Despite the lingering economic turndown, hotels are investing in technology to ensure that tech-loving travelers are as content in the hotel room as they are in their fully-equipped homes.
Or perhaps a bit happier, given that hoteliers are offering access to new devices like the iPad, IP TV, and a slew of smartphone apps that enable guests to check in and order room service from their phone.
For some hotel chains, though, the fundamentals come first. For instance, most guests assume that wireless Internet access is a basic service, yet robust, reliable connectivity remains a serious challenge in the hospitality industry.
"One of the things we are refocusing on is reliable, quality high-speed connectivity," said Bryson Koehler, senior vice president of revenue and guest technology for the InterContinental Hotels Group, which includes Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza, among other brands. "We need the right infrastructure to support guest demands for bandwidth-intensive activities like videoconferencing, watching online video, and Skype calls."
To achieve that goal, Intercontinental is installing 45Mbps DS3 lines in some hotels and combining (or "bonding") two cable modems to boost bandwidth in others, he said.
More Than Just Wi-Fi Access
Marriott is taking a holistic approach to better networks with an initiative called ClearSkyNet. The tactic comprises a consolidated information network that will deliver faster Internet access and enable new technologies like in-room IP TV. The Seattle Pioneer Square Courtyard by Marriott will be the first property outfitted with the new infrastructure when it opens in mid June; Marriott says that eight others will soon follow.
"We are looking at our networks very differently than in the past," said Page Petry, Marriott's senior vice president of information resources. "Rather than having multiple networks that support all technologies, [the Seattle] hotel has a converged network that supports all components: TV, back-of-the-house systems, guest high-speed Internet access."
The ClearSkyNet infrastructure will enable hotels to adjust bandwidth to meet shifting needs. For instance, if participants in a technology conference in the meeting areas consume an inordinate amount of bandwidth, the hotel will be able to increase capacity to the meeting while ensuring that other systems, like IP TV, maintain have adequate bandwidth. Most hotels, Petry said, will employ a DS3 45Mbps external connection to the Net.
Marriott's IP TV service will launch in mid-June at the Seattle Courtyard by Marriott with 65 channels, 50 of which will be in high definition, Petry said. The service will offer a scrollable electronic guide, much like in-home cable services. That means no more aimless shuffling through channels to find the station you want.
Access Your Home DVR on the Road
InterContinental Hotels is taking TV in a different, albeit familiar, direction. Koehler said that his group is gearing up to test in-room network-based DVRs that can access content stored on the guest's home DVR.
"We are in talks with Verizon and AT&T to extend the DVR," he said. "The downside is that the companies have somewhat restricted markets, but they are both available in most large cities and that's where we're headed. We'll have a pilot in an Atlanta hotel this year."
Some hotel companies are extending new technology to the guestroom door. InterContinental, for instance, is conducting a trial with a company called OpenWays that will enable guests to unlock their doors with their smartphones. Aloft Hotels, a brand of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, is rolling out a Smart Check In feature that enables guests to bypass check in and open the guestroom door with a personal RFID keycard.
New technologies aren't limited to rooms, however. Many hotels realize that they can make a bigger splash with innovations in lobbies and other public areas.
InterContinental Hotels has installed Microsoft Surface tabletop computers in concierge lounges of three InterContinental brand hotels. "It's a richer, more interactive experience," Koehler said. "A lot of people have seen Surface in movies and TV shows, but they haven't seen it in real life. It's a cool factor."
Marriott has hung 57-inch interactive touchscreen TVs in about 150 properties (and will achieve 300 installations by year's end) that provide a portal for information like attractions, airport information, weather, and maps. The devices, known as GoBoards, also enable guests to print info and take it with them.
More public guest technology also makes sense for Holiday Inns because "our average customer is social and doesn't want to stay in the room," said Koehler. The company is experimenting with interactive touchscreens that will serve as an information portal as well as public telepresence, he said.
Sheraton Hotels & Resorts, on the other hand, is going with tried-and-true technologies for its lobbies. The company has installed a lobby lounge it calls Link@Sheraton in more than 360 hotels. The Link@Sheraton provides free Wi-Fi for those who bring their own portable devices, as well as Internet-connected desktops and printers for guests to e-mail, browse the Web, and print boarding passes.