Lower costs and the ability to provide innovative, personalized services make a single, IP-converged network for hotel systems appealing. But there's a lot of footwork involved between the concept and the reality of bringing voice, applications, entertainment content, energy management, security and other formerly separate systems together on a single network. Hospitality Technology talked to those who have pursued IP convergence to find out what questions hoteliers should be asking, of themselves and of potential partners.
1) What can IP do for you now, and in the future? Hoteliers need to parse IP wish lists into what is necessary and feasible today and long-term goals. How can IP support both business goals and market image?
The centrally-run Stay Connected @ Hilton network program aims to pave the way for future services, while sticking with what currently makes economic sense. "We see it as a platform that offers consistent support and infrastructure and will allow us to add more technology much faster than our competitors," says John Flack, VP of hotel broadband technology for Hilton Corp. (www.hilton.com), who says the network lowers high-speed Internet access (HSIA) costs and delivers OnQ applications. Hilton is testing IP-based minibar and security systems, and partners with SWISSCom (www.swisscom.ch/hospitality), Cisco (www.cisco.com) and AT&T (www.att.com).
Some feel the IP versions of certain systems aren't yet ready for prime time. Crowne Plaza Glen Ellyn, in Glen Ellyn, Ill. (www.crowneplaza.com), deployed an IP network though Roomlinx (www.roomlinx.com), but refrained from including IP phones. "I haven't found a system that has good ease of operation," says Eli Firestone, director of e-commerce.
Another thought: what will guests really need? Telephone profits are long gone, and more guests are bringing their own entertainment; Internet access may eventually come from wide-area wireless nets.
2) What current infrastructure, equipment, expertise and resources can you leverage? What else must be purchased? What about training and support?
New construction can start from scratch, but retrofits may be able to use some existing infrastructure.
"The most important piece is the ability to build in good, stable network infrastructure with good wiring and a quality designed network," says James Lingle, VP of IT for Sage Hospitality (www.sagehospitality.com). In its renovations, Sage installed CAT6 cabling to support VoIP and HSIA, but leveraged existing WiFi for minibar communications. Sage works with iBahn (www.ibahn.com).
But reuse with caution; Crowne Plaza Glen Ellyn bought TVs prior to its vendor selection, then hit resolution issues after a firmware upgrade. Make sure equipment is fully compatible.
With mission critical systems now on one network, support is a key consideration. While previous, proprietary systems required little hands-on attention, with converged networks "the infrastructure is much more important, and in today's economy no one wants to think about spending more money" for management and support, says Ron Hardin, VP of technology at management company Davidson Hotels (www.davidsonhotels.com). In 2007 construction at the Crowne Plaza Houston North Greenspoint, Davidson Hotels installed IP phones for administrative use but took the traditional approach for everything else. Lack of a single vendor and the need to accommodate existing brand-vendor relationships created obstacles to more widespread use, he says. Davidson used BelAir Networks (www.belairnetworks.com) and AFL Telecommunications (www.AFLTele.com) to deploy high-speed wireless Internet service at the Crowne Plaza.
Emergency power for network hardware is another critical consideration at the Renaissance Montgomery, Montgomery, Ala., says Sean Miller, corporate director of IT for ownership and management company PCH Hotels and Resorts (www.pchresorts.com).
3) How can you use IP convergence to reduce costs, boost revenue and enhance the customer experience?
Reducing costs is a valued goal, but IP convergence can also be supported by increased productivity, direct fees and the opportunity to drive incremental revenue by promoting hotel services. Differentiating the property through unique and personalized services is another common, but less quantifiable, benefit. Ensure vendors can demonstrate how their solution lowers costs.
At Crowne Plaza Glen Ellyn, guests pay a flat $9.99 for 24 hours of on-demand movies, Internet applications, business applications and printing.
4) Can your vendor be a strategic partner? Do they offer the technology, market knowledge, vendor alliances and financial wherewithal to be a partner moving forward?
Lack of a single vendor that does it all has kept some away from converged networks. Crowne Plaza Glen Ellyn chose solution providers who brought together multiple trusted vendors, integrating services to ensure compatibility and reliability.
Hilton IT takes on the integrator role internally. "It's important to have strong providers that not only understand the technology, but that understand the industry and have demonstrated that they can work with other partners to reduce complexity and make it work," says Hilton's Flack.
Hotels will also want to thoroughly understand the specifics of the network architecture offered: scalability, flexibility, security, redundancy, load balancing, ability to customize, service and support, and the product roadmap. Another key question: why do IP-converged networks fail, and how can we avoid that?
At Raymond Management Company (www.raymondteam.com), a single-circuit IP solution resulted in limited scalability, a single point of failure, and prohibitive cost to upgrade. Raymond is evaluating several load balancer solutions, including one from FatPipe (www.fatpipeinc.com). "The advantage in this approach is we eliminate single-point-of-circuit failure, and add bandwidth to the solution at much lower costs than adding more bonded T's to the primary circuit. Lead times and installation times are usually days versus weeks," says Steven Dettman, IT director for Raymond.
5)How might you want to use the network in the future?
The platform laid today must support applications both imagined and not yet imagined. At the Renaissance Montgomery, Montgomery, Ala., differentiating the hotel is essential, so they wanted "to put everything on one network to allow us to do anything we can dream up," says Miller. The project leader brainstormed with a cross-section of departments, then created a spec based on real and potential needs. Renaissance installed IPTV, IP wired and wireless phones, HSIA, security, audio-visual, PMS and golf reservations, and will add energy, spa, and outdoor light show systems. Renaissance's vendors include Avaya (www.avaya.com) and Guest-Tek (www.guesttek.com).