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Guestroom Phones: Replacing that Costly Intercom (PBX) System

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June 16, 2006
Dan Phillips - dphillips@its-services.com

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Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, hotel phone systems made buckets of money. In the late ‘90s, the very same systems made very little money. Most hotel brands still have standards in place today that require two extensions per guestroom, perhaps even two or more phones in the room. Today, the very same phone systems don’t make enough revenue to cover their costs. In essence, the PBX has become a very expensive intercom system in the guestroom. Most guests don’t use the phone at all for outside calls. Many guests get frustrated trying to figure which speed dial icon goes where, and just dial 0 and ask to be transferred. If the phone wasn’t needed for 911 or wake up calls or, hopefully, to dial room service, it wouldn’t be needed at all.

As always, hoteliers are conscious of what they spend to furnish a guestroom. Recent trends show that comfortable beds with nice duvets or flat screen TVs, or new clock radios are more important than telephones. So, when building a new hotel, or renovating an old one, chances are the owners will be quite reluctant to spend any dollars on a phone system that is no longer justified from a cost standpoint. In the past, when purchasing a new phone system, much consideration was spent from the guests’ point of view. Things like two-line phones, cordless phones, data port, trunk to room ratios that prevented busy signals, voice mail systems in multiple languages, DID numbers for preferred guests, and so on were discussed. Today, when buying a new phone system it should be the needs of the hotel staff that should be weighed more heavily. After all, they are probably the only people who will use it.

Well, don’t fret so much about buying a new phone system anymore. Hybrid IP PBXs and even fully deployed IP PBXs are on the market priced at significant savings compared to the traditional switches you have been buying the last couple of decades. Many of the same PBX vendors you have dealt with for years are now selling IP or hybrid IP systems. However, two companies have entered this market selling systems at extremely attractive prices.

After review of their solutions both of these systems have been measured up against feature sets and RFP requirements of the more traditional PBXs. Of 54 hospitality specific PBX criteria judged, both the Guest-Tek OneView and Percipia’s PTCE contained every feature, just like the phone system you probably have in your hotel now. Of 16 hospitality specific voice mail system, and of 15 hospitality specific call accounting system criteria judged, again, both systems contained every feature.

At this date, Percipia has over 50 installations of their solution, while Guest-Tek has three in-field installations and three lab trials in progress. Several questions were presented to Mike Tourigny, vice president of marketing at Guest-Tek, and, Chris Farrar, Ph.D., president at Percipia.

"The hospitality industry has long awaited a lower-cost, telecommunications solution that uses the latest technology (VoIP) and proven software (Linux and Asterisk) to meet its future needs. The advantage of standards-based software is the ability to bring features to market faster, with shorter development times. The ability to integrate the in-room telephone with the television and Internet experience will enhance the guest experience and create greater loyalty for our customers," said Tourigny. "Using one platform to deliver all in-room services affords a lower cost of ownership, better support model, and higher integration capabilities. The software platform offers greater flexibility and scalability as it’s been proven in other applications: call centers, hosting PBX systems, hospitality PBX systems."

Farrar said, "Ten or 12 years ago, (the phone) was an important revenue stream for hotels. Today, it is chiefly seen as a significant expense. But Internet telephony can transform that situation. It can lower costs and drive revenue once again for hotels."

Tourigny said, "The present feature set will grow in scope and application that will be specific to the target market segment. The technology and the manufacturing flexibility we possess will give hotels the ability to customize how their telephone equipment and systems are presented to the guest."

Farrar said that besides all the traditional PBX features such as wake-up calls and do not disturb Percipia has added capabilities that were never possible before, such as group directory which allows a guest in a group to communicate with others in their conference.

With regards to maintenance Farrar said, "Maintenance becomes easier and more affordable with an IP PBX system. The most important factor is that managing and administering the phone system can be done anywhere or at any time." The flexibility of the IP phone system will provide sophisticated guest services such as Percipia’s valet parking application. Guests will summon their cars from their touch-screen phone and the attendant can signal the elevator from a wireless phone.

These systems will save money over the traditional PBX. Tourigny said, "Savings to the hotel start immediately to the system’s equipment costs" by utilizing off-the-shelf and semi-custom components that have higher performance ratings than today’s TDM PBXs.

Farrar said, "The thing about VoIP is that it allows voice communications to happen over a data network whether or not the hotel owns a PBX. In fact, this will be the driving force in adoption of the technology, far more than simple cost savings."

Farrar believes the future of phone service to the guestroom will be driven by the business travelers’ increasing demand for advanced communication infrastructures, which will allow them to work remotely and collaboratively with partners, peers and suppliers wherever they are in the world, at any time of the day or night. Farrar said, "Only an IP-based infrastructure which supports high-quality voice and data communications will be able to provide this, and the hotels which invest in and aggressively promote such environments will attract hordes of grateful business people. Those that don’t won’t. It’s that simple."

On top of all of this, there are two more interesting facts about IP voice solutions. The first is that IP is being used to deliver the triple play into hotel guestrooms. The triple play is the convergence of voice, data and video onto one IP network. This convergence will birth some very interesting applications in the near future. The second is the ability to now offer hosted voice services to hotels or hotel groups. It will no longer be necessary to put a refrigerator-sized cabinet anywhere in your hotel with hundreds of wires clinging to it. IP PBXs will enable hotels to purchase voice services from a hosted site.

IP phone systems are bringing the costs of delivering dial tone to your guestrooms down. They are robust with the PBX features you are accustomed to, and will be bringing many more features you have not yet dreamed of. And, IP phone systems may actually start driving revenues again. Just when you thought telephone department revenues had gone away!

Dan Phillips is COO of ITS, a consulting firm located outside of Atlanta, Ga., specializing in technology in the hospitality industry. For comment or question, he can be reached at dphillips@its-services.com.


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