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New Wireless Technologies Are Changing the Way Guests Interact with Room Technology

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June 01, 2008
Wireless | Technology
Jeremy Rock - jrock@rockitgroup.com

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© 2008 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Suffice it to say that the concept of conserving energy in hotel guestrooms has been around for some time now and it is not surprising that the early in-room control systems emerged as a result of hoteliers wanting to conserve heating, cooling and other energy consumption in guestrooms. Of course there was the wow factor whereby guest could control all aspects of the room from a single source.

Early adoption of these systems was hampered due to the high cost of deployment and the difficulty in supporting the technology. Due to the lack of wireless technology, the entire guestroom wiring systems needed to be modified to work with the control system at a huge cost to the hotel. The expense of provisioning the conduit, wiring and associated construction installation costs alone was enough to eliminate these systems from consideration. The customization of the wiring and the integration of the various technologies were not only expensive but also led to many operational issues and concerns especially in the luxury hotels where most of the systems were deployed. Additionally guests were unfamiliar with the technology and confused as to how to perform even the most basic of functions such as turning on a light. Overall the guest related interface concerns coupled with the frequent glitches in the system operation impacted the overall guest experience and detracted from the widespread adoption of the systems into the marketplace.

Looking back at some of the earlier installations, we can reflect (sometimes humorously) on the problems that these systems experienced but at the time this was certainly no laughing matter. The systems really challenged hotel management executives and their staff and caused some hotels to either remove the systems at great cost or create a work-around for guests to effectively operate even the most basic features of the room.

Fast forward to today where the newer technologies have caught up and surpassed many of the problems of the past. Non-invasive wireless technology now allows hotels to deploy these systems without modifying the guestroom electrical and telecommunication wiring. Many providers have standardized on the technologies being deployed and the result is substantially superior product integration and operational support concerns have been reduced. Energy conservation is still at the forefront of most of the decisions today to deploy in-room control systems. The ever increasing costs of energy coupled with the drive to provide a green environment and obtain LEED certification has led many hoteliers to consider the deployment of energy management systems. Not only do hotels benefit from the reduction in energy costs, but a LEED certification status can lead to tax benefits. Additionally it is politically correct to conserve energy and project a green image. Overall this represents a win-win situation for many hotels.

There are still those detractors in the marketplace who are concerned about the impact to guest satisfaction and that guests who are already paying a premium rate for the room should not be impacted by the hotel’s attempt to save a few dollars by turning off the air conditioning when the guest is not in the room. Most of these concerns are fostered out of experiences with some of the older systems that tended to have a glitch on some of the key operational assumptions. Most of these glitches have been addressed by the newer technology.

The newer wireless control systems came into the spotlight when ZigBee technology first became a standard in December 2004. ZigBee was created to address the market need for a cost-effective, standards-based wireless networking solution that supports low data-rates, low-power consumption, security and reliability. While there are a number of competing wireless technologies in the marketplace such as Z-Wave which are IP-based, to date ZigBee is the only standards-based technology that addresses the unique needs of most remote monitoring and control and sensory network applications. This was the primary reason why the majority of the solution providers in the industry have gravitated to ZigBee as the basis for their wireless platform offerings.

ZigBee is an IEEE standard which allows other manufacturers of electronic devices to design products around the standard allowing for a seamless integration to the third-party control systems. Additionally ZigBee Pro is designed for commercial operations and is setup to enable channelization and reduce chatter over the wireless network. The new low-cost, low-power technology links applications wirelessly utilizing products that can effectively run for years on inexpensive batteries for a host of monitoring applications. Some examples of these include: lighting controls, smoke and CO detectors, wireless telemetry, HVAC controls, security systems, drapery and shade controls, etc. It is noted that the other competing wireless technologies such as Z-Wave have gained market momentum (especially in the residential marketplace) despite the fact that it lacks an open standard.

The newer technologies have allowed many of the traditional control system providers such as Crestron, AMX , Pacific Controls and Siemons to focus their efforts on providing innovative and seamless ways of tying in all of the guestroom management features into a single point of control. From controlling the TV to turning off the lights, guests have the ability to communicate with all aspects of the room’s electronic features. Inncom and other traditionally hospitality focused companies have also recently focused efforts on the new wireless technologies. Long known for providing robust thermostat and energy management systems, Inncom’s new wireless digital assistant (WDA) forms part of its integrated room automation system (IRAS) which provides guests the ability to control access to a multitude of features such as room temperature control, lighting, drapes and the alarm clock via a touch-screen interface. IRAS also displays guest services information and communications, automated CRM monitoring and facilitates staff reporting functions. Utilizing a variety of technologies to integrate its solution into the guestroom Inncom is capable of mixing technologies within applications including wired-RS485, Ethernet, ZigBee and infrared. Rick Quirino, Inncom president and CEO, said that while the industry is still focused heavily on energy management, it is the applications that ultimately drive the functionality of control systems in the guestroom.  Quirino said, “Once the overall applications are perfected, then the overall integration and true benefits of the automation systems will be realized.”

Currently one of the big drivers is to tie in guest preferences from the PMS to the guestroom experience. As such, whether it’s setting the room temperature to the guest’s preferred setting or appropriate mood lighting hotels wish to distinguish their service levels by customizing the room technology to meet each guest’s expectation. Other key features include customizing the TV to include the appropriate greeting, language and content offering; IP phones with displays that allow for one-touch access to features; digital art; music; wake-up alarms. Cisco for example has partnered with companies such as Percipia and Nevotek to provide an IP-based solution that utilizes its IP-based phone as the primary guest interface and allows the hotel to tie into the VoIP telecommunication solutions as well as the building automation systems that controls HVAC and lighting.

Control4 Suite Systems has gained tremendous traction in the industry with the recent introduction into the City Center Project in Las Vegas, Mandarin Oriental and Trump SOHO. Control4 was previously focused on the residential marketplace but recently entered into hospitality marketplace. Jim Gist, VP of development, believes that its value proposition is focused on three key areas: the guest experience utilizing the TV as a portal, the green concept – focused on LEED certification and energy savings,  and construction cost savings – wireless initiative requires less infrastructure.

By establishing relationships with a number of key in-room technology providers Control4 has already partnered with companies such as Axxess Industries and Saflok to integrate their technology into an overall system. And from their experience in the residential marketplace, Control4 is well positioned to integrate its product lines in mixed use facilities that offer both residential and commercial applications.

While most people associate the deployment of in-room control systems with new construction projects, there is a considerable effort now being focused on retrofitting existing properties. The benefits of energy conservation and guest centric systems coupled with the elimination of invasive retrofitting for the infrastructure has led to existing hotels to implement these systems. Some providers estimate that at 25 percent of their deployments are associated with retrofits and they expect this percentage to increase as more hotels recognize the benefits of the systems.

Darrin Hubbard, managing director of Smart Room Essentials, believes that today’s wireless solutions allow for hotels at all levels to integrate in-room control systems into a guestroom offering. “Whether you are a three-star hotel that is focused on energy management or a five-star hotel focused on guest centric devices, today’s wireless control systems allow for hotels to install the base components and features now and upgrade to the more full-featured systems at a later point in time,” said Hubbard  The net result is that newer technologies have effectively made the solution available to many properties that had previously eliminated these systems from their competitive offering.

Most solution providers believe that the TV will become the key interface for guests to manage the in-room technology coupled by a remote controlled device. Speaking with industry providers, most agree that perhaps the biggest advantage of in-room control systems is not what the guest experiences within the room, but also the overall efficiencies and reporting that they can provide on the back-end. The increased operational efficiencies, the economic savings and management reporting features make the implementation of in-room control systems a win-win situation for not only the guest but hotels as well.

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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