Guestroom Tech 2001

In this article…

So What Do Guests Want?

High-speed Internet access

New Uses For The HSIA Link

How About TV Internet?

Phones, Printers

Pay-Per-View

Entertainment Centers

Mini-bars

Energy Management, Guest-In-Room Indicators

Door locks

Common wiring

Don’t Overlook the Simple Ideas

Know Your Target Audience
 

 

Guestroom Technology

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it.

There’s a great deal of discussion these days about finding the right mix of guestroom technology to attract guests. High-speed Internet access (HSIA), high-end stereo systems, multiple-line phones, Pay-Per-View (PPV) movies and games (and, soon, music), fax machines/printers, and so on are all heavily promoted as “essential” to satisfy today’s traveler. But that same traveler, when faced with a guestroom full of gadgets, would be fully entitled to ask, “What IS all this stuff?”

Despite the many “Room of the Future” design exercises that have come and gone, rooms still look pretty much the same as they always did, with the notable exception of more usable work space. We don’t hear much any more about flat-panel-displays with guest-selectable art on the walls, or exercise machines in every room, thank goodness.

What people do in those rooms, of course, has changed a lot, from both the work and entertainment perspectives. And a focus on the technology itself doesn’t address the real purpose of it all, which is to help you provide each guest with a memorably hospitable stay.

She may not be overly impressed by the fact that you provide Internet access, even at high speed, since she can get that in many places. She’s much more likely to come away with a good impression of your property if you’ve thought about what would be truly useful to her, and have used technology to enhance her stay in ways she finds unexpectedly convenient.

So What Do Guests Want?

Guest needs in a hotel room can be grouped under three general headings, each with its own technology aspects:

  • Comfort, Security and PeaceA secure room (electronic door locks, clearly-visible fire/smoke alarms), well-lit (good task lighting), at a comfortable temperature (energy management), and the chance to enjoy it undisturbed (external do-not-disturb indicator, occupancy sensors, good soundproofing).
  • EntertainmentA good-quality TV with many free-to-guest channels plus movie/games/music options (PPV systems), information on local attractions (concierge system, TV or dedicated Internet connection), perhaps a quality stereo system and a mini-bar/refreshment center.
  • An Enhanced Work EnvironmentInternet access (dedicated high-speed, TV-based or data-port), multi-line phones, good lighting, and fast, convenient access to useful information. Oh yes, and a good-sized desk and comfortable work chair that put the guest’s arms at a comfortable angle to his PC keyboard without having to sit on the phone books. (OK, maybe some things are too much to hope for…)

Exploring all of these topics could take several articles, so let’s take a look at several currently in the spotlight. We’ll take them in reverse order, since Internet access is definitely a hot button for many people.

High-speed Internet access (HSIA)

Business travelers need access to the Internet on the road. That’s a given, but not everyone needs it to be high-speed. Dial-up is still acceptably fast for many users, and for many others, especially if they’re not checking e-mail, TV access can be just fine, given appropriate screen design to cater for TV display’ lower resolution. High-speed is undeniably nicer to use, though, and since it has the merit of ensuring that long Internet sessions by some guests don’t clog up the phone system for everyone else, an ever-increasing number of hotels are installing it, usually on a revenue-sharing model from vendors such as CAIS, Wayport, STSN and many, many others.

But why don’t more people use these high-speed links? One factor is certainly perceived value. Most $10/night HSIA services are only seeing 2%-3% usage, but free-to-guest offerings are up around 15% or higher, and clearly help attract guests to the property. Depending on your guest mix, you might be better off paying a flat monthly fee for the service (from vendors such as Guest-Tek) and covering it from increased room – and room service – sales.

What type of guest really needs a high-speed link and is willing to pay for it? Those who (a) absolutely MUST do a great deal of file transfers on the road, whether for updating their own PC with the latest marketing info from their company, or revised PowerPoint presentations, or (b) someone who needs to do significant Internet-based research while traveling. Even then, chances are that they’re not going to do that every night of their stay; most people will take a break from work on some nights. You have to do the math based on you own guest mix to know whether HSIA makes sense for your property, and on what basis.

Even those masochists who hit the PC every evening (and we know who we are) seldom need a high-speed link every single time they sign on. But if it’s there, and it doesn’t cost any extra to use it, they will use it, and it’s attractive enough to be a factor to them in deciding where to stay.

Many corporate travelers also need your HSIA service to have VPN capability, to let them send encrypted transmissions through the hotel’s firewalls to their companies’ secure networks. Make sure your system can handle that traffic safely; it could be a deal-breaker for an important chunk of your business.

New Uses For The HSIA Link

With the convergence of so many technologies around the ubiquitous PC server and hard drive, once you’ve cabled your rooms for HSIA it becomes possible to provide completely new services to them. Some offered by the new Elliott Hotel in Seattle (see sidebar) include the ability to make video recordings of a group’s conference workshops or seminar presentations, store them on a server’s hard drive, and make them available to the group members’ rooms for later viewing. It’s certainly a good way around the old conflict of having to choose which concurrent session to attend!

It’s also possible to link all of a group’s guest rooms and meeting rooms into a Virtual LAN, so that they can communicate with each other, work collaboratively on different projects during a conference, watch conferences from their PCs, and so on.
Clearly security has to be a prime concern here; for maximum isolation of each room from others in the hotel, the Elliott treats each room data outlet as its own Virtual LAN, then links them into larger LANs as required.

How About TV Internet?

You don’t always need the fastest possible connection for those nights when you’re just checking the weather, your stock prices, local restaurants and so on. Guests could get this information from Yahoo!, Citysearch, or any one or more of a dozen Websites, using their laptop. But if you can provide another way to give them fast, hassle-free access to that kind of information, they’re much more likely to think favorably about your hotel. For this, access via the TV can often fill the bill.
Sure, it’s not as fast as from a PC over a dedicated line, and the display needs careful formatting, but it means the guest doesn’t have to go through the hassle of setting up and powering up his PC and then hunching over the desk to do manual searches to get to it. Sitting back and using a wireless keyboard to pick up the same information from a TV can be a whole lot more attractive, especially if you’ve cached the more commonly-requested information on your local servers to give instant response.

Phones, Printers

There’s something about sitting at a desk that screams “you’re still at work”, when all you really want to do is sit back and relax. It’s the same with phones; a two-line phone on the desk is all very well, especially if given a long enough cord to reach across the room (if you’re not able to put one on the night stand, another on the desk and a third in the bathroom), but a cordless handset doesn’t tie you down. A speaker phone in the base unit gives you even more flexibility, and can be a great way to check voice mail.

Printing is another service that many travelers could really use, but history has shown that it’s not cost-justifiable to put a printer in every room. While many travelers cope by using their laptops to fax documents to themselves at the hotel, a better solution (for non-confidential work) would be to send a print job over a hotel intranet to the business center for pick-up later. Ideally, it makes most sense to have a few printers (or multi-function fax/copier/printer units) available for use directly in the guestroom.

Pay-Per-View

PPV movies and games have been around for a long, long time, and many travelers do like to unwind with a movie. Lodgenet and On Command estimate about 12-15% of a hotel’s travelers will watch a movie on any given night, and another 3-5% will use the computer games, which means those services are probably already reaching close to as many guests as are likely to take advantage of them – in their current form.

But movie usage may well rise further with more-convenient services being pioneered by newcomers such as TNCi, General Dynamics, Unisys, etc., as well as the above two major vendors. By keeping the movies in digital format on computer server hard drives, these offer full pause/rewind/fast forward capabilities to any guest watching any movie. And with digital servers, all guests in a hotel can watch the same movie without impacting anyone else. No more out-of-stock titles, no more missing crucial dialog or action when room service delivers an evening meal or the phone rings.

Add in new services such as a music selection of 350 CDs in an on-site jukebox (with possible links to the Internet to help guests buy something they’ve just enjoyed listening to), and pay-per-view episodes of popular TV series, available at any time you want them and not just on an unfamiliar local network’s schedule, and you have an even more attractive alternative to outside entertainment, a more satisfied guest, and higher profits.

Entertainment Centers

There’s a growing trend towards providing home-quality stereo and entertainment centers in suites and higher-end guestrooms. These can provide a much more relaxing, home-away-from-home quality, especially if you offer a selection of DVD movies or audio CDs, or if the guest carries her own CDs and welcomes the chance to listen to them over a quality system instead of the tinny speakers or headphones that come with her laptop.

Three caveats, though: the system must be straightforward enough for most guests to operate without resorting to a written guide (because most, not only the men, will just try to muddle through the controls by trial and error), it must be well-enough illuminated that the control markings are legible, and you might want to think about the quality of soundproofing between your guestroom walls, floors and ceilings. Beethoven can be just as in-your-face as Pearl Jam under the wrong circumstances.

Mini-bars

The debate over how best to manage mini-bars – or “refreshment centers” in today’s PC nomenclature – will no doubt continue for some time. Honor-system units are open to guest abuse, especially when they’re not re-stocked until after most guests have checked out, and late charges, even if justified, are never conducive to good guest memories.

Fully automated units that charge a guest’s folio as soon as an item is removed seem like an improvement, but can seem impersonal, and need to cater to the guest who changes her mind and wants to replace the item.

Either way, the most effective way to know if you should at least ask the guest if they used anything is to have a door switch on the unit, reporting back to a central point that it’s been opened (and also that it should be checked for re-stocking). These have been available for a while, both from the mini-bar vendors themselves and from companies such as Lodging Technologies, Senercomm and InnCom that link several room-related activities to a central server. To simplify installation, these often communicate with a central server by piggy-backing over the PPV movie cabling already installed to each room.

A new twist on this concept is offered by eRoomSystems, which equips each of its refreshment centers with a small PC processor to report on items taken from the unit. The server then interfaces to the PMS to charge the guest, and tells the re-stocking department both that the unit has been opened and what items were consumed, maximizing their efficiency. This also allows you to analyze item consumption by room number, and hence by guest category or group code, which could lead to stocking policies that are both more efficient and more personalized.

But of course once you’ve got a processor and a central link in each room, you can extend the concept. eRoomSystems also offers an in-room safe linked to the refreshment center, which then allows you to track safe usage. Control of the safe’s combination remains with the guest, of course, but it’s a real benefit to be able to tell the guest at check-out that the safe in his room is still locked, and might still contain his valuables.

And if you want to discourage the staff from using the phone, Housekeeping can report changes in room status or maintenance faults via the refreshment centers control panel instead.

Energy Management and Guest-In-Room Indicators

The benefits of energy management systems to a hotel have been discussed here before, and are even more valid in these energy-critical times. Most properties could probably use a little help minimizing their utility bills lately…

But once you have an occupancy/motion sensor and door switch to tell the EMS when it’s OK to set back the thermostat, you can also use it to let housekeeping and the mini-bar re-stocker know that the room’s occupied, and so minimize guest interruptions. Lodging Technology’s GEM system, for example, sends a “room occupied” signal to an invisible indicator buried in the door jamb, which the staff can interrogate with a small proximity-sensing device.

Several systems let a guest press a switch in the room to illuminate a Do Not Disturb indicator in the corridor, which – with the right switch placement – can be more convenient than hanging a card on the door handle. It’s preferable, though, if you put several switches throughout the room, so the guest can set the lamp on or off from (for example) the entry way, the bathroom, the bedside or the desk area. Without this convenience, the guest is just as likely to forget to set it, or forget that he HAS set it with the resultant confusion when Room Service arrives with his meal.

Door locks

Electronic door locks are pretty well established everywhere by now, and provide great peace of mind (though why do so many hotels cut two keys for you when you’re traveling alone?). The biggest improvement for most travelers would be to by-pass the check-in line altogether, without having to stop at the desk for their key.

Having the locks pre-coded for the guest’s credit card sounds like a great way to do this, but it’s always been expensive to wire all the doors back to a central point to enable it. This is changing as guestroom technology becomes more integrated; Timelox, for example, has several installations using infra-red to link its door locks to InnCom or Senercomm energy management systems, then using the EMS cabling to communicate with the central lock system controller. Since it means that the guest must carry the card at all times – and even leave it with his towel when at the beach or poolside – this scenario makes much more sense using a mag-strip encoded frequent-guest card than a credit card, and demand for it can be expected to rise as more such cards become available.

Remote check-in from hand-held units has also been possible for a while, but with the drawback that the guest still needed to stop at the front desk for the key. However, the Venetian in Las Vegas is about to launch a service using Symbol Palm-based units with RF links to its Timelox system and its LMS PMS, with a built-in mag-stripe card reader and writer and a printer.
This will let the staff agent in the limo or remote area swipe the guest’s credit card, retrieve her reservation and generate both her room key and bar-coded baggage tags. And since the card can also be coded for pre-approved casino player tracking and POS credit data, while her bags are being delivered to her room she can head right out into the hotel. All in all a great example of using the power of technology to make a real difference to guest convenience – and improve hotel profitability.

Common wiring/wireless connections

Examples such as eRoomSystems sharing the PPV movie cabling, and InnCom’s agreements with CAIS and Timelox to share centralized energy management cabling (with HSIA and lock traffic, respectively), might seem like a good use of resources.
While they can certainly simplify installations in existing properties, though, they do require signal splitters in each room and at the central point to separate the data streams. And while some combinations make a good deal of sense, others – especially if HSIA is one of the shared services – can lead to bandwidth restrictions. For new construction, it’s often preferable to run separate cables for each system; it’s not that expensive while the walls are still open, and gives you optimal performance for each system.

It’s also worthwhile to look at wireless network options for HSIA, which avoid having to cable the guestrooms at all. You will still have to wire to the transmitter/ receiver units spread throughout the property, but those are usually in public areas where it’s easier to run wiring. And, of course, wireless lets your guests access the Internet from wherever in the property you’ve provided coverage, from meeting rooms and lobbies to outdoor patios and pools, though you’ll probably need to keep a few wireless network cards on hand for guests to borrow.

Don’t Overlook the Simple Ideas

Speaking of which, sometimes the simplest technology aids can make the biggest impression on the guest. Keeping a few power cords and charging units available for the most popular laptops and cellular phones, plus a few network interface cards, costs very little compared to the huge feeling of relief and gratitude a forgetful (or unlucky) guest will have when you produce them.

Know Your Target Audience

Above all, don’t be dazzled by all the possibilities and think you have to install every one. What will work for your property depends on your target market, the profiles of your most frequent guests, and a thoughtful review of their needs.
Focus first on how you can best supply superlative, memorable service to the guest mix you have or are aiming at, and then put in the best technology you can to make that happen. Done properly, it can make a huge difference to the guest experience.

 

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© Jon Inge

First published Spring 2001, Hospitality Upgrade magazine

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