Sheraton Puts the Social Back into Networking

By Abigail A. Lorden | June 10, 2009

It was a bit of a gamble when Sheraton Hotels & Resorts set out to reinvent its traditional lobbies into social spaces, and go heavy on the tech, for its Gen-X and Boomer-aged guest population. "We made a big bet, in terms of creating social spaces in our public areas, that technology as an enabler would get guests out of their rooms," recalls Hoyt H. Harper II, senior vice president of brand management for Sheraton Hotels & Resorts (pictured in the photo, seated on the right). But it was a gamble that's paying off, in both guest satisfaction and revenue opportunities.

The genesis of the project came in 2007 when parent company Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (www.starwoodhotels.com) launched an effort to revitalize its largest and most global brand, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts (www.sheraton.com). Sheraton was, and still is, in the midst of a $4 billion global brand revitalization that's aimed at bringing a consistent level of high quality to its properties worldwide. "We'd found some inconsistencies within the Sheraton brand," explains Harper. "We had great hotels, and had others that weren't living up to our standard." The initiative includes $2.3 billion in new hotels and $1.5 in renovations to existing properties. Since the majority of investments were made prior to the fall of 2008, the global effort has been largely unaffected by current economic conditions.

Sheraton conducted extensive guest research during the revitalization process, allowing significant insight into the guest profile. A Sheraton guest is often educated, affluent and experienced at traveling, the results showed. At an average age of 44.3 years, the guest population sits at the intersection of Generation X and Baby Boomer. Perhaps most importantly, Sheraton found that its guests would like to spend more time in social spaces and will use technology when it intersects with a personal need or fulfills a desire. "We found that our guests are social and like being around others," says Harper.  "We saw technology as an enabler, so we decided to put the two together."

Thus Link@Sheraton was born, transforming lobbies into park-like social gathering spaces for work and for play, complete with all-in-one computer workstations and high-speed Internet access; in essence, putting the 'social back into networking.'

Technology inside the Link
Sitting inside a Link@Sheraton, it's easy to see the park-like influence. The seating areas are comfortable and social, so guests can work while still feeling connected to the space around them. Shortly after launching the project, Sheraton teamed up with Microsoft as a key technology supplier and has since co-branded the lounge-like areas as 'Link@Sheraton experienced with Microsoft' (www.microsoft.com).

The entire area is blanketed with free WiFi access for guest use 24 hours per day, controlled via user authentication. Each Link is also equipped with at least four all-in-one PC workstations with access-controlled Internet connectivity. The properties are standard on the Dell XPS PC (www.dell.com) with integrated web cameras, 17" inch flat screens and a robust Microsoft software suite. Guests also have access to free printing services via EFI PrintMe (www.efi.com), a third-party service that allows users to upload documents for confidential on-demand printing at any PrintMe-enabled location.

The gateway to WiFi access is Sheraton's proprietary portal, a branded solution that offers free access to area information, weather, etc. The portal is a key differentiator for Sheraton, explains Harper; it's chocked-full of rich content and is standard across properties worldwide. From the portal, guests can also create video postcards and send a video of themselves to friends and family. The postcard functionality is enabled by Microsoft Expression Encoder and Microsoft Silverlight browser plug-in, a free solution for delivering rich, interactive media.

For connectivity, Sheraton offers a full T1 for every 100 guest rooms. "That's a basic minimum standard for guest access," explains Mark McBeth, vice president of IT for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc (pictured in the photo above, seated on the left). "As we know, bandwidth requirements keep increasing every year. With our service providers, we're able to provide the Link with the appropriate amount of bandwidth so that the customer has a robust experience. We don't want them waiting a minute for a page to load," he notes.

To control the session for appropriate content and keep it secure, Sheraton uses content filtering, session management and secure access. The security and content management elements are in place regardless of whether a guest is using a Sheraton workstation, or connecting to the Internet via their personal computer.

Despite the seemingly basic technology requirements (for the most part, PCs, web cams, and a robust pipe for secure connectivity), launching Link was actually a significant undertaking for  Sheraton's IT department. "We went through a lot of iterations of hardware, including some hits and misses, when we finally arrived at the solution we're at today," explains McBeth. "We needed performance and we needed stability."

That performance and stability had to be a consistent offering across properties, which led the company to develop a 38-page document detailing the technical requirements for Link@Sheraton, to serve as a  'how to' for property owners. "We totally embraced the initiative," says McBeth of his IT team. "At the time [the Link idea came about], we were involved in HSIA for our guests and had been looking at public-facing computer solutions." For the most part, Link implementations have been completed with the help of two key Microsoft partners: GBC Blue (www.gbcblue.com) and Eleven Wireless (www.elevenwireless.com). Both are immersed in the tech requirements and provide a turnkey solution with hardware, software, installation, support and maintenance.

"To me, the art-and-science part was that some of these terminals are used differently in different locations," adds Harper. "How many extra keyboards do you have to keep on hand? What's the usage like of Link in a resort where it's open-air? How do you keep screens viewable in some of these locations? All of these come into play in the execution, but it's the fun part. We have something that's in high demand, and we're actually seeing how guests embrace it."

The strong partnership with Microsoft also led Sheraton to install Microsoft Surface (www.microsoft.com/surface) tables (pictured above) in a select few Link@Sheraton locations, currently 13 Surface units in 5 hotels. Surface tables are enabled with cameras to sense objects, hand gestures and touch. The user input is processed and displayed using rear projection. The result is a digital, interactive touch-sensitive tabletop that allows users to access a variety of tools and information. Guests can view satellite maps and search for local entertainment, restaurants, shopping, etc. Other applications include a digital jukebox for creating a personal playlist, and a Sheraton Snapshots application that lets guests browse photos of other Sheraton properties around the world.

Rave Reviews
Feedback surveys indicate that Link@Sheraton users have higher overall satisfaction ratings and a greater likelihood of returning to the hotel. They'll travel farther to stay at other Sheratons and even have a higher perception of the value for the price paid for their stay. And the enthusiasm is contagious, since Link users are also more likely to recommend Sheraton to others.

As it turns out, Link users also spend more money on food and beverage, an unexpected benefit of the redesigned lobby space. "As we were rolling out, we found to our pleasant surprise that we were increasing our F&B capture," says Harper. Hotels with existing food and beverage outlets near the Link saw a six percent increase in the average check. "Many of the hotels decided to reconfigure the F&B option to incorporate a cafe as a part of The Link," says Harper. The food and beverage offerings, ranging from cafe to bars, also help to further social interaction.

Despite offering free HSIA in the Link, revenues from guestroom HSIA haven't been significantly impacted. "We're still seeing more than 75 percent of our business travelers and 50 percent of leisure travelers accessing in-room Internet; and that said, when you walk past the Link, every work station is occupied," says McBeth.

The social element is as fundamental to Link's success as the technology element. "We had the Link open for just two days when a gentleman came up to me and said, 'Thank you, I just closed a $100 thousand deal,'" says Sean Varney, hotel manager for the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers. "He was just sitting at a table and met someone who happened to be in the same industry," Varney explains.

Ownership embraces Link
Guests aren't the only ones embracing the Link concept. Sheraton owners have been a critical component to the project's success. Many were already undergoing renovations as a part of the revitalization effort and have already taken the opportunity to renovate their lobbies into Link@Sheraton spaces. To date, Sheraton has redesigned more than 300 lobbies into Link@Sheraton, representing 75 percent of its properties worldwide, and Link will be in more than 90 percent of properties by the end of 2009.

The revenue uptick has been an additional benefit to owners, and will ultimately help offset the costs associated with converting their lobbies, which Hoyt notes averages a couple hundred thousand dollars per location. "Part of this is yet to come," Hoyt says of future revenue potential. "This is a long-term commitment, so in addition we're looking at ways to use our portal to generate incremental revenues." Hoyt indicates that the company is also looking into social networking options for guests. "We're applying the learning that we've had so far and looking at ways to expand and enhance. This is a big capital investment on the part of our owners, so the focus is on keeping it fresh and entertaining for our guests."
 

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