Wired for Sound: January 2007

By Lisa Terry Contributing Editor | January 08, 2007

Infrastructure is essential and content will be king. This is the conclusion hoteliers are reaching as they rethink their telecom strategies and look for future sources of revenue in the wake of declining profits from basic phone calls and (eventually) Internet access.

With guests increasingly packing their own cell phone and data devices such as laptops, PDAs, portable DVD players and iPods, they're looking to hotels to make using these devices cheap and easy to plug and play. Many hoteliers foresee guests wanting a better experience than they get at home using technologies and activities including gaming, Web cameras and advanced services like room calls diverted to cell phones.

That's the vision of Scott Irwin, senior corporate director, technology, for 11-property Kor Hotel Group. Kor is building fiber optic or Cat-5 cabling into its new and renovating properties to accommodate today's needs for its Guest-Tek (guest-tek.com) Internet access services, video on demand and tomorrow's technology including voice and voice-data integration and ports for connecting personal devices.

"We want to provide a connectivity point into the hotel with content such as music, video and voice entertainment," says Irwin. "The smart fridge needs to talk to the door locking system, energy-management system needs to talk to the TV," and so on, through a combination of wired and wireless interfaces.

Converging networks
Converged networks are also the goal for MTM Management, which is laying Cat-5 cable in its Cave B, Hotel 1000 and Maryland Hotel (being renovated and renamed) rooms to support its own vision.

Cave B Inn at Sagecliffe is already tapping the infrastructure to provide VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) via Valcros-implemented Cisco phones, Cisco Call Manager software (valcros.com, cisco.com) and Guest-Tek high-speed Internet. The VoIP phones enable functions such as group communications via phone and data display for listing a group's extensions and itinerary.

At MTM's Hotel 1000 the network will also support the Inncom (inncom.com) energy-management system interfaced to the Springer-Miller (smsworld.com) property management system, and the Bartech (my-bartech.com) minibar with automatic billing accessed through the video-on-demand system. At the Hotel 1000 and the Maryland, rooms are linked to a 3Com (3com.com) managed switch behind a ceiling hatch and connected via fiber to an intermediate distribution frame with two switches on every few floors.

"Technology for guest rooms is developing quickly," says Chuck Marratt, information systems manager for MTM Management. "We need to be able to manage and enhance guest services," for example providing plasma TVs for video on demand or ports to plug into the Internet. Running one cable instead of multiple wires does trim construction costs, he notes, helping defray the investment, and in some areas utilities will refund costs for energy management systems.
"We're future-proofing the rooms for the next five to ten years," says Marratt.

Can you hear me now?
Building for tomorrow's demand is important, but so is accommodating today's needs. Noting the decline in room phone use, Hyatt is implementing boosters for cell phone signals in its properties as the need develops. "Hotels are full of concrete, glass and steel and meeting rooms are often below street level," says Bob Bansfield, associate vice president, information technology, for Hyatt. "Those all combine to affect the cellular signal." The company has partnered with T-Mobile (t-mobile.com) for hot spots and other wireless technologies.

Hyatt has spent the last year rolling out Internet access in almost all properties, installing T1 lines or better and ensuring each offers at least some guestroom access. "Now our focus is on wireless service even if wired is in place. We want to give the guest flexibility," Bansfield says. Next, Hyatt will be looking into advanced phone technology such as VoIP and voice mail management for meeting planners and other group functions.

"We expect the next trend will be in the use of VoIP technology and the concept of teleworkers," Bansfield says. Consequently, Hyatt is also bolstering its Internet operations functions with services such as AT&T's (att.com) networking and hosting solutions. In-room Internet access was just the first in a rising tide of technology requests on the part of guests, and hotels need to prepare. Now, "there's a push for other room amenities such as digital radio and flat screen TVs," he adds. "You've got to stay with the times."

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