Convergence, Refinement Are the Buzz

If you attended this year's Hospitality International Technology Exposition and Conference in search of trends, you came to the right place. Not only did the June 16-19 HITEC take place in the funky, tech-savvy Texas city of Austin, it featured insightful presentations on trends and showcased products that spoke to attendees.

Among those talking trends were David Berkus, a technology expert with an unusually long perspective (HITEC tagged him “Mr. Trend” in the venture capital world), and Michael Tchong, the rumpled, enthusiastic proprietor of the determinedly current website, Ubercool.com. Among those presenting something more akin to a commercial was Paul Bell, president of Dell's Americas region. Bell touted the computer maker's technological brawn and green orientation. Like HITEC sponsor Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals, Dell is based in Austin, the state capital.

Not surprisingly, the technology was state-of-the-art, particularly in Guestroom 2010, the model hotel room HITEC stages to demonstrate what its advisory committee deems the latest, greatest and most necessary in the field.

No bedside telephone was evident in this edition of HITEC's model guestroom. But there was plenty of virtual reality in evidence, both in Tchong's talk and at the entrance of Guestroom 2010, where IBM demonstrated Second Life-like, 3-D virtual tours of hotel properties.

What their appeal was, outside of geek allure, remained unclear — particularly considering that technology enabling photographic, wraparound online “tours” of a property has been around for years. Many spoke of the need for rich content; this seemed downright inflated — particularly when the curious guest can leave the hotel room for a hands-on experience, actually walking the property and grounds.

When iteration four of this model guestroom surfaces at next year's HITEC, set for June 22-25 in the Anaheim, CA Convention Center, it will be called Guestroom G2X. (For more on this year's Guestroom 2010, see accompanying story.)

According to HFTP, more than 5,200 hospitality professionals attended this HITEC in the Austin Convention Center. These included more than 300 exhibitors; the event also featured more than 40 panels and educational sessions. Even though the venue was far more manageable than the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, where HITEC was held in 2007, the 2008 edition drew fewer people. The Orlando HITEC attracted 5,736, according to HFTP.

Despite the provocative, appealing array in Guestroom 2010, which also included a mattress-free, super-sophisticated bed, multi-functional high-definition monitors, a shower with a musical beat and a closet that generates electricity, no killer apps surfaced. No striking gizmos reared their innovative heads on the floor of this HITEC.

At the same time, there was plenty of technological integration. And fruitful meetings.

John Burns, a HITEC veteran and well-respected hotel technology consultant, says he “heard a lot of people were very busy with side meetings” at this HITEC. The annual get-together is “a magnet to get people to a central allocation and it allows for a lot of unseen but very important and often productive meetings” between buyers and sellers.

“I was struck by the number of vendors who commented on the quality of the attendees: serious, high-level executives who were there right until the show ended,” Burns says. Comments were more positive than usual, “not about numbers but about the quality and seriousness of interest.”

DESIGN AND CONVERGENCE

Among the trends in evidence on the convention center floor were better design — even traditional guestroom telephones featured colors other than beige, along with handsets reflecting ergonomic concerns — and convergence. Taking a cue from the Apple iPhone, PhoneSuite debuted a touch screen phone console. (TeleMatrix plans to launch its TMX 1170 touch-screen display phone at the start of 2009.)

Also taking a cue from Apple: BlueLounge, a Pasadena, CA company displayed the Sanctuary, a stylish box for mobile devices spanning BlackBerry and iPod.

While high-definition TVs seemed ever sharper, the boxes they came in were more refinement than innovation. What were more often fresh were the content and the packaging, along with a shift from bundling to consultancy: Now that it has absorbed OnCommand, LodgeNet, for one, is clearly morphing from a services provider to a consultant. Advice on how hoteliers should blend their online and TV offerings is what LodgeNet now offers, along with bundling through its technology and partnerships.

At the same time, packaging is critical and content can be king. How they blend in offerings geared toward the high-end traveler — customers of gaming destinations like Las Vegas and Macau are its target — seems to be the strength of a company like Tangerine Global, for example. The TV monitors it showcased are state-of-the-art, of course, but the content and delivery are the story.

In partnership with Swisscom (each had its own large display area), Tangerine Global will offer sophisticated HD content using Swisscom's HD video over IPTV technology. Tangerine Global was the first company to bring HD programming to Hong Kong and aims to spread its high-end offerings to North America, Europe and the Middle East in its new alliance.

Swisscom, meanwhile, specializes in convergence, offering everything from mobile solutions to HSIA to IPTV.

“Convergence is going to be a staged evolution,” says David Giannini, Swisscom Hospitality Services chief sales officer. IPTV precipitates the “acceleration of convergence,” adds Giannini, who joined Swisscom in 2006 after selling his company, Core Communications.

Convergence wasn't the only concept with a higher profile. So was radio frequency identification technology, in offerings from Elsafe and VingCard, and an advance in wireless access security, from Saflok.

Elsafe unveiled its high-style Sentinel II, an UL-certified safe that works with the Signature RFID contactless lock from VingCard. And in a nod to the environmental movement, VingCard introduced the AB RecycledCard, a keycard made from 100-percent recycled plastic.

Saflok corralled major lodging press for its announcement of Messenger ZigBee, “the industry's first online bi-directional wireless access control system to operate on the ZigBee protocol.” An upgrade to the Messenger system Saflok introduced in 2004, Messenger ZigBee transmits and receives data at much greater range than Bluetooth and features extra-secure network encryption. It aims for “smart room interoperability” and, Saflok executives say, will enhance the guest experience, give properties more control over their staff and increase in-room environmental control.

BEHIND THE SCENES

While telecommunications, infotainment and security companies had plenty to display, other developments operated more in the background.

Telkonet offered demos of its new Networked Telkonet Smart Energy Platform, software that blends HVAC building control management with low-cost energy management. HotelSafeGuard demonstrated software that can be integrated to standard PMS and CRS and is designed to detect guest fraud. SuiteLinq and Nighthawk Systems allied to present Slice, a set-top box facilitating the delivery of video and interactive content in guestrooms. And LodgeNet announced a suite of new media and connectivity products including VOD Basic, IPTV Advanced, Free-to-Guest Basic, and HD Built-In.

That suite aims to expand LodgeNet's product line and at the same time make it more contemporary and affordable.

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