I encountered a nice touch on a business-trip stay at the URBN Hotel Shanghai, where on arrival, the receptionist declined to take my credit card for a deposit. In doing so, she was essentially saying, "Your credit is good." I’m an occasional guest there, and frog’s Shanghai studio sends a fair number of folks to stay there, too—but the familiarity and recognition was still a momentary, pleasant surprise.
Recognizing the customer with a "Welcome back Ms. —" is one of the basics of service design; it acknowledges who we are and reinforces our "right" to be in that (private) space. In the context of an upscale environment, it gently massages the ego. The check-in process for hotels is fairly formulaic: You show your passport and credit card, the first of which is legally required, at least in China; the other is dependent on the company should it turn out your credit is not good. Waiving the need for a credit card is a small step. After all, if an establishment immediately recognizes you when you enter, it should have your (most likely valid) credit card on file.
The recognition process today is often a two-stage affair: The first task dredges up an identifier of who you are, and the second delivers recognition of that bit of identification. The less the first task is noticed, the more natural or magical or caring it seems. Looking at a name on a credit card and saying, "Hello, Mr. Chipchase," does not cut it. It’s not seamless and gracefully choreographed. The U.S. immigration official who handles your passport annotates the anything-to-declare form, then smoothly gives the customs official a heads-up to pull you aside. The receptionists at the ANA First lounge in Tokyo’s Narita Airport greet you on arrival and call through to staff in the lounge who are then able to greet you by name. (Yeah, I know, more travel examples.)