Keystone hotel uses foreign workers to check in guests via live video feed
Behind the front desk Thursday afternoon at the Alpine Slopes Lodge sat Aileen Carmelo, a smiling face eager to help any would-be guests.
In many ways, the 36-year-old receptionist functioned just like any other good one would — she was polite, professional and happy to help, whether it be making reservations or checking in guests.
Only Carmelo isn’t like most front desk workers. She’s studied in the U.S. but has never actually been to the hotel or even Summit County.
Rather she’s working out of her home in the Philippines, supporting the Keystone hotel’s front desk via a remote video feed. And she’s not alone.
The business owner of the 58-room Alpine Slopes Lodge, Eric Utz, has four foreign employees — three from the Philippines and one in the Dominican Republic — working regular shifts at the hotel at the base of Keystone Ski Resort.
Utz notes he’s made numerous improvements and seen rising profits since taking over the hotel. He thinks his latest idea, outsourcing some of the front desk operations to solve staffing problems, could be a game-changer in the hospitality industry. He showed off exactly how it works on Thursday.
“This is something that other hotels need to consider and that I’ve been working on a for a number of months along with David Dean, my business partner in this project,” Utz said, explaining he hopes to sell the idea to other hotels, motels or properties with a check-in process.
The Alpine Slopes Lodge has certainly had its fair share of trouble as of late. Some might remember the hotel was the center of attention in a April 27 Summit Daily story that reported Utz has operated the hotel under a lease with the property owner, Roman Kowalewicz, since 2012 and that Kowalewicz is suing to evict Utz.
Also, the hotel has earned a dubious distinction at the Summit County Sheriff’s Office by generating more calls for the department than any other property in unincorporated Summit County in 2017.
Things have certainly improved since Utz returned from Florida to take a more active role in the hotel. Still, a sheriff’s office sergeant said Friday that while the number of calls has gone down, all of the problems have not yet been corrected.
As Utz continues to deal with these issues and others, he’s also working out some of “the glitches” in his new “remote staff” system, as the hotel workers’ schedule describes the four foreign workers, who’ve been given regular shifts alongside housekeeping, maintenance, breakfast servers and the regular, in-person front desk staff.
“The hotel is a 365-day-a-year business so there always needs to be somebody available to attend to a guest,” Utz said.
With that in mind, he intends to keep his in-person front desk workers on the job and will rely on the remote staff mostly to offload pressure during peak hours, generally 3:30-6:30 p.m., and to be the only ones on duty during the graveyard shift.
For Carmelo, the job is a blessing. In the Philippines, the minimum wage works out to little more than $2,000 to $2,500 annually. With $5 US an hour, she said she makes more than four times that amount.
Utz was so impressed with Carmelo’s skills, he said, that he decided to give her a clothing allowance. Her $5 wage is a boost as well, going from the $3-an-hour to where she is now after Utz made the decision to giver her a raise.
“We find that these folks — we do screen them — are very reliable,” Utz said of his foreign workers.
Utz said he pays them via Western Union and other wire-transfer services. Because they’re overseas, payroll taxes don’t come into play, he added.
The way it works is that keys are set out on the counter inside white envelopes with various numbers written on them. The numbers don’t correspond to any room numbers. Instead, when guests come to check in, the remote staff will simply tell someone which room he or she is in and which envelope to take.
“We already do this now,” Utz explained. “We leave a couple (envelopes) out at night with random numbers on them and let our late-night person know. If we have a walk-in who comes in at 1 in the morning… we tell them to take the envelope with number ‘24725’ on it,” to get their room key.
Utz admitted he’s still streamlining the process. For instance, it’s important to speak in the general direction of the microphone so the remote staff can hear.
For him, the biggest steps going forward could be enlisting the use of QR codes that guests receive via email and can use at check-in or to get into a room. He also has plans to set up more video cameras for monitoring and get a scanner for IDs and credit card payments.
The scanner won’t copy the documents, Utz said, only make them viewable so his remote staff can enter the information in the correct fields.
He’s working on the remote staffing system with Dean, a Crested Butte resident whom Utz describes as his “limited business partner.” Dean said they’ll measure the success of the new system based on customer reviews.
On Thursday, two people sought Carmelo’s help at the front desk. One woman checked in, providing her ID and payment information before going on her way with her key.
The other was a man looking to make reservations for his father coming into town to visit later this month. Afterward, the man said the experience felt “new,” but he left with a reservation on a matching rate nonetheless.
As far as Alpine Slopes Lodge having any fears some people might be upset they’re outsourcing jobs overseas, they seem like they can handle that.
“I have had some comments on that, and it just really depends on the individual,” Etz said. “There are some people that are really, you know, the ‘keep jobs at home’ type mantra. But there are others that say, ‘It’s a free global economy and we should share the wealth.’”
For Dean, it’s not so much about the money. They aren’t looking to reduce the wages they’d pay a local person, he said, but pay someone “who appreciates that job more than a local person would.”
Company officials say every aspect of Vail management is now focused on attaining the company’s goal of achieving a zero net operating footprint by 2030. Vail Resorts calls the plan their “Commitment to Zero,” and defines it a zero net carbon emissions by 2030, zero waste to landfills, and zero operating impact on forests and natural habitat.