The next time you check into a hotel during a business trip, don't be surprised if reception hands you a laptop along with your room key. Hotels that cater to business travellers are installing new network infrastructures and developing new guest programs - such as offering loaner laptops - to make their properties more business -user-friendly. The renovations range from wiring for high-speed Internet access to providing full computer, Internet and LAN facilities.
What's driving the technology boom at hotels is the realisation that good computer facilities can help capture a larger chunk of the lucrative business travellers' market. A survey that US-based Opinion Research recently conducted for Integrated Network Technologies found that 66 per cent of the 300 frequent business travellers polled said they would choose a hotel based on its in-room technology services. Seventy three per cent said they wished that available services were better.
The most common improvement hotels are making is the installation of high-speed Internet access, such as digital subscriber line service, T1 lines and broadband connections. What's making it easy for hotels to offer these alternatives is the emergence of companies, such as Tut Systems, Suite Technology Systems Network and Wayport, that specialise in retrofitting hotels with network access. By relying on Ethernet and Universal Serial Bus connections for now, while developing wireless services for the future, these services let travellers with network-enabled laptops plug into the hotel's LAN through ports in the rooms to reach the Web.
Hotels are also catering to those who travel without laptops, offering in-room systems such as those provided by US-based Lodge Net Entertainment, or supplying loaner laptops. The disadvantages of these types of solutions for business travellers is that they usually offer only Internet access, Post Office Protocol mail services and popular productivity software; using corporate e-mail and specialised applications and data is difficult. In addition, televisions often serve as the monitors for in-room systems, and they suffer from the low resolution of current television technology.
But savvy hotel managers recognise that pure Internet access is of limited use to their business traveller guests. The key need of these customers is connecting to headquarters. Virtual private network (VPN) facilities aren't yet common, but they are on the rise. LodgeNet, for example, and DataValet, a service offered by Bell Nexxia (the data communications arm of Bell Canada International) and joint-venture partners, offer VPN access to laptops hooked into their Internet services.
Hotels are also paying attention to the needs of computer users when they're outside their rooms. Some now offer network access in conference rooms - and even restaurants. The Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel added Internet access ports at tables in the Bistro on Two restaurant so that diners can work or play online while they eat. Seattle's Hotel Elliott, a 424-room facility scheduled to open next April, will offer wireless access throughout the building, enabling travellers to work on laptops in the lobby.
The lobby is also the likely spot for Internet-enabled kiosks that will allow guests to access their own records for tasks such as checkout; to find out about the hotel, such as the location of the fitness centre; and to search for nearby restaurants and entertainment.
But the main activity is renovating conference centres, which traditionally have been wired by hand for each group using them, resulting in snaking lines of duct tape pinning cables to the carpet. Hotels are now planning conference rooms that include desks with integrated electrical outlets and network ports, and they're adding videoconferencing facilities and projection technology to match the facilities in modern office buildings.
With the technology at hotels getting more and more sophisticated, visitors are running into connectivity problems. Several hotels have hired helpdesk staff, sometimes called computer concierges, to unravel any trouble that guests have with their computers or with the hotel's network.
At the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago, information technology manager Mike Demir and two other IT staffers are available to guests from about 7am to 7pm.
Demir's main job is to support the hotel's back-office systems, but for the past 18 months he's been able to help guests with a variety of problems, including fixing a recalcitrant TelePrompTer, lending a laptop power supply, and resetting dial-up properties for the many guests who stumbled over their laptops' modem settings. For less urgent tasks, he directs guests to the hotel's staffed business centre. Eventually, the business centre will have a full-time IT staffer to take over guest support, he says.
These new technology services won't appear at all hotels, even those that are part of a chain. That's because hotel owners often pay for the use of the hotel brand name, and each owner makes individual decisions about amenities at their hotels. Plus, many owners choose to upgrade only a portion of their rooms, based on the theory that not all guests will require the extra services. So before you go, find out what amenities are available in the room you reserve.
Also, check which services are included in the room price. There are three cost models. Some hotels charge an extra flat fee for business-class rooms, such as the Chicago-based Hyatt's $US20 fee to upgrade to the Business Plan; some charge for specific extra services, such as Marriott International's $9.95 daily fee for high-speed Internet access; and some charge a premium room rate, such as Seattle's new Hotel Elliott's anticipated $US350 per day rack rate and the Chicago Four Seasons' $450 per day rate for its Technology 2000 suites.
Building an e-hotel
Dick Hedreen is taking a gamble. He's building a luxury hotel that will offer guests new technology, hoping that the premier computer facilities will lure always-on-the-road warriors, dot-com millionaires and other laptop-toting travellers to his Hotel Elliott in Seattle.
RC Hedreen Company owns two other hotels in Seattle - the Seattle Hilton and the Madison Renaissance Hotel. But the Elliott won't have a chain affiliation, said information technology chief Derek Bottles, so it needs competitive advantage beyond name recognition. The advantage chosen was technology, which the company hopes will swell the percentage of the more valuable business travellers and conference groups - which account for 33.3 per cent of the guests at its other properties - to 40 per cent at the Elliott.
The e-services menu
Among the services that Bottles is developing for the Elliott are 100Mbps high-speed Internet access, video-on-demand systems; limited videoconferencing in all the rooms; monitor-quality TVs - perhaps flat panels - and TV-based Internet and application access in every room; VPN facilities; wireless access throughout the building; Internet kiosks in the lobby; connectivity to the Washington State Convention Centre across the street; a theatre-style conference centre with Internet-wired seats and built-in videoconferencing; customised applications that let guests tap into the back-office systems to order food and services and to pay bills; personal profiles in the guest database that specify guests' preferences for stocking the minibar and for room amenities; password- protected areas on the local hard disks for storing and retrieving files; and a nine-person IT staff that will serve both hotel employees and guests.
The idea for the Hotel Elliott began in 1996, when Bottles joined the company to help upgrade its infrastructure. At the time, according to Bottles, the company ran on a few outdated minicomputers that were kept alive by cannibalising surplus machines for parts. As Bottles researched the company's needs, he kept stumbling across an unfilled need to provide technology services to guests, he says. When Hedreen decided to build a new hotel in Seattle, he gave Bottles full rein to fill that need.
To keep from chasing an ever-out-of-reach definition of state-of-the-art, Bottles has laid out a strategy of over-engineering the whole hotel. Where the recommendation was to lay one cable conduit, he put in four, he said. Fibre runs to every room; it's dark now, but Bottles feels that sometime in the future, the bandwidth will be needed.
All these technology features are going to cost about 5 to 7 per cent of the total construction budget, Bottles explained, but he declined to provide any number more solid than "millions." Although pricing for each service hasn't been worked out, many services will be included in the room price - the anticipated rack rate is $350 per day for a standard room. Another possibility is to share costs with technology partners; Bottles said the tech-savvy businesspeople he hopes to attract will also form the market for the companies supplying the hotel's network hardware, servers and software. He's also investigating charging transaction fees for information services, such as making restaurant reservations through the hotel's Internet portal.
Although the bones of the Elliott and its computer network are already fixed, the company is still working out the best choices for decor and computer services. In a room mock-up a few blocks from the hotel site, Bottles and the interior decorators are testing such details as the placement of electrical outlets and the usefulness of having an Internet appliance in the bathroom.
Whatever choices they make for the scheduled April 2001 opening of the hotel won't be perfect, Bottles said. But he's confident he has the infrastructure in place to make whatever improvements may be called for.
Here are new computer services being installed by some of the major US chains favoured by executives. Because chains are often operated as franchises, however, amenities may be offered only at certain sites.l Hyatt: In-room multifunction printer/ copier/fax machines, high-speed Internet access and video-on-demandl Hilton Hotels: In-room computer system with Internet access and office applicationsl Intercontinental Hotels: Help staff, high-speed accessl Marriott: High-speed access via Ethernet or USB portsl Radisson Hotels: TV-based Internet access, kiosks, high-speed accessl Renaissance Hotels: High-speed access via Ethernet or USB portl Ritz-Carlton Hotel Help staff, high-speed accessl Sheraton: High-speed accessl Westin Hotels: High-speed access, Internet access in conference rooms.
Beyond the business centre
The days are long gone when services for business travellers meant a converted broom closet off the lobby where you could bring a floppy disk or your laptop.
The latest trend in the hotel industry is to offer computer services that mimic those provided by your company's IT department.l Networks: High-speed Internet access and wireless networks to get you connected to headquarters; VPN capabilities; bandwidth to the room that supports video and voicel Internet access: In-room systems that use the TV and wireless keyboards for surfingl Equipment: Loaner programs that provide laptops with standard office programs and modemsl Helpdesk: On-staff expertise to help you connect to the network and the Internet or to diagnose application problemsl Intranets: Kiosks in the lobby to access hotel information and local travel guides; space on the local server to store personal files and retrieve public or limited-access files such as conference notes.