BUSINESS CENTERS COME OUT OF THE CLOSET

Remember when meeting planners requested little more than a screen and overhead projector as parts of their audio/visual requirements? As a former event manager/catering director of several Cleveland-area hotels throughout the ‘80s, I do. Technology expectations were minimal. In fact, the hotel copier was probably the most requested piece of guest-use equipment, as facsimile machines were just coming of age and business centers existed only in large convention-center hotels or luxury properties.

How things have changed

The business center has become a staple of the lodging industry, spanning luxury, limited-service and economy locations. Location and layout have changed, too. Many hotel companies find that bringing business services into the open — in the lobby, the meeting-room corridors, and the restaurant — makes both dollars and sense. Guests can check e-mail and work on laptops virtually anywhere on property, as long as the hotel is equipped with sufficient broadband and network infrastructure.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts is a pioneer in this area with its Link@Sheraton program. Link@Sheraton takes advantage of under-utilized hotel lobby space by creating a communal lounge featuring comfortable seating, refreshments and a plasma television. Multiple Internet-enabled computers complete with free 24/7 Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity, as well as PrintMe features for airline boarding passes and other documents, also are provided.

Similarly, Marriott is introducing the notion of public area technology integration. The basic idea is to create a public space where technology becomes a seamless part of the surroundings, allowing guests the ability to use technology for business or pleasure while enjoying the comforts of the area.

Not that traditional, private business centers are on their way out.

Guest-served vs. self-served

Most franchised hotels must follow brand standards when determining minimum requirements for business services, even those as simple as providing a computer and printer equipped with Internet access. More extensive services include a hotel-managed and -staffed business center with workstations, high-speed copiers, package handling, specialty production devices for making large transparencies and complete presentation preparation services.

Meanwhile, automated, self-service business centers are growing in popularity, especially in the mid-scale and limited-service sectors. These can be located off the lobby or directly in the lobby for maximum exposure. They are ideal for guests who require little or no assistance because the tasks they need to perform are identical to ones they perform at home or office, such as checking e-mails or working on a document.

While automation can complement manned services, some believe their clientele will not accept anything but personal service. For a vast majority of hotels, automation allows the hotel to provide a level of quality service that would not be economically feasible if services were provided with an attendant present. A blend of attended and self-service might be the solution for those in-between.

Many spin-offs of business services are getting attention and traction in the lodging community. For example, single-function kiosks for boarding-pass printing are extremely popular and have even become standards with chains like Hyatt, with its FastBoard• product, and the Affinia Manhattan, with its FastCheck-In system.

In larger properties, Internet stations or client-network stations in meeting-room areas enable attendees to check e-mail and other Internet functions while remaining near the event they are attending. The hotel's event-technology or audiovisual company often can manage set-up and connectivity. Virtual concierge kiosks, such as the ConciergeOnDemand system installed at many New York hotels, also enable time-crunched guests to make dinner or show reservations at discount prices with the touch of a button.

Remote printing and guestroom printing to a central location also are common today. Guestroom printing is a brand standard with most Hilton flags. Guest usage of laptops in lobby areas and meeting-room areas also requires a printing solution. Remote printing stations can be placed in business centers or be stand-alones anywhere within a property, based upon need.

Redefining business center roles

Managing digital signage or electronic reader boards, which vastly improve communications to guests, is another role supported by today's business centers. In some cases, a hotel's in-house audiovisual or event technology company can support digital signage programming, easing the hotel manager's burden of managing information on way-finding signage, interactive meeting-room signage, elevator signage, video walls, guestroom TV and back-of-house signs.

The Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas recently turned operation of its business center over to its event-technology partner. With that one-stop partner servicing all of its technology, the hotel realizes considerable labor costs. The Palms now blends support for private meeting rooms, high-tech workstations and a technology concierge with soft seating in a more public setting, such as an Internet cafe. In addition, that event-technology company orchestrates all shipping and receiving.

Although many technologies are involved in business centers, they do not have to cost a hotel an arm and a leg. Providers offer packages tailored to a brand's budget, design and standards. One supplier recently announced a three-tier approach to providing automated business centers in order to ease buying decisions. Price points are determined by hotel segmentation and by type of and demand for technology applications.

In addition, when using a third-party business center partner, various business models typically are available in which all equipment is provided with no upfront cost or need for additional hotel staff. If a revenue-share model is available, it will instantly turn a business center into a profit center.

The bottom line is that business centers play a pivotal role in guest satisfaction and revenue generation. Bringing guest-computing services into the open is growing in popularity. Likewise, using third-party providers (such as your HSIA provider or event technology partner) to assist in supporting or managing the business center is growing in popularity because it frees hotel staff to do what it does best — address guests' needs.


Barbara Worcester is president of PRPRO, a hospitality-specific public relations and marketing communications firm based in Cleveland, Ohio. Business center clients include PSAV Presentation Services, TTI International, and Vertical Systems Inc. AlphaNet Hospitality Systems, circle 61; Eleven Wireless, circle 62; GBCblue, circle 63; Key Link, circle 64; Penfield's Signature Business Center, circle 65; PSAV, circle 66; TTI International, circle 67; USA Technologies, circle 68; Wayport, circle 69. For more information and related articles, go to www.LHonline.com.

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