Assessing In-Room Entertainment Strategies

By Lisa Terry, Contributing Editor | March 01, 2012

It used to be so simple. The phone was for conversation. The TV was for watching shows, and later, renting movies. Everything else was done by people.

Today the TV is still for watching shows and movies. Or is it hotel content? Or the guest’s Netflix subscription? Or feed from the guest's mobile device? Or for using apps? And the phone? May as well be a paperweight. With so many disruptive technologies upsetting the status quo, hoteliers face significant challenges in selecting guest room entertainment infrastructure and content that delivers the guest experience they're looking for, now and into the uncertain future.

Here are some fundamental questions hoteliers need to be asking themselves about in-room guest entertainment.

1. What do our guests really want?
The answers vary widely. So the question should really read: What do we want our guest experience to be? Some hoteliers and vendors contend the in-room experience should match the home; others want it to be better.

In-room entertainment and communication has become more important to guests, and therefore intrinsic to the brand experience. As such, infrastructure and content decisions should involve a cross-departmental team that includes marketing.

Decisions will differ by brand, but a common theme is viewing the TV as an interactive hub for a growing range of stay-enhancing activities. Michael Pace, general manager of W San Francisco, offered up this challenge to LodgeNet as a beta tester of its new interactive services: “If there was no phone in the room, could the guest do everything on the TV?”

The beta test has included an iPhone app to control the TV, an opening screen offering hotel apps such as wake-up calls and room service, and soon, integration with the Micros POS and other hotel applications. In the beta, Pace says W San Francisco has been able to give more personalized services to customers. With some functions initiated by the guest via technology, staff can "spend more time reprioritizing human connections," Pace says, enhancing the guest experience.

A survey by iBahn found that guests expect seamless integration of their devices with the hotel’s in-room technology, and to be able to bring their own content and subscriptions. In-room systems must also be intuitive and consistent across devices.

2. Where is in-room entertainment headed?
Reading the tea leaves is difficult, but some pictures are starting to take shape:

•    The TV will become increasingly interactive, though vendors differentiate between a "lean-back experience" watching content, and using an app, a “lean-in experience.”
•    Guests’ mobile devices will play an increasing role.
•    In-room remotes will improve, with the addition of features such as
a keyboard.
•    Hotel content will be managed centrally and available on a number of screens, including TV, smart phone, tablet and kiosk. Tangerine Global (www.tangerineglobal.com), for example, places 95 percent of its platform in the cloud and 5 percent on property to enable access to a broad selection of content.
•    Apps and widgets will proliferate, from TV-centric such as interactive channel guides, search, DVR and a channel bar; to local needs such as tourism guides, travel sites, maps, and weather; to hotel compendium, loyalty and other branded apps. In February, for example, LodgeNet released a Mobile App featuring guest entertainment, hotel services, and local area guide information.
•    The TV will be integrated with a variety of other in-room functions, hotel applications and mobile apps.

At two of Montage Hotels & Resorts' three upscale properties, an integration of the hotel’s LodgeNet entertainment system, Micros Opera PMS, and LG TVs with Control 4's Suite Systems is enabling guests to control climate, lighting and draperies, perform TV functions, as well as contact housekeeping and valet. Guests can also view content from their devices on the TV, through a software or hardware interface.

Use of open standards and performance-based contracts help ensure smooth integration, says Bill Claypool, VP of development services for Montage. These are early days for in-room device standards and cooperatives among vendors, and many systems and hardware employ proprietary protocols and apps. A skilled integrator is key.

3. What will we do about bandwidth and infrastructure?
Growing demand for off-premise content means hoteliers must plan for increasing bandwidth demand — both into and within the property. A related question is whether the hotel should migrate its applications and entertainment onto a converged network.

"In our new development opportunities the focus is on infrastructure," says Montage's Claypool. "We need to make sure it's robust enough not only for guest rooms, but internal operation needs as well." Montage runs a fiber backbone and wireless network.

New properties are installing some combination of fiber and CAT 5 or CAT 6 whenever possible. For older properties a range of protocols help turn existing COAX into an interactive digital pipe, including HomePNA Alliance, (formerly HPNA, or Home Phone Networking Alliance), MoCA (Multimedia over Cable Alliance) and DOCSIS/CMTS. Each varies in price, throughput, and the need for a set-top box (the 170-property Nordic Choice Hotels in Oslo, Norway, for example, is avoiding these due to their energy consumption profiles). Often hotels supplement these with wireless for data, but usually not for streaming.

4. How will we pay for this?
No question, revenue models are changing. The entrenched vendors say guests will still shell out for premium movies not yet publically available for streaming or DVD, as long as they’re in HD. Some vendors will still subsidize infrastructure.

However, "Integrators realize they have to change business models," says Michael Zetterlund, CTO, R&D at Nordic Choice, who has seen significant transformation in vendor’s offerings even since Nordic started interviewing them last fall. "We refuse to go into old, complicated models," instead seeking the freedom to better control the guest entertainment experience, he says. Among the finalists is Acentic.

Nordic Choice is considering a variety of revenue structures including fee-based access to apps, bandwidth consumption tiers or fees for access outside a "walled garden" of free-to-guest content and sites. Hoteliers are actively exploring these new ways to defray the mounting costs of keeping up with exploding content and bandwidth demands:

•    Advertising, either locally sold or through a vendor
•    Providing conference-specific content and apps
•    Selling rather than renting recent movies so guests can watch now and own later
•    A transition to micropayments for content and apps – no more $20 movies
•    Tiered pricing for levels of content or bandwidth
•    Driving new revenue through the additional services promoted via      interactive apps
•    Increasing loyalty reinforced through sticky mobile apps
As the recent uproar over the ultimately dropped SOPA and PIPA bills illustrates, there is plenty of tension in the broader marketplace between infrastructure and content. Decisions made in this broader arena will inevitably shape what happens in hotel guest room entertainment. In any case, hoteliers must have the infrastructure and platforms in place to accommodate expanding demand.


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