Technology in the Next Generation of Hotels

The not-so-pretty truth is that hotels typically are behind the curve when it comes to technology.

In fairness, we can't blame them for always playing catch-up in that world, where things change irritatingly fast. All of us have lamented that no matter when or what piece of technology we buy, it will be relegated to “previous-generation” status, it seems, just about the time we get it installed.

That “next-generation” reality demands continual technology upgrades for every business and personal user, and hotels often cannot afford to be that nimble. Property owners are understandably reluctant to renovate as often as needed to support the newest technology, meaning major renovations almost never come often enough to keep the property's high-tech guests happy.

Consider this bit of history.

For decades hotels, like the rest of our homes and offices, did fine by simply having a single hard-wired telephone line to each guestroom.

Then came modem-equipped laptop computers. (That was before we called them “notebooks.”) Those required phone lines so guests could access the world outside their hotel rooms. That meant state-of-the-art hotels needed two phone lines for each room.

Just as many properties were regaining their balance and technological viability after the “two phone lines” generation arrived, came the news that those lines were no longer sufficient for tech-savvy guests.

Those guests began to demand that their rooms be equipped with computer network cabling, a product that has its own obsolescence issues. First was Cat 5, then came multiple generations of Cat 5e/5E, and now there are Cat 6 and Augmented Cat 6. Soon after arose cries for wireless. And it is fair to assert that any property that is still without wireless access will lose business to the competition.

Technological one-upmanship is certainly not over.

SAME AS AT HOME

“People want the same technology when they travel that they have at home,” says Rajesh Chandnani, associate vice president and director of strategic planning and consulting for Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG), a hotel architecture and interior design firm. “So now hotels are looking at more than just computer access in rooms. Digital technologies are converging, and hotels need to similarly be converging technologies for their guests.”

For example, imagine if a hotel's converged technologies were set up so each guest's room would automatically set itself to that guest's unique liking, based on preferences he or she had previously entered into the frequent guest profile. The moment the front desk clerk checks in the guest, the lights in the room automatically turn on and the thermostat sets to that exact liking. The TV or in-room stereo turns on, playing the guest's favorite entertainment, be that ESPN, National Public Radio or Mozart from Pandora.com.

(Not only would these services please the guest, they also would reduce energy costs by keeping everything turned off prior to check-in and turning all off again at check-out.)

In addition, the mini-bar could already be pre-set with the guest's favorites because the room has been pre-blocked and the housekeeper has received a print-out of which items to stock when she prepared to clean the room that morning.

The list of computerized services could expand to even include such luxuries as automatically drawing a warm bath to be ready after the nightly newscast or pre-setting the draperies to automatically open in the morning in order to awaken the guest with natural sunlight.

Will hotels need every one of those toys to stay in business for the foreseeable future? Certainly not. But will some of them make a property a more attractive destination, giving it an edge over its competition and thus be a worthwhile investment? Perhaps.

INFRASTRUCTURE

Any current and (probably) future technology in a new hotel will be dependent on its infrastructure, which to a large extent means telecommunications cabling.

“We recommend a minimum of three Cat 6 cables per guest room,” says Chandnani. “Those are for Internet access, Voiceover IP (VoIP) phone service and digital content on the TV. And for U.S. properties, we also recommend coaxial cables with digital capabilities.”

In terms of a telecommunications backbone, “you want to run fiber to each floor of a hotel,” says Douglas C. Rice, executive vice president and CEO of the Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG), an industry trade association. “From there, run whatever cable is necessary to provide adequate capacity into each guestroom. Future-proof the room from a wired standpoint.”

But Rick Warner, vice president of American Systems, recommends going a step further. “Cat 6 is the minimum for cabling to guestrooms, but fiber (optic cabling to the guest-room) is really the way to go. Any new-build or retrofit that wants to distinguish itself with technology will want that.” American Systems is a high-end consulting organization focused on hospitality and gaming.

Michael St-Laurent, director of information technology for the 14-property Gemstone Hotels and Resorts, acknowledges having had discussions about fiber to the guestrooms with building owners and fellow Gemstone executives. However, he has not so far been able to make that professional recommendation. “I don't know that owners will be able to make a return on that investment yet,” he says. “I can see putting fiber to the guestroom sometime in the future, but not in the near future.”

HTNG's Rice suggests a middle-of-the-road option for hotels under construction. If owners do not want to invest in fiber to guestrooms but still want good options in the future, they can install copper cable today in conduit. That adds less cost than installing fiber with electronic transceivers in each room, but keeps open the possibility of replacing that cable in the future.

He also cautions hotel designers regarding on-site data storage location spaces: “Make sure that you make the right provisions for your telecommunications room to equip it with sufficient HVAC and electrical power. It is neither difficult nor expensive to get it built in right at first, but it is very expensive to fix afterwards.”

WHAT ELSE TO PROVIDE

Once a hotel equips guestrooms with connectivity, it will need to determine what else to provide there to use those connections. A commonly discussed next step is to install standard hotel electronic devices — like TVs — that can be interfaced with guests' personal electronic devices through hotel-provided multi-unit device-docking stations.

“Let's say that a family is in town for the weekend,” says Adam Kaplan, director of marketing for Chicago's Hotel Sax, “and they are out all day taking digital family home movies. When they get back to their room that night, they can plug their video camera into the docking station without having to hunt around to the back of the TV to find an access port.

“Then they will be able to watch their movies on their in-room TV. They can even split the screen and watch live TV at the same time.” All of the rooms at the Hotel Sax are equipped with Panasonic 42-inch high-definition monitors (the suites each have two of them), and all will have docking stations before winter.

A guest can use the same docking device to plug in her own notebook computer and download and view a movie from her own on-line subscription service, or literally from her own TV at home, using a service like slingbox.com.

The same type of docking station could be available for guests' MP3 players to play over an in-room stereo system, or to plug in their portable DVD players to play over the TV and sound system, their digital cameras, and their own gaming systems or other compatible devices.

(By the way, to service guests traveling with all of those personal devices, “new hotels need to be designed with multiple power outlets throughout the guestrooms, especially by the bed,” says WATG's Chandnani.)

“Docking stations are a relatively modest investment for a hotel, and are a lot less money than actually providing all of those personal electronic devices,” says American Systems' Warner. “Of course, hotels can still offer pay-per-view services, too.”

HOTEL MICROSOFT

In completing a recent $25-million renovation, the 353-room Hotel Sax intentionally positioned itself on the cutting edge of technology. “Our desire was to use technology to customize and individualize our individual guests' experiences,” says Kaplan. As a result, the hotel approached Microsoft and invited it to partner on this goal.

The software giant responded favorably. “Its reasoning was that it wanted to show the interconnecting capabilities of its technologies in a relaxed and comfortable setting,” Kaplan explains. By partnering with the Hotel Sax, Microsoft could expose guests to its technology and resources throughout the course of their stays, giving them a relatively long pre-buy exposure. This partnership has earned the property the nickname “Hotel Microsoft.”

“We're thrilled that Hotel Sax has turned to Microsoft to help guests stay connected with their digital lives when away from home,” says John Pollard, project lead, brand and marketing, at Microsoft. “Hotel Sax shares our view that travelers today aspire to use the latest technology throughout a stay, whether to plan activities around Chicago or relax with cool technology in the room.”

The place where guests will most likely have that Microsoft exposure is the guest-only lounge called “The Studio-experience by Microsoft.” It is open free of charge and staffed daily between 4 p.m. and midnight.

This one-of-a-kind lounge, with futuristic décor, features five Xbox 360 Elite gaming consoles with HD television screens and surround sound, five Microsoft Zune MP3 players pre-loaded with music and movies, two Hewlett Packard notebook computers with Internet access, and a Microsoft Windows home entertainment PC. The hotel also hosts regular movie nights in The Studio, as well as competitive Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Scene It events and competitions.

“A dozen of our selected guestrooms and all of the suites also have special installs with Xbox 360s, Zune MP3 players and laptops,” says Kaplan. “And they really threw the kitchen sink into the 16th floor Presidential Suite.” In addition to all of the above devices, that boasts a 65-inch plasma screen TV — the largest on property — and a LifeWare home-automation system connected through a Windows Vista Media Center PC that allows guests to run lights and media via a remote control. Kaplan smiles when he says, “That's the system that Bill Gates has in his home.”

MEETING SPACE

Another area of the hotel that is heavily Microsoft-driven is the 10,000 square feet of meeting space on the fourth floor.

As guests exit the elevators to access those meeting rooms, they enter a space named The Hub, fashioned around a state-of-the-art 36-foot, semi-circular video wall that can be programmed to suit meeting planners' needs, be that with static images or with recorded or streaming video.

Further inside, meeting and breakout rooms offer wired and wireless high-speed Internet access and customizable environmental control, lighting and retracting A/V devices. Since there are no windows on the fourth floor, variable LED lighting is used throughout the space to change hues designed to mimic natural daylight.

Similarly, the boardrooms blend traditional expectations with supporting technology. The 60-inch LCD HDTV plasma screen hides behind sliding cherrywood panels; users' laptops control the room settings; and hotel-supplied Tablet PCs running Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition replace the need for traditional whiteboards and flip charts.

Very few hotels will blossom into having the types of offerings the Hotel Sax brings to its guests. Yet some of its features, like technology interfacing, may become relatively commonplace in the coming decade. And as for the rest of its features, well, they certainly get one thinking of the possibilities of where a hotel could go.


Russ Munyan is a freelance writer in Olathe, KS. He has worked extensively in both the hospitality and technology industries. He can be reached at www.russwrites.com.

SYSTEMS INTEGRATION/DATA MANAGEMENT ASP installation Standalone installation ASP and standalone installation Enterprise consolidation/viewing Data cleansing Data mining PMS connectivity CRS connectivity GDS connectivity IDS connectivity Web booking engine connectivity Sales & catering connectivity Two-way reservations interfacing Customizable reporting E-folio services Financial operations reporting Business operations reporting
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PROPERTY MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS Reservations Web booking interface Accounting Multi-property management Activities scheduling (tee times, tennis, spa) Remote check-in/check-out stations kiosks Online credit card authorization Energy management interface Multilingual capability OTA XML interface standards Back-office interface Housekeeping/maintenance managment CRM capabilities/interface Loyalty program administration Revenue management interface Wireless devices Dynamic packaging capabilities Multi-property accounting Guest history Application service provider (ASP) Guest data encryption Condo owner accounting Timeshare functionality Sales & catering interface Guest reporting password protection Guest credit card viewing encryption PCI certified Gift card management Distribution channel management
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Amadeus — Circle 102
Amana — Circle 103
Applied Media Technologies — Circle 106
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Autoclerk — Circle 108
Bartech Systems — Circle 109
Birch Street Systems — Circle 111
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Booking Center — Circle 114
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Colubris Networks — Circle 120
Compucustom — Circle 121
Control 4 — Circle 124
Data Plus — Circle 125
Energy Authority International — Circle 131
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Hotel Concepts — Circle 150
IDeaS — Circle 152
Innes Systems — Circle 155
Inn Points — Circle 157
InTouch Digital Systems — Circle 158
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White Wolf Software — Circle 230

TELE-COMMUNICATIONS Wiring and cabling Automatic wakeup Answer detection Call accounting Fax server Paging Telephony server interface Voice mail Wireless intercom Two-way radios Telephones Cordless telephones Cellular telephones Guestroom Internet services Prepaid telephone cards Time/temperature/weather Voice recognition Voice-over IP-ready Unified messaging Telephone switch/equipment DID server VOIP phones
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Wayport — Circle 229

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IDeaS — Circle 152
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TravelCLICK — Circle 224

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