What’s Ahead for In-Room Entertainment

Guestrooms at the dana hotel and spa in Chicago have high-quality audio and video entertainment systems.

For years, hotel owners have operated under a simple rule of thumb when it comes to in-room amenities, particularly TVs and entertainment: Guests expect what they have at home, or maybe a little better. Today, with most households sporting a wide range of technologies, devices and programming, it’s getting more difficult to meet that standard.

“It’s an old paradigm,” says Mark Ozawa, Denver-based vice president of Accuvia Consulting. “There was a time when people would travel to hotels to experience things they didn’t have at home: air conditioning, color TV, HBO. Over time, however, the industry got to a point where the hotel experience was inferior to what consumers had at home in terms of older TVs and limited programming.”

Now, as Ozawa says, it’s difficult to even benchmark against what guests have at home because there are so many technology options available it’s impossible to find the one combination of offerings to meet everyone’s expectations.

“Instead, most hotels now try to provide a high-quality, but basic entertainment platform that probably includes a flat-panel, high-def TV and a reasonable amount of programming,” he says. “Beyond that, it’s important that hotels also provide the technology guests can use to plug in their own laptops, iPads or other devices.”

Another sore point for hotel guests is the lack of HD programming in many hotel rooms, even those with flat-panel TV sets. Hotel IT consultant Dr. Andreas Krobath believes some hoteliers are overwhelmed by the complexity of in-room technology.

“Obviously, this is beyond the competency of many hoteliers,” says Krobath, president of Germany-based Absolute Future. “Many of them believe placing fancy new (TV) displays in a guestroom is the obvious solution. But unfortunately that doesn’t provide the whole experience guests want and expect.”

Ozawa believes the entertainment infrastructure and programming strategy must be considered in concert to create a package that pleases guests. “If not, and if any one part of the equation is substandard, you’ve destroyed the entire experience.”

Audio entertainment may be the next frontier in in-room entertainment. While some hotel guestrooms have high-quality TVs with HD programming, not many provide high-quality sound systems to complement the TV offerings, as well as to give music-loving guests another entertainment option. There are exceptions, however.

The dana hotel and spa in Chicago upgraded the entertainment in its 216 guestrooms with the addition of high-end sound systems. The speakers in the system provide surround sound for the rooms’ flat-screen TVs and enable guests to plug-in their own entertainment systems for movies, music and podcasts.

“It allows our guests to travel with their own entertainment,” says Liana Clark, director of sales and marketing for the two-year-old boutique property. “The front of the system is an iPod dock, but on the back is a place to plug-in other types of MP3 players. The guests don’t all need to be Apple people to enjoy the great sound of the system.”

Why take the extra step? “Our owners travel a lot so they approached the design of the hotel through the eyes of a guest,” says Clark. “We want guests of the dana to feel they’re in their own home, if their home is a penthouse apartment in Chicago.”

Taking the concept a step further, the guestrooms in the new Aloft Hotel in Abu Dhabi have connectivity panels guests can use to play any media—laptops, digital cameras, iPods, game consoles—from their portable electronics through the in-room TV. In addition, a Bluetooth device makes the system wireless, enabling users to stream music from their smartphones through TV speakers without cables. A guest can then control the music from anywhere in the guest unit, even the bathroom.

Several hotel chains are experimenting with new options that could bring hotel in-room entertainment more in line with what guests have at home. Marriott is testing a new infrastructure package at a Courtyard in Seattle that should deliver faster Internet access and enable new technologies like Internet-delivered TV programming. The IP TV service is scheduled to launch this month with 65 channels, 50 of which will be in high definition. In addition, the service will feature a scrollable channel guide—again, like most consumers have at home—that will ease programming selections.

Even more ambitious is a test IHG is about to launch in an Atlanta hotel sometime this year that involves network-based DVRs that will allow guests to access content stored on their home DVRs. IHG is hush about further specifics of the plan, but according to published reports, the company is working with Verizon and AT&T on the project. While each has a large network, the system, if implemented, will probably be restricted to properties in large metropolitan areas.

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