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Balancing Act

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March 01, 2010
Guestroom | Technology
Jon Inge - jon@joninge.com

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Guests have high expectations of guestroom services, wanting both high functionality and intuitive ease of use, preferably at no charge.  Both the issues and the technology are complex; how can hotels keep guests satisfied and still stay within budget?

Finding the right mix of guestroom technology has always been a balancing act between functionality and budget.  The hotel’s desire to create a home away from home has become harder as guests’ homes contain increasingly sophisticated consumer technology, upgraded on a regular basis. And when those upgrades bring major changes in how people access entertainment (such as the current switch to Internet-sourced content), this inevitably ripples through into the hotel environment and upsets the old models. 

For example, when technologically innocent people can buy inexpensive off-the-shelf boxes from Best Buy, install them at home without help and quickly access menus of video content on the Internet from the TV, it becomes a legitimate question as to why they can’t do that from a hotel room.  After all, it’s got a TV and Internet access, so how difficult can it be? 

Well, guestroom infrastructure is complex; apart from the video entertainment issues, more administrative systems and technology converge here than in any other area of the hotel.  Integrating them to work well together to provide a seamless, comfortable guest experience has become easier, but there’s still room for improvement. 

It’s been four years since we last looked at this topic, and many of the same challenges then are still true today: fitting the full range of expected facilities into a room without it being obtrusive, installing new technology while keeping it simple enough for guests to operate, needing to upgrade to new offerings before the owners have had time to amortize their investment in the last set, and so on. 

But the cost of keeping up with guests’ expectations has definitely risen.  With guests’ easy access to other travelers’ instant comments on sub-par experiences, an increased, steady level of investment in hotel facilities has become essential to keeping those comments positive.  This applies to technology even more than to bed linen, carpets and furniture because technology developments come so much faster, rendering what was previously modern obsolete and below guest expectations long before it has outlived its service life.  There’s not necessarily an ROI for this any more than there is for the soft goods; it’s just the price hotels must pay to stay in the game and to provide acceptable levels of guest comfort and service.

But hotels have as limited a budget as anyone else, and so must be thoughtful in how they prioritize. The keys to any property being able to afford a steady investment in technology are to:

  • understand the expectations of its particular guest mix,
  • provide the fundamental technology infrastructure that underpins them,
  • manage the greater expectations of any significant sub-sets of guests well, with clear pricing for different service levels, and
  • find as many ways as possible to leverage the guest-service infrastructure for greater staff efficiency. 

Of course, expectations will vary for different properties depending upon their guest mix and target market.  A commercial city center hotel that emphasizes its advanced technology sets its guests’ expectations much higher than a rural roadside inn, and so it can–and should–treat its necessarily higher level of spending on technology at least as much as a marketing cost or an infrastructure one. 

This may not help when major shifts in consumer preferences make previous investments obsolete, but the alternative is to be left behind and lose market share to those willing to provide what guests are looking for.

Please, Sir, I Want Some… More!
Bandwidth, that is.

Let’s start with the obvious; guests expect every hotel to provide readily available, reliable Internet access that’s “fast enough” for their needs.  Whether wired or, preferably, wireless (for flexibility), this wasn’t too much of a problem for years, allowing many hotels to offer acceptable levels of access at no charge.  But the dramatic change in guests’ expectations has become highly significant in the last year or so, based on a major increase in their reliance on the Internet for all kinds of information and entertainment.  This very often involves high-bandwidth applications such as streaming video, whether it’s being sent to their home TVs or their cell phones.

The convergence of home PCs and TVs has been astonishingly rapid and may still seem cutting edge, but when Consumer Reports evaluates 130 current TV sets on their ability to connect to the Internet, the functionality has already gone mainstream.  The explosion of Internet usage by iPhone™ users is another example; it’s simply become the natural default for people to go to the Internet for everything.  High-bandwidth Internet access–and especially wireless access–has become a major guest expectation, and it’s only going to grow.

This has clearly already affected bandwidth demand in guestrooms.  Add in possibilities such as the Webcam-equipped Skype-capable TVs shown at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (holding out the promise of free video-conferencing with friends and family from a guestroom) plus unknowns such as the connectivity demands for the soon-to-be-available Apple® iPad, and the expected demand increases still further. (See Cisco sidebar.) 

More guests are already ignoring movies from the in-house pay-per-view vendor in favor of those they can download in real time at lower cost (or even free) over the room’s Internet link from Netflix, Blockbuster, Amazon and others, as well as TV episodes from hulu™ and video clips posted on YouTube and Facebook.  Most hotels just don’t have enough capacity to provide this level of service to all guests who want it, leading to unpredictable and unsatisfactory levels of service to many.  Further, the revenue that used to be generated from pay-per-view movies has been falling in parallel with the rise in Internet video usage.  As a result, the level of Internet access hotels have been able to provide at no cost to all guests is no longer anywhere near adequate for their demands. 

Since demand is not going to slacken, hotels have no choice but to increase the bandwidth they buy from the carriers (100MB is becoming the new norm), significantly increasing their costs.  It seems inevitable that the current model of free access for all will have to be replaced with some form of tiered access, where guests with minimal needs receive free service but anyone wanting a smooth, jitter-free signal for streaming video of any kind will have to pay. 

Hotels must be careful about their pricing levels, though; we don’t want to repeat the mistake made in over-charging for phone calls and driving guests to use the lobby pay phones.  The guestroom may be the preferred environment for watching a downloaded movie, but chances are there’s a Starbucks within a block or two offering inexpensive access for watching shorter video clips in a friendly atmosphere.  It makes no sense to overcharge for hotel service and drive business to someone else.
Can You Hear Me Now?
A wrinkle that complicates the matter further for hotels is the increasing Internet capability of cell phones.  The appeal of 3G networks has been shown dramatically by the problems AT&T’s network has had in keeping up with demand from iPhone users.  The impending release of 4G services such as WiMax and LTE promises the wide-area availability of wireless connections of up to 100MB, far above what is offered in virtually any guestroom now, and this will only serve to increase the appeal and demand. 

The familiar challenge for guests is that cell phone signals don’t penetrate hotel walls very well, and consequently the demand for improved cell phone reception within a hotel will become even stronger than it is now.  The challenge for hotels is that extending cell phone signals inside their buildings requires different cabling and equipment than Wi-Fi. For new-build properties, a distributed antenna system (DAS) can be installed to provide both services, but retrofitting an existing hotel for cell phone coverage can be very expensive. 

An alternative solution comes from more cell phones including Wi-Fi access, and being able to make calls over the Wi-Fi network. Some phones can also act as wireless links to the Internet for travelers’ laptops; Palm®, for example, recently announced that its Palm Pre™ cell phone can download an application to let it act as a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to five separate laptops at once.   For some systems it’s also becoming possible to download an application to a cell phone that lets it connect over the Wi-Fi network to the hotel PBX, thereby becoming the room extension.  The end result of all of these options is obvious: more demand on the Wi-Fi network. 

The telephone network carriers aren’t very happy about this either, as hotel-installed cell phone service extensions can boost call traffic well past what they planned for when installing their towers.  On the other hand, working with the carriers directly to extend their service inside hotel buildings is frequently both expensive and time-consuming.

While retrofitting Wi-Fi has historically been a challenge, mesh network equipment such as that from Ruckus has shown major improvements in coverage at lower cost, as it reduces the need to provide wired service to each access point. It can also reduce in-room wiring costs by streaming IPTV signals direct to an Internet-capable TV display. Hopefully strong customer demand will produce similar developments for cell phone coverage, perhaps in the form of combination wireless access points providing both Wi-Fi and cell phone services. The carriers are already faced with having to expand their network coverage and bandwidth to cater to existing mobile customer demand, but this will take a while. Consequently, short-term improvements in hotel cell phone reception seem to lie with the Wi-Fi options.
All of this interest in Internet-sourced entertainment has the potential to change the requirements for guestroom TVs and their infrastructure as well, of course, and it will be interesting to see how the current PPV providers offer new service combinations to meet the changing demand. It’s definitely an option at the moment for a hotel to do without PPV services completely, and just provide Internet access and local off-air free-to-guest HD TV channels, and in that case there’s no need for specialized TV displays incorporating encryption modules to prevent piracy of the program content. 

However, for more comprehensive guest service the specialist providers (such as LodgeNet, Guest-Tek, Tangerine Global, LG and others) can provide exclusive content such as regional or global sports channels, and for these, encryption is still necessary.  Given the proliferation of options, vendors offering bundles of services (Internet access, TV/movie content, integration with other guestroom technology and cell phones, etc.) certainly make life simpler for hotels–as long as they keep their functionality current and their prices affordable.

TV Display Integration
Adding Internet capabilities to TVs makes it much easier to integrate them into all of the other software applications in a hotel, too, especially as the latter more often incorporate Web services-based interface capabilities.  Useful examples include the ability of a guest to display her conference’s meeting agenda and meeting rooms, make spa, dining and other activity reservations on the screen, and perhaps to review transcribed voice messages or see which of her colleagues attending the conference have also checked in.

More recent developments from vendors such as Control4, Intelity, Runtriz, Incentient, Exceptional Innovation and GBCBlue have focused in providing control of the guestroom environment (lights, temperature, drapes, etc.) as well as ordering room service, extra towels from housekeeping or other service options. These functions are offered either on the display, managed with the TV remote control, or from the guest’s own cell phone after downloading the appropriate hotel application.

In addition to the above, we’re already seeing on-screen guest satisfaction surveys presented during a stay to pick up on any issues before they have time to become major problems. Other options include comparing the expenditures and activities charged to a guest’s folio to those from his past stays, and making on-screen special offers for activities the guest has previously enjoyed, might have the time and inclination to enjoy again and which might be hard to get into unless booked quickly–which can, of course, be done on-screen.

For those who don’t want to bother with downloading the application to their phones, or who, in this age of multitasking, simply don’t want to interrupt a phone call or movie to order room service or check on available spa appointments, a separate in-room PC can also prove very useful. It can also be very cost effective to the hotel, if the screen and integration design are attractive and intuitive enough to really encourage guests to use them to order extra services.  

I say “PC” because many of these are thin-client workstations with all functionality provided from a central server, but I see this as being one area where a touchscreen tablet such as the iPad or Tiare Technology’s Guestbook could be both appealing and useful.  The side effect? Yes, more traffic for the Wi-Fi network. Nevertheless, given the ease of integrating all these different applications and data sources the options on what services can be offered to the guest are limited only by the developers’ imaginations, and it’s going to be fascinating to see what hotels and vendors come up with next. 

Going Flat-panel
Although all-digital transmissions became the standard in the U.S. last year, manufacturers estimate that a surprisingly large percentage of hotels still haven’t replaced their analog TVs, using converters to display the current digital-only signals with their old CRT sets.  Given the massive adoption of flat-panel screens in homes, the presence of a CRT display in a hotel guestroom can only be an immediate disappointment even before it’s switched on, and hotels that fail to implement flat-panel displays will find it much harder to generate repeat business. 

The debate over LCD vs. plasma technology for flat-panel TVs has largely gone away as both technologies have become virtually equivalent for quality, though plasma still seems to have a slight edge in displaying fast action at the expense (literally) of slightly higher energy costs.  Costs for the displays have also fallen dramatically over the past couple of years, and they’re now very affordable. 

An additional convenience factor for guests is that these displays can easily be connected to jack panels containing a variety of power and signal adaptors.  These allow guests to very quickly plug in portable devices they may have brought with them – iPods, personal videogame players, cameras, etc. – and use the TV’s display screen and speakers to replay their own content.  New versions of these (such as TeleAdapt’s MediaHub HD) include Bluetooth® to make connections even simpler.

But the major challenge is still that these digital displays must be fed with a good, clean digital signal (preferably with a high percentage of HD channels) or the picture quality will be even worse than on the CRT.  Usually this means upgrading the signal head-end equipment and replacing the coaxial cable network connecting it to the TV sets, which is a significant cost on top of the new displays themselves.  There are some options (such as Acentic’s Panorama platform) that transmit digital signals over the existing coaxial cable to the displays, but often the more satisfactory long-term solution is to bite the bullet and implement a fast, reliable IP network throughout the property. 

As mentioned above, mesh networks such as that from Ruckus are making this more affordable.  Doing so also offers significant operational benefits by permitting other administrative applications to be used throughout the property, greatly streamlining operations to save costs and improve efficiency.  Examples include staff communications systems such as Vocera and Wi-Fi-enabled phones, and MTech’s REX housekeeping and HotSOS engineering work order systems based on the iPod Touch®.

Do We Still Need Guestroom Phones?
Speaking of phones, for now it seems essential to keep a phone in the guestroom, despite many travelers’ total dependence on their cell phones; not every guest carries one, and as we have discussed, cell phone reception inside the building is frequently problematic.  The safety needs for a guest to be able to call for help in the case of an emergency and for the operator to know where the guest is calling from are paramount. Most cell phones have GPS location-detection capability, but those don’t work very well indoors and can’t tell an operator which floor you’re on. 

Wi-Fi triangulation from services such as AeroScout (detecting the position of a Wi-Fi-enabled device by picking up its signal at multiple access points) is very promising to help resolve this, but at the moment requires the device to be registered on the hotel network and to send out a pulse to the access points at regular intervals. This isn’t practical for guests’ cell phones but it has great promise for staff devices, helping dispatchers see who’s closest to a guest with a service request.

Guestroom phones themselves are still more often analog than digital, contrary to the trend in general business environments. Part of this is a cost issue, though there’s no reason that a straightforward IP phone without a video screen should cost any more than a traditional analog one.  Mostly it’s a reliability and safety issue, based on the need to have a working phone with a definite, known location if the guest needs to call for help during a power outage.  As cell phones become near-universal there’s been some talk about replacing the guestroom phone with a wired intercom system and a panic button but I think this approach is unlikely to be adopted by many properties, purely from a guest reassurance viewpoint.

Speaking of Phones…
How about door locks?  In case that sounds like a disconnect, OpenWays announced a cell phone-based approach to door-unlocking last year.  It’s an interesting idea, using an encoded audio signal sent to the guest’s phone in advance and replayed to open the door lock, thereby allowing the guest to bypass the front desk and go straight to the room.  It has the advantage of working with any cell phone, but does require the locks to be retrofitted with acoustic receivers, and seems to be aimed at the younger generation of travelers with high levels of thumb-texting dexterity. 

For now, magnetic-swipe cards continue to dominate the industry with their single-swipe simplicity. However, RFID-encoded cards (from VingCard, Saflok, Kaba Ilco, MIWA, Hafele America and others) are making strong inroads because they require the guest only to bring the card close to the lock for it to open. This is a major help for the guest with the card in his pocket and his hands full with baggage.  The same benefits apply to cell phones equipped with near-field communications (NFC) chips, which can be quickly programmed at check in with the door lock code so that they too can function as a proximity card.  NFC phones aren’t yet available in the United States, however, and although RFID cards do require retrofits to mag-stripe locks I expect them to become far more common through sheer convenience.

Meanwhile, Back Inside the Guestroom…
There’s continuing interest in energy management, driven not only by a desire to cut energy costs in this ongoing downturn but also by greater awareness of the benefits of a green approach to hotel operations.  It isn’t just the cost-cutting factor; coming back again to the transparency of guests’ comments on their stays, positive feedback on a property’s green credentials can be a noticeable help for future bookings.

Interestingly, the key-card-in-slot approach found quite often internationally is beginning to be seen in the United States; Magnum’s Venergy is one example. This has the advantage of simplicity; the guest is in no doubt that she’s directly contributing to energy savings by pulling her card out of the control box by the door and seeing all lights and the TV go off immediately. For guests wanting to feel they’re making a pro-active, if less dramatic, contribution to energy savings, INNCOM’s ecoMode occupancy-sensing thermostat features a button they can press to set back the thermostat manually to a level set by the hotel.

More properties are implementing occupancy-sensing thermostats, which automatically set back the temperature setting when no one is in the room; examples come from INNCOM, Telkonet, Energy Eye and others.  The more sophisticated systems have two set-back levels to maximize savings while minimizing the impact on the guest, a regular reduction when the guest is out of the room and a deeper cutback when he’s actually checked out of the hotel.  This approach has become much more cost effective with the development of Zigbee-based wireless communications between door locks, occupancy sensors and thermostats and sharing a network link to the property management system, a classic example of how multiple vendors can cooperate to the guest’s and hotel’s benefit.

This inter-vendor network collaboration is sometimes also extended to the minibar and occasionally to the in-room safe, too.  Minibars with door-opened sensors greatly improve restocking efficiency by sending staff only to those rooms where the bar was opened.  Those with sensors to record the actual consumption of items (and charge them to the guest folio) help even further, of course, by allowing the staff to know just what to take to the room on their re-stocking carts.  Less common but still useful are links to the safe, allowing a check-out clerk to see that it’s still locked and ask the guest if she’s left anything there.

This type of shared (converged) network is growing in acceptance in hotels for many reasons.  There’s an immediate reduction in cabling costs, as a single cable can provide just about all services a guestroom needs: Internet access, IP-based video, IP-based phone service, thermostat/door lock/minibar communications and so on.  This saving is offset to some extent by the cost of the control/distribution box in the guestroom (such as those from Lorica), but the other major advantage it offers is the ability to monitor the network and its attached devices continuously, alerting the hotel to potential problems well before they can impact guest service significantly. 

There are obvious redundancy issues with so many services going over a single cable, as well as power back-ups to keep the communications open in the event of power failure, but overall the advantages prevail, and converged networks are likely to become the norm for new-build properties. Given the increasing cooperation of multiple vendors supplying both guestroom services and infrastructure, it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see more formal links allowing a hotel to deal with a single vendor for a complete package of bundled services.

Making It Affordable
The variety of technology and systems available for the modern guestroom makes it one of the most complex puzzles to get right, and with guest expectations constantly lifted by steady advances in consumer technology, it’s not getting easier.  Hotels can’t afford to re-equip their rooms at the same pace as guests upgrade their homes, yet failing to meet minimum expectations will quickly lose business in this age of instant and highly visible guest reviews. 

Being realistic and clear about the actual needs of its particular guest mix and leveraging the guest-service infrastructure to make internal operations as cost effective as possible are the keys to any property being able to maintain the steady level of technology investment essential to staying competitive.

Jon Inge is an independent consultant specializing in technology at the property level. He can be reached by e-mail at jon@joninge.com or by phone at (206)546-0966.

©2010 Hospitality Upgrade
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Vast Volumes of Video
Cisco reports that global mobile data traffic has increased by 160 percent over the past year to about 90 petabytes (the equivalent of 23 million DVDs) per month, and predicts that it could be 40 times greater by 2014. 

That annual traffic of 40 exabytes would be the equivalent of 133 times all the data traffic that has ever gone over mobile networks from their onset in the 1980s to today. 

Cisco also expects video to represent two-thirds of all mobile data traffic by 2014, a 66-fold increase from 2009. 

So be ready.
Mandarin Oriental
Multinational Guests.Optimal Service

When your guest mix is as international and as demanding as at Mandarin Oriental, how do you match their expectations at global locations from New York to Marrakesh?

“The fundamentals matter most, so we start by ensuring a great Internet experience and a great cell phone signal everywhere,” said Nick Price, Mandarin Oriental’s CIO/CTO.  “All of our properties have secure fast wired HSIA, excellent Wi-Fi and good incoming bandwidth off the street (some have 200MBps into the property), and we install distributed antenna systems for optimal cell phone coverage.

“We try to maximize the content we offer on the TV with anywhere from 100 to 300 digital channels, but it’s still hard to be consistent everywhere in providing the programming our international travelers would like to see.  We do provide internationally recognized brand-name TV displays so the guest has an assurance of quality even before the set is turned on, and we are looking at very high quality, unique digital art as the default displays. We also focus on high-end audio from vendors such as Bang & Olufsen, Denon and Bowers & Wilkins.  Audio and video form a 50/50 joint venture to deliver a good quality audio-visual experience; you neglect one to the detriment of the other. 

“Integration of Internet-sourced content is a high priority, and offering Skype on the TV also has a lot of attractions.  It’s interesting how demand for video on-demand has dropped to the point where it’s no longer considered a Mandarin standard.”

How about integrated in-room controls?  “Our standards include occupancy detection for HVAC control and to ensure that guests in their rooms are not disturbed.  We also provide guest controls for do not disturb, make up room, butler call and other service requests, all integrated with our PMS (PAR Springer-Miller’s Host) and M-Tech HotSOS guest request/work order control system to monitor and manage the speed and quality of our response," said Price.  "Our new Las Vegas property has probably the best expression of our approach to room controls, using Control4 to integrate lighting, safe, minibar, drapes, door lock and TV.”

Where do you go from here?  “We design our hotels to be unique, and wherever we are, we try to speak to guests in their own language.  But we’ll continue to take a common approach to providing services, using the information we know about our guests to deliver quality services in the most simple and effective way possible.”

Staying Ahead with MTM

MTM Luxury Lodging has developed a reputation for leveraging technology to support a high level of guest service, perhaps best typified by its Hotel 1000 property in Seattle.  What has it been doing to keep ahead of the game?

“Right now the most important thing is to make sure that you have enough Internet bandwidth both for your guests and for management, and that it’s always available,” said Chuck Marratt, MTM’s vice president of IT. “We’ve implemented 100MB incoming bandwidth at Hotel 1000 already, and the Willows Lodge will be upgraded soon.  Redundancy is also important to make sure a single failure can’t take down the service.  At our Woodmark Hotel on Lake Washington, for example, we use bundled T1 land lines from XO Communications backed up by WiMAX service beamed across the lake by TowerStream.

“In the guestrooms we’re looking at integrating Exceptional Innovations’ LifeWare room control and Guest-Tek video entertainment into the next-generation set-top box. We’re also looking into Internet TV, especially for our Bardessono property in Napa Valley.  Oddly enough, one of our bigger challenges has been getting local TV channels in HD; there’s plenty of other HD content, but local free-to-guest channels aren’t always compatible with hotel head-end equipment.

“One innovation that’s worked out very well for us has been in moving our telephone service off property,” said Marratt.  “We started this a year ago at Bardessono by having the PBX and voice mail functions hosted remotely up here in Woodinville (near Seattle) and have had no problems at all, so we’re looking at expanding it to other properties.  It’s very cost effective, especially as some of our older PBXs near the end of their useful life.”

MTM’s leading the way in energy management; its Bardessono property just became only the third hotel in the world to receive LEED certification at the highest level, Platinum.  In addition to using solar and geothermal power sources, guestroom occupancy sensors on a converged network turn off lights and use exterior motor-driven blinds to control temperatures.

“One other thing we did at Bardessono was install RFID guestroom door locks,” said Marratt.  “We really wanted to use cell phone NFC (near-field communications) but the phones just aren’t widely available here yet. The RFID locks are almost as convenient for guests, though, and are NFC compatible, so as soon as guests start carrying the phones, we’ll be ready!”

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