restaurant is not desirable or even particularly convenient. It does not add to the experience. It does not increase consumer choice or facilitate good conversation. It’s needlessly complicated, especially with poor technical execution.

“I’m tired of having to navigate a new digital platform every time I eat out. I despise spending the first 10 minutes of a social engagement on my phone,” writes Christina Cauterucci in that Slate story. “I never again want to encounter, as I did last week, a QR code that leads to a website where each of the seven menu pages is a separate PDF that must be clicked, zoomed in on, and closed before moving on to the next.” Seven PDFs! That’s basically an undergraduate homework assignment. It’s absolutely ridiculous when you just want lunch.

For some people, of course, it’s more than ridiculous. It makes restaurant dining nigh impossible. Cauterucci has relatives without smartphones and/or the technical skills to navigate the QR system. So do I. What are they supposed to do? Why is it so difficult to give them a piece of paper? Even those of us capable of wrangling these needlessly arcane menus should beware of the phone-only approach: What if your phone is dead? What if the camera’s broken? What if — and I know this is unfathomable, but bear with me here — you left it at home because you were planning to have an uninterrupted conversation with your spouse on the occasion of your anniversary? And what if this becomes a new way to violate our digital privacy? (China is big on QR codes. It’s also a surveillance dystopia.)

There are a few contexts where contactless service can be useful, even ideal. I usually take the self-checkout lane at Target, and I like the self-check-in screens at the airport, provided they work and I don’t need to check any luggage or ask any questions, which is a lot of caveats. But big box stores and airports are markedly different from hotels and restaurants. The former are places for speed and efficiency, the latter for relaxation and pleasure. (Airport accommodations, on this schema, are more airport than hotel or restaurant.) Human service is not terribly important when you just want to buy some trash bags. It’s very important when you’re trying to savor a long-awaited vacation or a splurgy night out.

So Vox may prove right in its forecast that “hotels will never be the same.” But it will only be right about some hotels, and the same is true of restaurants. Low-end and independent outfits won’t be able to afford the tech or may choose to eschew it. High-end places will never expect their clientele to perform menial labor on their own vacations. It’s the middle that’s at risk of permanent, irritating, dehumanizing automation, especially big chains like Hyatt and Applebee’s, which espy a chance to lower operating costs by outsourcing work to the customer, who is there precisely so she doesn’t have to work.

That the future will be contactless might be a foregone conclusion, but it doesn’t make it any more palatable. Industry spin will never convince rich people they want to talk to a bot instead of a kind and competent person or to tab through seven PDFs to find the cocktail list. And on this one, the rich are completely right.


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