Peninsula Hotels Won't be Out-Wowed

By Christina Volpe | February 11, 2009

Hotel guest rooms have long been a breeding ground for innovative technology. These days, however, to truly innovate, hotel technology must keep up with the Jones's, literally. Most hotel guests have sophistication in their own living rooms that out-wows typical guestroom tech.

With locations in eight of the world's busiest cities (New York, Hong Kong, Beverly Hills, Chicago, Beijing, Manila, Tokyo and Shanghai opening in 2009), Peninsula Hotels (www.peninsula.com) will not be out-wowed. The hotel brand takes its in-room technology investments far beyond off-the-shelf solutions. Peninsula is the only hotel group with its own research and development facilities, the nerve center for more than half of the hotel's custom-built and modified guestroom technologies.  

"Peninsula is very traditional. We don't look like a modern hotel, but on the other hand we want to show our guests that we are innovative and that our guestroom products and technologies are very intuitive and user friendly," says Ingvar Herland, general manager of research and technology. "Other hotels will define what [guestroom technology] they want and they will outsource. Guests might find that same technology in different hotels, where as in our hotel it will only be ours. Our technology is not sold to anybody else."

Origins of an idea
What started as a separate company 20 years ago, Peninsula's research and development facilities (which include a team of electronic and software engineers called the Electronics Services Department) officially joined The Hong Kong Shanghai Hotels (parent company of Peninsula Hotels and other subsidiaries) in 1991, and is where guestroom tech begins and ends. Herland, the company's former manager of engineering, recently inherited the R&D facility reins from industry veteran Fraser Hickox, and is now responsible for the design, manufacturing and implementation of all Peninsula Hotels' electrical and electronic guestroom systems.

Each financial quarter, the R&D department hosts a guestroom technology brainstorming session that draws from customer feedback, as well as the knowledge, input and experiences from its operations department. From there, R&D develops a prototype and deploys it in test rooms to determine whether or not the solution will sink or swim.

"We have very free hands in this group," says Herland. "We are encouraged to participate around the world in different shows and exhibitions in order to get ideas. We also have our own research and development budget to test these [solutions] and ideas; not necessarily to lead to a project, but to see how something works and to see if it could be useful to us."

At Peninsula, the testing period for its in-room tech can last anywhere from between a year to a year-and-a-half before a solution is ready to be deployed. When designing the guestrooms for its Tokyo location, for example, Peninsula built test rooms at its R&D facilities and invited general managers and the R&D chairman to test out the fully-equipped model rooms. "We also invite journalists to stay and give feedback. This is a process that we feel is very important. We want to make sure that everything works and is user friendly," says Herland.

Innovations of all sizes
Innovations are vast and varied, ranging from the small, such as digital clocks mounted in bathroom mirrors, integrated internet radio with 6,000+ programmed stations, and custom nail-dryers that eliminate the delay cased by wet nail polish for female guests in Tokyo, to the large, such as the telephone system in the Tokyo property that allows guests to synchronize their personal mobile phones to the wired guestroom phone for the automatic transfer of incoming calls. This is in addition to a second in-room telephone, developed in conjunction with NEC Global (www.nec.com), that converts into a mobile phone when guests leave the hotel, allowing them to place outgoing calls from anywhere within the Tokyo metropolitan area. As an added measure of convenience, whenever incoming calls are received, the television or radio will mute automatically to eliminate the distraction of background noise. And if the call comes through at night when the room is dark, wall sconces will backlight the telephone and then automatically go out when the call is finished.

"We customized the functions that we want it to have," says Herland. "Normally phones are very complex and not user friendly; we wanted a phone that was very easy to use."

Another unique technology to Peninsula is its bedside control panel. With the press of a button, guests can control the room temperature, radio, television, curtains, lighting and even activate the "do not disturb" display located outside of the door, all without getting out of bed. The "night light" button slowly dims the lights in the guestroom so that guests are not automatically plunged into darkness.

"That is one of the important things that we want people to be able to control; everything in the room while in bed. It's about the small things that you never knew you wanted, but come to find that you appreciate them," says Herland.

The guestroom innovations do not stop there, they also extend to the bathroom and dressing area. "We put in an advanced weather panel that will show our guests the temperature, wind speed, and wind direction and this is not something that we take from the Internet." Peninsula has its own weather station to collect all of this information so that guests can get real-time local weather updates. "We also have a spa button in the bathroom, so if guests press that button, the light in the bathroom will dim and spa music will play in the background." A "do not disturb"button is incorporated beside the bathtub and once pressed will silence both the phone and door.

Integrated solutions
In addition to new technologies, Peninsula's R&D department focuses on integration. "In the room we include a separate audio system and DVD player, and we have video-on-demand. All of these need to be integrated and controlled by one remote control. We designed our own remote so that guests will not come into our hotels and find three remotes. This is very important and I think it is quite special," says Herland.

Peninsula's guestrooms also feature iPod docking stations to accommodate the growing guest demand. "We modified the sound system and we are linking the iPod or iPhone to the TV so that if guests have a video that they would like to watch, they can watch it or listen to music over the system in the room."

Guestroom of the future
So what else does Peninsula's R&D department have up its sleeve? "We have several projects in the pipeline. One of the things we will be focusing on is for the room to be more customized for guest preferences. A guest might have special preferences for things like lighting, temperature or television settings."That information would be stored in the guest's profile, collected from previous stays, and would enable the hotel to set the room controls as per the guest's preferences.

The brand is also focused on green initiatives, and has plans to expand programs already in place. "We try to be environmentally friendly; we have a project which is technology-based in order to preserve energy. This is something that we would like guests to have a feeling for, so they see their part in reducing global warming."

In addition to these customized programs, Herland also notes that Peninsula will be doing more with in-room technology systems that integrate with cell and smart phones as that technology becomes more advanced.

In all its endeavors, Herland stresses that Peninsula will continue to develop technology that is accessible to all age groups. "Kids are very tech savvy but our older clientele is not as tech savvy, so the technology has to be able to be used by anyone regardless of their age. Our guestroom technology is designed to accommodate everyone, even somebody who isn't technologically minded."

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