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Connectivity Panels - Allowing Guests to Interact with In-room Technology

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March 01, 2008
Hotels | In-Room Technology
Jeremy Rock - jrock@rockitgroup.com

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© 2008 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

With more guests bringing their own devices and personalized content with them to hotels and resorts, a concerted effort has been made over the last few years to allow guests to take greater advantage of the new flat screens, surround sound and other technologies incorporated in guestrooms. The concept of a connectivity panel allows a guest to plug-in their own devices into the existing in-room technology thereby enhancing their overall in-room experience. The panels also allow for a non-invasive method of connecting to these systems without having the guest "man-handle" the TV or surround-sound system trying to plug a cable into a specified port – something that could potentially disrupt the operation of these devices in the room. With an increasing number of guests who travel with personal digital devices such as laptops, iPods or MP3 players, digital cameras, camcorders, cell phones, gaming devices and other electronic equipment it makes sense for hotels and resorts to provide a method by which guests can utilize these devices with in-room technologies.

Connectivity panels have come a long way since the early days when the passive devices merely provided a manual and rudimentary way to connect to the AV equipment in the room. In addition to being somewhat cumbersome to operate the original passive panels were also fairly expensive due to the components and AV cabling required to connect the panel to the equipment. Today there is a movement to reduce the number of cables connecting to devices thereby bringing down the cost of the devices. The panels are more sophisticated allowing for greater flexibility in their potential applications.

The two types of panels being offered in the market place are active and passive.
Active panels typically are equipped with input-sensing features that detect a signal and automatically select the correct device and input source without the guest having to determine how this is done. This is not only easier to use from the guest’s perspective but it also reduces the potential for the guest to disrupt the hotel settings on the equipment such as remotes so that the entire system becomes non-functional. Marriott in partnership with LG Electronics was the first major company to feature active panels when it introduced the Auto-Sensing Remote Jack Packs (RJPs).  Since then other companies have entered the marketplace with generic devices that can connect to a number of other equipment manufacturers and video-on-demand systems. Examples of proprietary devices include LodgeNet’s Launch Pad and the new DLO engineered RoomDock Premier that is due to hit the market soon. While the argument could be made that you cannot utilize these solutions with any other system, they work very effectively with their respective product offerings.

Two disadvantages of active panels are that they can be cumbersome to deploy because of the different firmware on the various electronic equipment, and they are more expensive than the passive models.

Passive panels on the other hand work effectively across most brands of equipment but they require manual input switches. While printed collateral can be effective in guiding the guest on the use of the system, it can often lead to frustration when it either does not work or the settings (particularly on the pay-per-view system) inadvertently are changed to the wrong source input. However, passive panels are less expensive than active models and are not affected by firmware concerns.

A quick review of the current offering in the marketplace highlights some of the new features that are being offered by some of the providers. Digital Lifestyle Outfitters (DLO), for example, has collaborated with LodgeNet to bring out the RoomDock Premier that features a built-in iPod docking station. DLO had already developed the technology required to connect the 30-pin connector for some of the other in-room devices and as such, have integrated this feature into the RoomDock product line. DLO has also created metadata with a GUI interface which allows the guest to control her iPod via the TV remote with the guest’s songs, movies and videos projected on the TV screen.

Director of Business Development for DLO Mike Woods believes that this will encourage guests to use the in-room technology even more and afford them the opportunity to listen to their choice of music and videos. Woods said that from a brand standard it would be important to offer similar type products throughout a brand to ensure that guests could have the same experience in all branded hotels.  DLO has also developed a RoomDock product offering to work with generic environments outside of the LodgeNet collaboration.

TeleAdapt is another large player in the marketplace offering both active and passive panels that come in a variety of desktop or in-wall solutions. While TeleAdapt is primarily focused on targeting its MediaHub panels directly to hotel properties, it has also partnered with a number of different equipment manufacturers and content providers including Philips, Sony, Vantage Point – EVO, Lodging Innovations, Guest-Tek, NXTV, KoolConnect, Cox Hospitality Network and Quadriga in order to provide solutions to various integration and mounting issues that are typically faced by many hotels, TeleAdapt has also partnered with Premier Mounts to provide an under the TV mounting option for those properties looking for a wall-mounted option, but who do not want to undergo the expense of cutting into the wall to provide a pathway for the required cabling. TeleAdapt USA Vice President Neil Betterton said that TeleAdapt is an internationally focused company that is able to support hotel requirements in all regions of the world.  Some of its newer product offerings will include a longer panel with two additional electrical outlets that are configurable for all country power socket types and can contain a network outlet as well.

NBG Electronics also has a connectivity panel that can either be wall mounted or placed in a pop-out furniture panel. Like some of its counterparts NBG Electronic’s high-definition connectivity panel offers a multitude of ways to connect devices and also features both USB and traditional power sources.

LG has also enhanced its product offering with a smaller desktop model of its RJP. The new unit is smaller than its predecessor but like some of its competitors offers new technology that allows the guest to process audio and video separately. Additionally its picture outside of picture (PoP) feature [on certain TV models] can be engaged by simply using the remote to channel up or down once the video source has been selected. The picture from the larger connected device will show up in the larger picture on the left of the screen while the TV image will show up in the smaller picture on the right side of the screen. This feature allows a guest to work off a laptop at the same time that he is watching a basketball game playing on the TV. 

While the provisioning of these devices in the rooms can enhance the overall guest experience, it can also be considered a double-edged sword. By allowing guests to connect their own devices it may detract from other potential revenue streams such as pay-per-view movies, sports packages, games, music, comedy specials and other entertainment offerings. If a guest brings his own movie on DVD and plays it on his laptop then the guest is less likely to purchase a movie from the PPV system. The proliferation of services offered by Blockbuster, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and other companies has made it easier than ever for guests to obtain movies and music content at a much lower cost than purchasing at a hotel or resort. It may also make it easier and more conducive for guests to utilize Slingbox applications pulling TV content from home which may adversely affect the property’s Internet bandwidth.

When asked whether in-room content providers were concerned about connectivity panels impacting revenue streams by encouraging guests to provide their own content, Jake Buckstead, senior product manager for LodgeNet’s RoomDock device, said that this is a trend that would happen anyway and that rather than take a stance against the proliferation of this content LodgeNet was taking a proactive role to embrace the technology.  LodgeNet believes that other unique opportunities to market its content offerings will come from this trend. He added that there would still be a strong market for those guests who are interested in first run movies and other premium content that is not readily available in the marketplace. LodgeNet’s recent announcement of its name change to LodgeNet Interactive would certainly appear to endorse this approach to allowing guests to interact with the system.

While the adoption rate of connectivity panels is still in its relative infancy, it won’t be too long before these types of devices become common place in most guestroom technology offerings – that is until someone comes up with a seamless wireless technology to replace it. But based on past history that could be a while.

Jeremy Rock is the president of the RockIT Group, a hospitality technology consulting firm. He can be reached at jrock@rockitgroup.com.

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