Technology of the Hippest

By Abigail A. Lorden, Editor-in-Chief | October 09, 2009

Flashback to 1920: standing on the corner of State and Madison Streets puts you smack in the heart of Chicago's Loop, and at the busiest intersection in the world. Culture booms to the left, industry to the right, while speakeasies attract music lovers under the gaslight. Exceptionally well clad men and women are enjoying the pleasures of life behind rotating bookcases and trapdoor basements.

Jump to 2009 and two blocks north. Capone no longer rules the flow of illegal bubbly, and men and women of sophistication and excellent taste have a new "it" name to roll off of their lips: theWit Hotel (www.thewithotel.com). As much an experience as it is a place to sleep, the 27-story, 300-room boutique hotel, which opened this past June, stands on the corner of State and Lake Streets in Chicago's iconic theater district.

The gas lamps long burned out, the new source of electricity comes from the hotel itself and the cultural neighborhood that surrounds it. A glass lightening bolt juts up the facade of the 27-story building, an emblem of the hotel's energy and a punctuation mark on its statement: "more experience than hotel."

"The story starts in a very special location in a world-class hotel market that is conducive to the most demanding and forward-thinking consumers on the planet," says Scott Greenberg, developer of theWit and president of ECD Company. "I realized that to be successful in a mature hotel market, the last thing that I wanted to do was a vanilla project. That would make this just another hotel in Chicago. On every level of this hotel, the architecture, the interior design, the technology, we realized that we were competing on a global stage."

An entertainment vision
Greenberg's vision was to create a hotel that sits on such a robust and stable IP backbone, that it can run future technology applications as the market evolves. "It was the first commitment I had to make as owner, and that's not something that's done cheap, because we wanted to put in a system that would allow for every possible application to run on an IP standard. Whatever happened in the world, I felt I would be ready for it. The price wasn't cheap for that, but otherwise I would have been locked into older technologies," explains Greenberg. The system's operational efficiency was certainly another motivating factor. "I knew there would be all sorts of kick-backs in terms of efficiency and operations. We didn't reach the bottom line on day-one, but over the longer term, ownership knew it would be there."

With a technology backbone in place, Greenberg would be free to focus on what he believes makes a hotel truly stand out: staying culturally relevant. "It isn't the technology itself that a customer cares about. The technology is only a means to an end," explains Greenberg. His team wanted to have the technology in the building to exploit a better and faster experience for guests, while letting entertainment take center stage. "What goes to the heart of keeping a hotel experience fresh goes back to what makes entertainment. The key to entertainment is always creating something novel, new and exciting. What we're trying to do is always keep our hotel at the front of the cultural experience. We want to keep that dynamic character at play and stay current with entertainment, films, other forms of cultural intrigue and dynamism."

IP backbone
With a vision in place, Greenberg brought in several key executives: Lou Carrier, chief brand officer, and Darrin Pinkham, senior technology consultant and the project's chief technology officer.

At the outset, one of the largest hurdles for the team would be to pull together a collection of IP-based applications that met their deliverability and service excellence standards, and that could also be fully integrated. "The newest and best technologies are IP, but the whole industry hasn't caught up to making everything on an IP backbone," explains Greenberg. "Much of it is still analog, and you'll still run against integration with older equipment and older technologies," The solution would be to contract vendors who were willing to develop new solutions, open up their programming interfaces, and drop their walls for true integration.

The second challenge came from the fact that theWit was to be a Doubletree Hotel-branded property (doubletree.hilton.com) and therefore part of Hilton Hotels Corporation. "We were trying to marry the idea of having a boutique hotel with the power of an international reservations system. We wanted to be a part of Hilton, but with the caveat that theWit would be viewed as distinctive, to have the best of both." All Hilton properties run on a proprietary custom-developed back-end system, named OnQ. This system comprises all property management, reservations, business intelligence, etc. A partnership between theWit and Hilton would require the most extensive level of third-party system integration into OnQ to date.

"Hilton was skeptical of some of our original plans," recalls the project's chief technology officer, Darrin Pinkham. "They had never seen the kinds of drawings we were doing." To bring Hilton fully on-board, and to work through many of the integration questions, Pinkham organized a Partner Summit within the first 45 days of the project, and brought in all of the technology vendors. "Every vendor had to work with everyone else and had to be open on one converged backbone network," says Pinkham. They also invited corporate executives from Hilton's IT group to make sure they were developing to Hilton's standards. "It was the first time an ownership group had taken that much time to convey and roll out a plan for them. We earned confidence in that," Pinkham explains.
Techno-goodies
At the foundation is a Lorica Solutions (www.loricasolutions.com) converged, managed network that provides for wired and wireless high-speed Internet access everywhere on the property. Fiber comes in from AT&T at 45MG, plus there are six T1 lines for inbound and outbound calls, one of which is dedicated for the Hilton circuit. The network is managed 24/7 by the vendors and sits on a converged infrastructure built from 10G Fiber, Cat-6, RG-6, and RG-11 cabling.

Each guestroom has the full 45MG pipe (which Pinkham expects to upgrade to 100MG by the end of the year), and Internet access is provided to the guest on a tiered pricing model: up to 1MG for $9.95, 3 MG for $14.95, and 3 to 5 MB of dedicated bandwidth for $18.95.

Contrary to the popular approach of phasing-out the in-room phone, theWit breathes new life into a VoIP telephone that is unique and interactive, reminiscent of an iPhone. The phone, from NEC Corporation (www.necam.com), has a 10-inch touch display with a software overlay from Percipia Networks (www.docomointertouch.com). The combination gives guests access to flight status, housekeeping, valet service, in-room dining, reservations, and wake-up calls (with the option to choose from a selection of celebrity voices for a personalized "good morning").

This was the first time an NEC telephone was being installed in a Hilton property. NEC did have the necessary interfaces, but theWit wanted to customize some of the features. "This was the first stage where we went against the grain where Hilton said, 'prove to us that you can make this work,'" recalls Pinkham. And they did. "People have tried to do things like food ordering. The challenge with ordering is that you might not get the modifier you want," he explains. If you want eggs, for example, the system must offer any possible way to prepare eggs, along with the type of bread, etc. Phone applications historically haven't been written that way. The phone system at theWit is customized so that it creates full control for guests; like a POS on the phone.

For the in-room television, the team took a different approach. Partnering with RoomLinx (www.roomlinx.com), theWit offers rooms with a standard 42" LG LCD television (www.lge.com), and as an upgrade option, rooms with TV entertainment consoles/PCs. These 27 upgraded rooms are called media+ entertainment rooms. The consoles include 60 high-def movies, full PC browsing and a DVD burner. All guestrooms also have the LG Multimedia Jack-Pack that provides plug-in for computers, phones, iPods and other electronics.

Guest-rooms also feature the latest energy efficient HVAC technology, with smart thermostats that use motion detectors to determine when guests are in the room and push air in specific directions to eliminate hot and cold spots. These systems are enhanced through strategic booking: "If we're only 20 percent occupied, we don't check people in on the sun-facing side of the building, and we keep those blinds drawn," says Pinkham. Centralite Systems (www.centralite.com) provides energy management and for room locking, the property uses Saflok (www.saflok.com) on a ZigBee mesh network.

All facilities systems are on the network, from the thermostats and in-room motion sensors, all the way down to the elevators and boilers, and the chief engineer has full remote access. They've even installed an IP weather station on the roof to test wind, humidity, and other elements.

On the service side, the hotel runs M-Tech HotSOS (www.m-tech.com) on the network. HotSOS uses intelligent guest profiling and history/stay information to manage service requests. The solution works in conjunction with hand-held devices that hotel staff members can carry to have instant, comprehensive access to guest information and requests. All of these systems, including in-room, energy management, spa, reservations, etc., are integrated onto a client display that uses a GUI or "gooey" (graphical user interface). Employees have access to them from every OnQ workstation.

Will "witticism" spread with a new, growing brand? These executives believe so. "Would we like to see a couple dozen Wits? Absolutely. There's a niche element to it," says chief brand officer Lou Carrier. Target markets include those with the right mix of discerning traveler (for business and/or pleasure) and cultural vibe; cities like Boston, San Francisco and Washington D.C. Continuing its Hilton partnership would be a best-case scenario moving forward. "We know how they operate and they know how we operate," says Carrier. "We would love to move forward with Hilton, but theWit is a brand that stands alone.

"It's a compelling brand, and it's real," Carrier adds. "We're not trying to sprinkle pixie dust or present something that's not there. This is business on steroids; in an area where there are all kinds of collateral damage in the hospitality industry, this is a zenith screaming out of the Midwest."
 

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