The Entertainment Difference

By George Koroneos, Contributing Editor | February 11, 2009

It doesn't matter whether guests come with a Mac or a PC; the sight of a laptop pretty much guarantees a loss in entertainment revenue these days, as guests prefer to watch their own DVDs rather than purchase a pay-per-view movie. Rather than ignore the problem, some properties are trying to keep one step ahead of their customers by providing them with high-end audio/video technology, entertainment package deals, and access to the latest video game systems.

A sound decision
Sure, the easiest way to wow guests is by putting a massive flat-screen television in their room, but a giant screen is just one part of the total entertainment experience. While the idea of a stereo-in-a-box might spark thoughts of cheap technology, new models from Sony (www.sony.com), Bose (www.bose.com), and other high-grade stereo manufacturers provide theater-size sound in a small footprint package. Most systems include a video media player and a 5.1 surround sound speaker set-up, as well as inputs for iPod connectivity.

The Island Hotel (www.theislandhotel.com) in Newport Beach, California, took its entertainment package one step further by linking the Bose 1-2-3 systems in every guestroom to a LodgeNet (www.lodgenet.com) network, allowing guests to play Sirius satellite channels throughout their hotel room. Even better, guests can purchase high-definition movies through LodgeNet and not only watch them on either a 42-inch or 52-inch Sony LCD screen (depending on the room), but also experience true theater sound using the Bose speaker set-up.

"We found that because of the quality of the sound system and the television, guests order more LodgeNet programming than in the past," explains Christian Carpenter, director of rooms at the Island Hotel. "The ability for a guest to play their own music or to be able to watch a new movie in high-def really does make a difference to them."

Carpenter says that the hotel did have some challenges putting its entertainment system together. The property did not skimp on components, which led to connectivity problems between equipment. "Sony wasn't the best television to use with the LodgeNet system, but Sony, without question, was the best television to purchase quality-wise," Carpenter says.

To get the system up and running, Island purchased a converter box from Enseo (www.enseo.com), which provides a communication bridge between the different components. "We went through the challenges to make our entertainment offering function, but it was worth it," Carpenter says.

Paying the price
A fancy entertainment system might spark guest interest in some situations, but many customers are perfectly happy streaming video over the hotel's Internet via movie rental services such as Netflix and free video sites such as Hulu and YouTube. This can become a burden for hotels giving away free WiFi or asking customers to pay for everything from television to Internet access Ã¡ la carte.

"What's going down the drains is the pay-per-view model, where a guest pays X dollars for one movie," says Eli Finestone, director of e-commerce at F & F Realty (www.fandfrealty.com). "What will survive is the flat fee for the entire use of the whole system, be it Internet, video-on-demand, or printing documents. Paying $13 for a movie just doesn't make sense any more when a guest can just pick up his laptop and watch a DVD for two hours."

One option is an all-in-one media system, such as the Roomlinx (www.roomlinx.com) console, which serves up Internet, high-definition video, music, and business tools in a box about the size of a tissue dispenser. Content is fed through CAT6 (high-definition) cables, which are snaked into each room from a main server area in the building. All programming is customizable, from television shows to in-house advertisements.

As for eliminating pay-per-view all together, Finestone says that his company tried that but it didn't work out. "The numbers show that people are willing to pay more for the adult content than for Hollywood films," Finestone says. "We also have great displays in the rooms and we wanted to take advantage of the full high-def service."

Game on
When movies and Internet video aren't enough, there's always the old standby of video games. At the Bethesda Marriott Suites in Maryland (www.marriott.com), Nintendo Wii (www.nintendo.com) is king. A few months back, the property was approached by Marriott corporate to be a test hotel for the popular gaming system. The Bethesda Marriott property jumped at the chance to play with the new technology.

The Nintendo Wii is a next-generation gaming system that allows gamers to control the characters in a game using hand gestures in tandem with a controller. The Wii has become a huge hit with both kids and adults, making it one of the best selling gaming systems in years.

"We wanted to do something new and innovative for us [that would] separate us from the other hotels in the area and make the property unique and different," says Christine McDaniel, assistant general manager at the Bethesda Marriott Suites.

The Bethesda Marriott Suites put the gaming consoles in five low-sell guestrooms and re-branded them as family-oriented rooms. The Nintendos are part of the advertised room rate, so guests do not have to pay a separate fee.

These aren't your typical Nintendo systems either. For security reasons, the Wiis are encased in an acrylic box, which is attached to the wall. Upon checking into the hotel, visitors are given a backpack with the controllers, a Wii Fit board and instructions for use. The games are not physical cartridges like the ones sold to consumers. Nintendo sells the units to hotels pre-loaded with games and users can select which one they want to play from the menu screen.

"Our guests love the systems," McDaniel says. "Women, in particular, like the Wii Fit system, because they can exercise in the privacy of their room without having to go down to the fitness center."

Nintendo isn't the only gaming company jumping into the hospitality space. Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) teamed up with the Hotel Sax Chicago (www.hotelsaxchicago.com) to create smart rooms that include gaming centers for youths and adults, high tech business centers, and a digital entertainment studio. In addition, the hotel tricked out a few suites with the latest in Microsoft technology including a floor of smaller "cabin" rooms that were revamped with large screen televisions, Xbox gaming consoles, and state-of-the-art stereos. "In effect, we turned these rooms into digital playpens," says Jeff McIntyre, principal of Gemstone Hotels and resorts, the management company behind Hotel Sax Chicago. "Those rooms went from rooms that were difficult to sell, to rooms that people are requesting because of the entertainment technology that we've included."

The Xbox consoles also allow guests to purchase videos on demand through Microsoft's own Live Marketplace as well as try out demos of new games and compete against guests in other rooms. "It's fascinating watching a baby boomer playing Guitar Hero against [younger people],"McIntyre says. "A property looking to adopt this kind of technology must be committed to the position that technology is important to its target audience, because it is an expensive undertaking."

Look before you dive in
Before dabbling in high-end entertainment tech, a property must research its guest population to make sure that there will be a return on investment. While it's great to stay on the cutting edge of technology, it's best to steer away from new equipment that hasn't proven itself yet.

For example, high-definition DVDs, now dominated by Sony's Blu-ray platform, have yet to permeate the hospitality industry. Not a single operator interviewed for this article said they plan on purchasing high-definition DVD players in the next year. The big reason given is that even though Blu-ray has won the format war, the units still haven't been accepted by consumers as fast as DVDs were in the mid-1990s.

Any hotel that jumped on HD DVDs over Blu-ray players during the high-definition wars of 2007 are now stuck with $400 doorstops in their guestrooms. Always stick with a technology that has had time to work out its bugs.

"Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but in years to come, this technology is going to be a differentiator, if you do not have this kind of environment for your guests," says Michael St-Laurent, director of IT at Hotel Sax Chicago. "Our guests of tomorrow are different from our guests of today, and they are going to look for some point of differention for our hotel compared to the one down the street."

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