Uncommon Common Spaces

By George Koroneos | August 10, 2009

For years, technological innovation in hotel common spaces and gathering areas has taken a back seat to flashy in-room entertainment. But that's changing as hotels do everything in their power to distinguish their brand from the competition.

Be it a lounge in the lobby or a convention center, technology is slowly but surely creeping into the common spaces, and guests are taking notice.

"I think it's very important that hotels stay current with today's [common space] technology," explains Todd Hudgel, vice president, Southern Hospitality Services (www.shshotelus.com). "When check-in and -out kiosks first started being installed in properties, guests were not very willing to use them and they weren't very user friendly. Today, that's completely changed."

Today's guests want to streamline their travel time as much as possible. They are looking to get in, get their business done and get back home. "Guests also want a choice," Hudgel says. "Some people want to talk to a human being and others just want to go to their room."

To serve and select
The InterContinental Hotels Group (www.ichotelsgroup.com) is installing Microsoft's (www.microsoft.com/surface) future-forward Surface technology in select properties to help enhance its concierge station and help guests get around town.

"If you walk up to your average lobby or front desk, it's hard to even find a front desk agent from all of the brochures and maps they have all over the place," says Bryson Koehler, VP of revenue and guest technology at International Hotel Group. "There is just so much stuff everywhere that does not equate to a relaxing experience. A hotel stay should soothe you."

Surface is a touch interface that allows guests to choose the information they want by pressing digital buttons on a table top digital display and using their finger as a pointer.

The key to the installation's success is a concierge application that IHG created for guests to use when the human concierge was indisposed. IHG loaded the Surface system with custom-tailored Web site content, video interviews, local maps, etc. Guests can map out their day, plan their itinerary, and print it out.

"It's created a very social environment because Surface attracts people wherever it is," Koehler says. "Before you know it, you have a horde of people hovering around, talking about what they are going to do today."

The digital (display) advantage
Digital signage has also come a long way in common areas. Once used largely for way-finder information, new touch technology provides a much more immersive experience. Thayer Lodging Group (www.thayerlodging.com), which recently received a 2009 Hotel Visionary Award for technology innovation, has demonstrated the power of common-area technologies at its LEED-certified conference center, the Doubletree Hotel Palm Gardens, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. The property incorporates IBM  (www.ibm.com) 15-inch vertical touch monitors in front of every meeting room, while a backend system by Four Winds Interactive (www.fourwindsinteractive.com) communicates to the hotel's Johnson Controls (www.johnsoncontrols.com) building management control system for seamless integration.

Guests can walk up to any display, touch a button, and see building energy consumption information and temperatures; basically a snapshot of the building at that moment in time. On the displays, Doubletree incorporated Google Maps and directions. Guests can use their hands to navigate a map to local areas. They can also look up and print flight information directly from the display. 

"Touch technology is a key technology factor that is here to stay," says Mike Uwe Dickersbach, VP of IT, Thayer Lodging. "All it really is, is a software application, but when people are able to do things with their own hands, it really brings a certain factor to the whole experience."

Though the company could have gone wireless, it chose to wire the components together for greater efficiency. "Personally, I prefer to have core infrastructure on a wired line versus wireless," Dickersbach says. "Integration is like any other project, in this case Four Winds system and the Johnson Controls system had to be set up to communicate together. The challenge is that, in the HVAC and building management world, there are a lot of installers that know HVAC, but when it comes to computers and technology they are still kind of new.

"Through some coordination, and some trial and error, you get the product that you want," Dickersbach says. "Once you have cabling that you can run IT over, your possibilities are endless. IT just makes more sense when you can manage things through the network."

Some companies have taken their love for digital displays one step further; ahem, bigger. MGM Mirage (www.mgmmirage.com) installed the largest NEC (www.necdisplay.com) displays on the market; the 82-inch behemoths are located in The Monte Carlo, visible to guests who are coming down the escalator from the parking garage. The units are hardwired via DVI connections to Apple Mac Minis (www.apple.com) for incredible flexibility.

"I'm a long time Mac guy, and I've kind of dealt with old MPG-1 video programs," says Randy Dearborn VP of multimedia for MGM Mirage. "Three years ago I went to look at different new processors and I literally couldn't find better hardware for the money than those Minis."

Due to capital restraints and the high cost of running CAT-6 cables, the Mirage recently started running the monitors through small wireless networks with no problems.

The Mirage created its own touch screen interface for the convention displays. Guests can search through the available conferences that day and map out the location of individual meetings.

"Our primary focus was to get the hardware in first; get the touch screens installed and running," Dearborn says. "Once they were up, we wanted to create interactivity, such as making restaurant reservations right on the screen, and we will eventually have the displays communicate directly to portable devices such as iPhones."

Undercover dining
While digital displays are getting a ton of press, a new take on kiosks is helping some guests curb their cravings while relaxing in the lounge. All Hyatt Place (www.hyattplace.com) properties have installed MSI (www.msisolutions.com) touch food ordering kiosks in the lounging areas so that guests can snack while cruising the Internet on a wireless connection.

"The guest kitchen at Hyatt Place is the restaurant, basically," Hudgel explains. "Instead of waiters, we have a touch-screen kiosk for guests to order food 24 hours a day."

The self-contained units feature a minimalist flat screen and a small printer that is hardwired to the property management server, which feeds the order to the kitchen and charges the food to the guest room.

"This allows us a great deal of flexibility and a much lower staffing level, so we can have a full-service feel without full-service prices," Hudgel says.

"As people become more comfortable using the technology, and dealing with electronics instead of humans, we are going to see more and more technology in the common spaces," Hudgel says. "From an operating standpoint, that allows us to give the same services with less staff."

Return on excitement
Hyatt's food service system is a cash generator for the property, but that can't be said for most common space tech. The biggest challenge when installing new IT is justifying the purchase and figuring out the return on investment.

"It comes down to perception and value," Thayer's Dickersbach says. "Like most IT projects, the return on investment for common space technology is hard to quantify, but when you are looking at it, you can see that you can win over potential new business because we have a technology that is advanced and better with service. Better common space technology might not draw people to a hotel, but Dickersbach explains that by having the technology you can 'wow' them and give them the extra advantage when trying to rent out the hall. "There's a significant difference if you have a center that is decked out, versus bricks and sticks and a couple of walls. It makes a very big difference to a meeting planner."

Then there's the youth of today, which expects to see the latest and greatest technology wherever they go. However, there is a fear that older guests, currently the primary spenders, will not understand how to use it.

"The younger generation gets it, but we can't alienate older costumers," MGM Mirage's Dearborn says. "We can't have technology that's so advanced that it makes them uncomfortable. So there's this constant fine line of filtering technology out slowly and making it straight forward enough so that they can get accustomed to it."
 

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