High Definition Demystified

By George Koroneos | March 10, 2008

For years, hotel operators have taken comfort in the fact that their boxy old rear-projection televisions (the ones tucked inside the armoire) would last at least five to seven years. If one broke, they simply swapped it out for an inexpensive newer model.
Not anymore.

With the price point of a new 32-inch LCD television dropping to below a grand, consumers are purchasing high-definition (HD) technology in record numbers and hotels are struggling to offer the same amenities in their guest rooms.

"Everyone is trying to jump on the HD bandwagon, because they want to have the greatest technology out there," says Vince Barrett, vice president of food and beverage at New Castle Hotels and Resorts, owner of 31 hotels. "The tube TVs are like an LP record - it's passe. If you walk into a hotel and it has a tube TV you start to wonder if the hotel is from the 1970s. It's almost as if a hotel room isn't as nice if it doesn't have a high def TV in it."

And although consumer HD televisions are dropping to a more affordable level, in the hotel space - where the purchase of thousands of TVs is not unheard of - upgrading to HD can be a hard sell.

Properties must balance quality and price and find a happy medium. The selection of HD television units on the market is dizzying, and each model comes with a spec sheet listing a litany of acronyms and resolution numbers.

HD Options
For the sake of brevity, most flat panel, high definition televisions come in two flavors: liquid crystal (LCD) and plasma displays. Both technologies offer a color-rich, sharp picture, however, LCD - the older, and some would say more proven technology - has become the more affordable of the pair. High-end hotels, however, are betting on plasma for its richer colors, darker blacks, and luxury factor.

"Our hotel went with Sony (www.sony.com) plasma televisions because we felt it provided for the theater experience and it had better contrast," says Christian Carpenter, director of rooms at the Island Hotel (www.theislandhotel.com). These TVs are the second generation of plasma units for Sony and are expected to last approximately 60,000 hours. To extend their life, when the TV is on, it turns to a station that has flowing images to avoid burn-in, and it automatically turns off after four hours of inactivity.

"We recognize that they will eventually go out, as will happen to LCDs. You are in a hotel property and with this kind of technology they are going to be [turned] on and off a lot," Carpenter says. "We haven't had a single problem thus far and we had them all installed since August 2007."

Although there is a plethora of new technologies coming down the pike, including organic LED (OLED) and field emission displays (both pioneered by Sony), hotels are putting their chips on LCD and plasma for the time being, as both technologies are miles ahead in price and quality.

Resolution Overkill
The next big factor is resolution. Resolution is based on the number of lines visible on a screen at a time - the more lines visible, the sharper the picture. The line count is expressed in a number ranging from 480 (standard definition) to 1,080 (ultra high definition). The number is usually followed by either the letter "i" for interlaced (every other line is visible at a time) or "p" for progressive (every line is visible at the same time).

Televisions smaller than 32 inches are available at the maximum 1080p/i resolution, but most critics agree that the picture difference below 46 inches is negligible. Operators can save a few dollars by purchasing a 720p/i system. Higher resolution comes into play in the massive 50-inch and bigger category.

Also, most HD television programming (with the exception of the Super Bowl) is only available in 720p. However, 1080p has become a marketing angle that all the major manufacturers have embraced. They are praying on fears that the current television models will become obsolete in a few years.

"Initially, our biggest challenge was price," says Alison Kal, vice president of marketing for Hyatt Place. "We started [the upgrade process] when the TVs were still very expensive. We evaluated our options and realized that this is such an important piece of equipment that we weren't going to compromise in size."

The Content Factor
When New Castle opened the Sheraton Tarrytown in New York, the biggest challenge the operators faced was not with the televisions, but with the programming. Not all the signals are high def right now, so even if a hotel has a stunning widescreen in every room, that doesn't necessarily mean that the content is going to be mind blowing.

"The picture is only as good as the signal coming into the set," Barrett says. "To get high def, an encrypted signal comes in through the cable, is decrypted in the service box and then re-encrypted before it hits the television. That piece of the technology is a bit confusing to some operators."

Operators also need to be aware of the number of signal boxes that the television will be tethered to. There are some HD providers that require two boxes - one for the standard residential TVs and one for the hospitality pay-per-view system. For hotels that plan to wall mount the televisions, it's getting more and more difficult to put boxes and peripheral units behind the TVs.

"One thing that was very attractive to me with the LGs (www.lgcommercial.com) is that they have an internal card," says Carl Pastrone, project manager for the new Venetian Palazzo tower, owned and operated by Las Vegas Sands. "Almost all the other manufacturers have a terminal box that has to be hidden behind the TV, which is a concern when you are buying 9,051 units for one tower."

Countdown to Extinction
Although most hotels are upgrading to high definition television to keep competitive, the federal government has made the decision crystal clear - upgrade to digital-ready televisions by February 2009 or potentially lose your cable signal.

On February 17, the FCC will shut down the analog spectrum, signaling the end of analog broadcasting. As of January, Sony announced that it would no longer manufacture rear-projection tube televisions, and will focus its resources entirely on LCD and OLED technology. Hitachi and Seiko have also followed suit.

"When you are looking at the major flags - Marriott, Hilton, Starwood - any hotel that they are going to build will have flat-screen, high def televisions installed," Barrett says. "In order to be competitive and meet the market demands, there is a race, but that race is slow due to capital constraints."

Properties that don't have the financial ability to buy hundreds of new televisions aren't completely out of luck. Most recent rear-projection televisions have the ability to receive digital signals and those tethered to a digital set-top box (such as those provided by cable and satellite companies), should be fine. The televisions that are being phased out are those that still require an RF connection or use rabbit ears for a signal. 

Also, the FCC mandate requires a digital signal, not an HD signal. Although HD is a type of digital signal, there are other definition signals that are available and acceptable, including standard definition and enhanced definition.

"The ease of use for the consumer is the most important thing for us," Carpenter says. "It took a while to work out the kinks to make sure that it was easy to use. The system can be the greatest system in the world, but if it is not easy for the guest to use, it defeats the purpose."

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