In-Room Innovations

By Christina Volpe, Associate Editor | September 08, 2009

For a long time, hotels have struggled to keep up with the technologies that many of their guests use on a daily basis at home. It is not uncommon today for the average home to include a flat panel television (or two) with high-definition programming, on-demand content, high speed Internet access and more. "It is about keeping up with the guest experience," says Steve Dettman, IT director for the midwestern hotel management company, The Raymond Group (www.raymondteam.com). "As a whole our guests are becoming more tech savvy. We used to get amenity creeps from other hotels. Now it is coming from the home. People have things like HDTV at home and cannot understand why they cannot have it at the hotel."

Fortunately for hoteliers, this competition with at-home technology is finally beginning to even itself out as guest room innovations become more and more advanced. In many cases, the solutions that hoteliers are embracing are really putting the 'wow' factor back into their guests' stays.

Guest room automation
When it opens late this year, the much anticipated Las Vegas metropolis CityCenter (www.citycenter.com) (a joint project between MGM Mirage and Infinity World Development Corp.) will boast some of the most technologically-advanced guest rooms in the United States. Of the many solutions that will be in place at CityCenter's ARIA Resort and Casino and Mandarin Oriental hotel, there is one in particular that will redefine the in-room experience: full guest room automation via Control4 (http://www.control4.com). 

"About three years ago we started to realize that CityCenter was going to be a bold endeavor in Las Vegas," says Scot Campbell, chief information officer, MGM Mirage. "All of those things were coming together to be new and different and we wanted to look for a new and different technology. We landed on Control4 because it is subtle and it has a really cool wow-factor."

Control4 is a provider of IP-based home automation controls, and when coupled with CityCenter's ability to network every guestroom device via one gigabit of bandwidth, it will make all of the technologies in ARIA and Mandarin Oriental guest rooms really sing. This complete platform will allow guests to control their room's lighting, temperature, TV, music, drapes and concierge services through a single device.

"The basics of home automation in a high-end house are enabled in every guest room," says Campbell. CityCenter guests can even select from a number of guest room "scenes" to match their moods or preferences. "Since all of the technology is talking together, I can execute a scene called 'watch TV.' The lights will dim 30 percent to accentuate the TV in the room."

Next-gen entertainment platforms
Image having a platform that serves as an unlimited entertainment portal, linking guests to high-def content, movies, music, business tools, the Internet, hotel services and more instantaneously. For the Kessler Collection (www.kesslercollection.com), a group of 11 luxury hotels and resorts across the United States, this scenario is a reality. Two of its properties, the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville, N.C. and the Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront, are utilizing an in-room entertainment platform from Roomlinx (www.roomlinx.com) on their LG flat panel TVs to give guests complete control over a variety of entertainment and business options. Guests can read newspapers from all over the world; build customizable music platforms; work on programs such as Excel, PowerPoint and Word on their TV; watch their favorite shows whenever they want to with pause capability; print airline boarding passes; look at the menu for local restaurants and view a map of how to get there; play games; watch concerts; view first-run HD Hollywood movies on demand; check the weather, and much more. All of these services are accessed through the television with a handheld remote control that features a built-in mouse for navigating the screen, as well as a wireless keyboard that provides full Web-access. Additionally, a media box allows guests to play DVDs and has MP3 connectivity and a USB port.

"Our guests love the system and their comments have been along the lines of: 'I want this at home,' 'one of the best parts of our stay,' and 'everyone in the family was fighting for their turn on the system,'" says Scott Schreiber, president of Kessler Collection. "The tremendous resolution of working on the Web through a 37" HDTV is very popular with our guests and they love the on-demand movies, concerts and TV shows." The Kessler Collection plans to convert all eleven properties to Roomlinx as their current system contracts expire.

In addition to the 'wow' factor, Schreiber also notes that the Roomlinx media system has tremendous potential for future revenue opportunities by selling advertising on the pop-up window and banner ads in the system. "Roomlinx provides revenue through the advertising opportunities, provides a lift in rate due to the value it brings to our offering, and as a differentiator, it helps to get us selected over our competitors. Our sales teams use Roomlinx in their presentations and push the features to meeting planners."

Like the Kessler Collection, Canyon Ranch (www.canyonranch.com) is also striving to offer its guests the latest in in-room media delivery. Its newly opened hotel and wellness spa, Canyon Ranch Miami Beach, recently completed the installation of Extenway Solutions' (www.extenway.com) guest media platform.

"Canyon Ranch Miami Beach is rather a unique property with very specific needs," says Michael Bote, information technology director for Canyon Ranch Miami Beach. "The decision to install Extenway's media solution was made based on our need to have a modern delivery platform that will enable us to offer a variety of services to our distinguished guests in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, but also practical and customizable."

All 150 suites have been furnished with 42" Sony (www.sony.com) LCD HDTVs, each of which has a set top box attached to it, controlling the free to-guest TV channels and the various media inputs. The system offers Internet services, WiFi activation, HSIA on the TV browser and full Windows access including remote printing. Furthermore, the system is fully integrated with Canyon Ranch Miami Beach's property management system, which allows hotel management to turn on guest room TVs upon check-in, and then display guests' names on the TVs' home screen along with other options.

"Since we are a company focusing on wellness and healthy lifestyles, we are showcasing all of our services on different pages with descriptions, schedules and pictures. By simply using the joy-stick remote or wireless keyboard, a guest can quickly find something of interest, send a quick e-postcard home, browse the Internet or simply watch a TV channel," says Bote. 

Better bandwidth
Guest demands for more bandwidth access, fueled by changing trends in Internet use, are driving hoteliers to search for additional ways to beef up their bandwidth offerings. The Raymond Group operates 18 Hilton-branded hotels in the Mid-West, and is doing just that through their selection of FatPipe (www.fatpipeinc.com). Currently three locations are using their networking solution.

One of the key benefits of this solution is its ability to automatically reroute traffic to available lines when a router or IPS goes down, as well as load balancing options for inbound and outbound IP traffic. "I think that load balancing technology is going to be a huge push going forward," says Dettman.

For any singular user at the three Raymond Group properties utilizing FatPipe, they have up to two megabits of bandwidth at their disposal. There is additional intelligence built within the device that allows someone to have as much bandwidth as they want if it isn't being utilized by other guests. As new guests come onto the network, bandwidth usage levels drop off to the two Mb cap. 

"With FatPipe we can offer guests a lot more bandwidth," says Dettman. "Typical guests have fast connections at home and even if we have multiple T1s it isn't what they see at home. We are able to get tremendous amounts of bandwidth."
 
Innovation in the economy segment
Although in-room innovations are typically associated with higher end luxury brands, that isn't keeping innovation out of the economy segment. Last year Accor North America
(www.accor-na.com) revealed plans to revamp its Motel 6 (www.motel6.com) locations with the launch of the Phoenix prototype. To date more than 50 locations have been renovated; the entire network is being renovated with this design on a rolling basis, with expected completion to occur within the next three to five years.

"We have a fine line to walk at Motel 6 between providing guests with what they need and keeping our promise to provide them the lowest price of any national chain," says Jeff Palmer, EVP, sales & marketing, Accor North America. "So our innovation comes from both what we choose to put in our rooms and how we can manage to do it in a way that is cost-effective and won't have a detrimental impact on the customers' pockets."
 
As part of this prototype, management decided to install Teledex WiFi services (www.teledex.com) at Phoenix properties as well as 32" Philips plasma flat screen TVs (www.philips.com); iConnects by Southern Audio Services media panels with A/V plug-ins for MP3 players; video game consoles and laptop computers, and more.

"This feature [WiFi] that was only several years ago considered a luxury, is now very much a necessity for many travelers, along with connectivity options for MP3s, etc. We installed WiFi nationwide and charge a 24-hour rate of $2.99. This way, the price of our rooms is not impacted by this feature, but the service is available for those who want it," says Palmer. "Flat-screen TVs are another example. With a network as large as ours, almost any network-wide initiative will realistically be a relatively long undertaking; but the size of our network and buying power also allows us to get great deals on these features, which allows us to keep our lowest price promise. This kind of marriage of innovations, between product and cost-efficiency, is critical for the success of our business if we want to remain relevant in the market while being true to our brand identity."

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