Money Between the Mattresses

By Lisa Terry, Contributing Editor tor | April 01, 2007

The desire to enhance guest satisfaction with in-room technology is a given, but which systems really pay off for the hotel? Do in-room technology vendors' return on investment models prove out in the real world of hotel operations? Sometimes they do, hoteliers have found, and the savings can come from some surprising places.

HT identifies six ways that in-room technologies can help hotels save money, while still providing added services to their guests.

One: Labor savings
An oft-cited source of savings for the operator is the reduced use of labor to perform a service. An automated minibar system, for example, saves the
significant expense of going room to room each day. "We used to use eight people every day for honor bars, and now it's three a day, a 60 percent-plus labor savings," as well as providing added revenue and reduced administration from detecting even last-minute purchases using a solution from Minibar Systems ( ), says Bryan Bergman, refreshment center manager for the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco.

The remote monitoring offered with many in-room systems -- locks, TV services, HVAC, etc. -- enables staff to query and even resolve issues before sending a technician, thereby boosting productivity.

Two: Maximizing assets
Getting the full benefit of what's already paid for bolsters the bottom line. Engineering staff at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto used to spend days replacing all lock batteries in the property's 1,300 rooms -- even if many still had usable life. A solution from Saflok ( ) alerts staff to the three to four that are running low each day, maximizing battery investment.

Three: Smart sensors
Sensors that detect an empty room and trigger setbacks of energy hogs like HVAC and lighting reduce bills while accommodating guest comfort. High humidity was driving up costs at the Clarion Jacksonville Airport, so the property deployed digital thermostats with humidity sensors from Onity ( ), anticipating a 27-month return on investment. Instead, ROI came in 12 months. "Energy costs in our area were actually increasing at a rate of 20 percent to 30 percent during the period that we experienced the 20 percent decrease, so when you factor that in, the real savings are even more incredible," says Norman LeBert, general manager.

Lighting controls can also reduce energy load when it's not required. The DoubleTree Hotel in Sacramento installed Watt Stopper ( ) motion sensors with LED night lights in 400 rooms, cutting lighting energy consumption by 50 percent, with a 30-month payback. Lightolier ( ) controls at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Dallas are intended more for mood than savings, but the resort does closely monitor and evaluate energy by zone to spot consumption issues. Compact fluorescent bulbs have helped trim lighting costs, says Duane Beebe, chief engineer, electrical, and Gaylord is considering LEDs for some guest room fixtures to further limit consumption.

Four: Lawsuit prevention
The Sheraton Centre has been able to head off complaints and lawsuits through reporting capabilities associated with its locking system. "Guests will say they're missing something and try to blame the staff, but we'll find they left the door open themselves," says Scott Greenwood, senior security officer at the Sheraton. "It saves money in compensating guests and it means a lot less headaches."

Five: Cost control
Many hoteliers view broadband as a competitive necessity they can't recoup. But Allen Management, Hampton, Va., operator of 17 Wyndham and Choice properties, has done the next best thing: control broadband costs. The company uses EthoStream ( ) to manage technical support and bandwidth allocation support for its free broadband offering. Reporting helps hold its business class cable providers accountable to their service level agreements. Support service assists guests in logging on and enforces bandwidth and 24-hour access limits, curtailing bandwidth hogs from slowing other guests. That's helped forestall upgrades to costly T1 lines.

Preserving bandwidth will only become more important, advises Michael Allen, president of Allen Management. "Skype, Slingbox, company VPNs, VoIP in the workplace and as guests travel; all that has led to a huge increase in the amount of bandwidth hotels need to provide to guests. There seems to be no end in sight for the amount of bandwidth guests want." says Allen. "If you don't implement controls, it's an invitation for upsetting other guests," as well as threatening online access for internal applications, a growing concern. "Choice Hotels plans to deploy Web-based PMS to all properties in the next two years," notes Allen. "For us as a hotel, the ability to monitor the effectiveness of the network is extremely important."

For their part, minibars can also help control costs; a savings calculator in use by Bartech ( ) accounts for reduced waste of perishables and energy savings in addition to labor savings.

Palm Beach, Fla.-based Innkeeper's Hospitality controls the cost of guests' ever-rising bandwidth consumption by employing iBAHN's ( ) Speed Solution. It has thus far been deployed in 14 of the hotel management company's 81 units, delivering brand-standard connectivity speeds for free service and offering higher bandwidth to guests at a premium. "iBAHN is picking up part of the expense of the T1 and will take revenues and provide extra bandwidth for us," as well as support, says Marc Winer, divisional director of operations and owner relations. High speed Internet "is becoming as essential as clean sheets," says Winder. "Guests expect high speed to work and work flawlessly. Our biggest goal is to provide great service to guests and also protect owners' bottom lines."

Six: Necessary competitive advantage
The least calculable but no less important justification for an in-room technology is its ability to attract a guest -- or drive them away by its absence. Complimentary printing services in its business centers are key to attracting the business customer for 260-unit Hilton Garden Inn Hotels. The chain wanted to standardize and better control its printer usage, so Hilton Garden Inn deployed a solution from PrinterOn ( that enables guests on the wired or WiFi network to print documents in the business center, even one in a different Hilton Garden Inn. "We try to make sure we address the needs of our guests in an economical and easy fashion," says Mark Nogal, VP of hotel performance sales and support for Hilton Garden Inn Hotels.

According to PrinterOn, a 200-room hotel at a $100 per night rate and 350 pages printed per month can cover the $595 annual subscription with less than half a room night each month.

Of course, there will always be the better mousetrap -- or the one that saves more cheese -- being pitched to hotel operators. "We can't do everything," says Hilton Garden Inn's Nogal. "There's a cost for everything we do." Hilton's checklist asks: What does it cost? What is the benefit for the guest? What are the potential challenges in adopting it? And, what is the potential benefit to the hotel team?

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