RF Indeed!

By Reid A. Paul • Editor-in-Chief | June 01, 2006

Walk into a Great Wolf Lodge and you know you are in a different kind of resort destination. Sure, each of Great Wolf ResortÃ.‚¬™s eight lodges has the typical amenities you would expect from a resort: restaurants, hotel rooms, spas, fitness centers, conference and meeting facilities. Like many hotel companies, Great Wolf Resorts offers wireless high-speed Internet access, guestrooms with flatscreen TVs, video on demand and an assortment of soaps, although, perhaps the baby shampoo is a give away. Still, there is no mistaking the difference. Maybe it is the children in bathing suits streaking across the lobby, or the bunk beds in a guestroom designed to look like a cave. The real sign, of course, is the laughter that echoes across the sprawling property. From early in the morning until (relatively) late at night, the sound of childrenÃ.‚¬™s laughter permeates a Great Wolf Lodge experience. It is clear, this place is meant to be fun.

Building on success

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that fun has brought a great deal of success to the company. Founded in 1993 as the Great Lakes Companies in Madison, Wisconsin, the company went public as Great Wolf Resorts in 2004. Currently, the company owns, or has an ownership interest in and operates six Great Wolf Lodge resorts, and a nautical-themed property, Blue Harbor Resort. The company has also licensed and is managing a property in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and has three additional lodges in various stages of development. As a young company with newly built properties, an ownership stake and management control, Great Wolf has tremendous ability to control and shape the guest experience. "We are our own brand," explains Rajiv Castellino, Great Wolf ResortÃ.‚¬™s chief information officer. "We control all our infrastructure and systems, which was one of the reasons I was excited about coming here. The idea of working for a young and upcoming company, where technology was really just starting to play a part was exciting, and that, coupled with an experienced management team, intrigued me. I have not been disappointed." Castellino learned quite quickly how significant a role new technologies play for Great Wolf. He joined the company in May 2005 with a new property slated to open in the Scotrun, Pennsylvania, the first major resort to open in the Poconos in 25 years. In June, Castellino was asked to start a project to implement a wallet-less RFID (radio frequency identification) system across the property. "The RFID project was the brain child of our COO Kimberly SchaeferÃ.‚¬"Ã.‚¬"to carry your wallet on your wrist! The concept is for guests to be able to do everything with the RFID wristband so they donÃ.‚¬™t need to carry a wallet, charge card or room key," he explains.

A new challenge

Starting up a 401-suite property that includes a spa, four restaurants and a 76,000 square foot waterpark all within a 95 acre property, might seem hard enough, but the real challenge for Castellino and Great Wolf was to layer in a new and untested technology. To be sure, RFID technology has been around for years. RFID tags contain silicon chips and antennas that enable the tags to receive and respond to radio-frequency queries from RFID transceivers. Because the tags have a chip, more information can be stored in the tag and because they can communicate over radio waves, the communication between tag and receiver can occur over short distances. Cars equipped with RFID tags can pay tolls without slowing down and key fobs can transmit payment without direct contact. Still, it was not until Wal-Mart mandated RFID tags for its supply chain that the technology began to get widespread attention. While many of the supply chain mandates have come and gone, some of the newest and most innovative uses of RFID technology have occurred under the radar in hospitality settings. A number of casinos are now using RFID-enabled gaming chips to track where users go and precisely how gaming chips are used. Beginning in 2004, the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Texas began using RFID wristbands to prevent both counterfeiting and underage drinking. However, for Castellino, none of these examples helped in answering Great Wolf ResortÃ.‚¬™s goal of replacing the guest wallet with a single wristband. The hope was to allow guests to use the wristband to pay for food at any of the restaurants, get tokens for the arcade and return to the roomÃ.‚¬"all in a bathing suit. Guests would be able to charge any of the items back to the guestroom, or in the case of children, a set amount of money could be put on the wristband.

Ahead of the competition

"We knew we were going to be far ahead of everyone else and that really excited us," Castellino insists. "The RFID project has caused many changes that we didnÃ.‚¬™t anticipate, but we went in with an open mind. The fact that we were so far ahead of the industry didnÃ.‚¬™t scare us off. It gave us an additional hunger to make sure we could get it to work and be the first to offer it." After a period of trial and errorÃ.‚¬"red wristbands did not work, nor did a black wolf image printed on the bandÃ.‚¬"Great Wolf was able to get the system working properly. Still, the biggest challenge with the project remains its cost. The hope for RFID has always been that increased use and production would bring down costs, but so far that has not materialized. RFID chips remain expensive compared to the typical room keycards. "It is not an inexpensive solution," Castellino admits, "but I am working with the vendors, who have been very approachable, to find ways of making this more economical." With the project less than a year old, it is difficult to measure the return on investment for a project like this, but it is a question Great Wolf is addressing. After the initial roll out to the Pennsylvania location, Great Wolf expanded it to include the newly opened Niagara Falls lodge. The system will also be implemented at a Mason, Ohio location, which opens later this year. "From a guest satisfaction and convenience factor, we certainly feel it is a success," Castellino adds. "The guest experience has been great, but retrofitting it at our other lodges, will depend on the ROI analysis."

Picture perfect solutions

Whatever the ROI, Great Wolf ResortÃ.‚¬™s primary focus is on building in more fun, security and guest satisfaction at its properties, and by those measures the program is already a success. According to GM Dale McFarland, the Poconos location is already seeing a significant number of return visits within its first year. Great Wolf is also looking to give guests even more security and benefits. The company is exploring an automated wireless photography system that will read the wristbands, take guest pictures and email the shots home. Next up is a system to help guests locate other members of their group, so that a parent getting food in the restaurant can check on what rides their children are enjoying in the waterpark. "With this new technology, there are so many different possibilities," Castellino marvels. "We keep the ideas flowing and constantly strive to make sure technology is a big part of our growing brand," Castellino concludes. "Great Wolf Resort looks to be different and go the extra mile to make our guests comfortable."

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