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Wireless Checks into Hotels
Wireless Checks into Hotels

The guest in room 542 is upset and loudly demanding the manager. For most hotel managers, that means scrambling to get whatever details are available from the operator who took the call and hightailing it to the fifth floor. But at the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis, general manager Jim Callaghan can fire up his Compaq iPaq while en route and check out the guest's name, length of stay, payment status, and other details. "You can be that much more prepared," Callaghan observes.

The typical image of the mobile employee is one who spends lots of time in cars and on airplanes, whose job demands the ability to connect back to the office no matter where work takes him or her. But the road warrior is joined by workers who are on the move all day but cover a lot less ground - those who labor to ensure the smooth, customer-pleasing operation of a hotel.

Both are ripe candidates for the wonders of wireless connectivity. Hotel properties are beginning to step up to the plate with solutions, from wirelessly enabling common areas and hotel rooms for guests' wireless access to the Internet and their own corporate intranets, to tapping the same networks to allow wireless check-in, alert managers to problems, and relay dinner orders from poolside to kitchen. It's all to enhance the customer experience and help properties stand out. One vendor, Wayport, Inc., insists that their wired and wireless Internet services at 420 properties drive incremental business for a hotel anywhere from 3-20%.

Beginning is the key word, though. As vendors struggle with the proper business model for deploying wireless networks on a scale that can deliver real benefits, just a handful of hotels have deployed real applications. Much of the vendor sales pitch relies more on what you can imagine than what you can experience at an actual hotel, and issues still linger in areas such as economics, security, and access.

Nevertheless, both hotel operators and vendors are bullish on the potential of wireless to transform the hotel experience for guests and employees alike.

Wireless at Work
Imagine you work on one of the wireless corporate campuses where employees can boot up and link to the network no matter where they are. Embarking on a business trip, you arrive at the airport and make a beeline for the Admiral's Club, where with a few extra clicks on your laptop you're linked back to your network - without plugging in. After going offline for the plane trip, you stop for a cup of coffee en route from the destination airport to the hotel, taking the time to go online wirelessly from the java shop to check your e-mail.

Then it's off to the hotel, to attend a conference where the whole room is linked into a PowerPoint presentation being delivered wirelessly via the hotel's network. At last it's up to your room to download some files, fire off some e-mails, and check key figures on your corporate system.

That's the vision for connected business travel, and it's possible today, at least in a smattering of locations. Companies such as Wayport are targeting public areas in an effort to provide a ubiquitous, single source for simplified wireless access. Hotels are signing on, sold on the idea that business travelers will soon demand such service. Already, they say, wireless guest Internet access is a selling point that draws technology-savvy corporate workforces to their doors - and keeps them coming back.

Thanks to the growing number of laptops that now come shipped with radio cards and the hassles that wired connectivity can entail, wireless access is becoming a serious option. And some operators see wireless as a less-intrusive alternative to ripping up walls to deploy wired solutions, particularly in older and historic properties.

Those issues were certainly on the minds of executives at Saskatoon Travelodge, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. The dial-up Internet access available in some rooms was too slow, and some parts of the sprawling 268-room resort would be difficult to wire. So the hotel jumped at an attractive offer from Shaw Communications and 3Com to deploy a wireless network throughout the property, enabling 100 times the access speed of the wired network. "We wanted to give the customer the ability to go anywhere in the hotel and be connected," says Judy Harwood, executive assistant manager.

The capability gives a leg up to Saskatoon Travelodge's corporate business, which accounts for 80% of weekday occupancy. Although usage is low now, "It's another amenity for guests," says Harwood. "I know we've had calls requesting the service." The Travelodge was one of the first Canadian hotels to offer wireless Internet access.

Industry pundits say that, particularly in the business travel market, wireless will quickly become a competitive differentiator, then a competitive necessity, just as amenities such as cable TV access did in the past. META Group expects wireless Internet for guests to become "generally available and expected" within three years.

"We're excited about the momentum we've gained in the last 6-8 months. We think usage rates will increase dramatically," says Dan Lowden, VP of marketing for Wayport. Wayport charges users $20.95-$49.95 per month for unlimited access to their networks from their hotels and public access locations, as well as offering a pay-as-you-go option.

The Vision
But while it's most prominent, Internet access is not the only wireless app getting hotel management's attention. About half of Compaq's professional services engagement for wireless network deployment in hotels is for guest usage, the other half for operational use, says Brant Jones, manager of product marketing.

There is no killer app justifying wireless infrastructure in hotels, but a leading one on the operational side of the business is wireless check-in/checkout, now being tested in a number of locations. Aimed particularly at hotels with a big convention or tourism business, equipping desk - or rather "undesk" - clerks with handheld terminals allows the hotel to quickly process large groups of arrivals and prevent long lines at the front desk. At the Opryland Hotel Nashville, employees wielding Symbol Technologies handhelds and portable encoding printers meet large groups as they arrive, check room availability, and execute the check-in via an Inter-American Data lodging system and LANSA wireless LAN, swipe the credit card, encode the room key, and print a receipt without the guest ever glimpsing the lobby - a place where they once had to wait 15 minutes or longer for check-in.

Check-in/out leads the list of operations-oriented applications finding their way into the nation's hotels. For some, tapping the wireless network for internal apps is a way to amortize the investment they've made for the wireless Internet guest amenity. For others it's the main event.

"Hotels are about high touch," says Keith McNally, EVP of Ameranth Wireless. "They want to differentiate from the competition by providing a different experience for clients. Wireless handhelds dovetail with that."

Carlson Hotels, for example, which owns the Radisson Plaza Minneapolis, is moving into wireless in a big way to support their operations. First off the block was "MACH-1," their project to deliver key performance indicators and other alerts to their top managers, such as the one Jim Callaghan tapped for his emotional guest. In addition to Web access, e-mail, calendars, and other personal data, the handhelds link to the company's Fidelio front office management system to keep managers aware of up-to-the-minute data such as occupancy rates and missed reservation opportunities. It also alerts a manager when a VIP arrives. "We like to escort VIPs to their rooms," says Callaghan. "Before, you might have been out somewhere in the hotel and you wouldn't have known when they checked in."

So far, only the lobbies and other public areas of the Radisson Plaza Minneapolis are wirelessly enabled. Extending to room areas "will come as we start using wireless for multiple things," says David Sjolander, VP of hotel information systems for Carlson.

"There are some efficiencies to be had" by deploying wireless, says Jack Gold, VP of META Group. Real-time data about when a room is made up, for example, could cut annoying waits for customers." Anything that lets people feel more comfortable means more people coming to the hotel."

Workers at the Las Vegas Four Seasons use wireless to whisk food orders from poolside to kitchen. But other applications fall into the pilot or someday category:

  • Work order processing and inventory maintenance
  • Reservations on guests' mobile devices
  • Payments
  • Access to in-hotel services: room service, business services, concierge
  • Door lock and security systems for monitoring and activating devices remotely, such as smoke detectors, and asset tracking
  • Access to corporate apps such as customer relationship management
  • Use of the wireless infrastructure for voice-over-IP communications

The Vendor Community
Vendors such as Ameranth, Cisco, Lucent, and 3Com, are stepping up to serve the market by focusing primarily on wireless infrastructure.

The gap is in application developers. Few are touting Web-enablement of the myriad applications running in a typical hotel. And with more than 70 property management systems on the market, it would be hard for infrastructure vendors to provide this service. More commonly, property owners take on the application modifications needed for mobile access within their own IT departments, or outsource the task to systems integrators such as IBM Global Services, EDS, and Compaq.

Some also dislike the scaled-down versions of applications necessary for small PDA screens. Carlson's Callaghan admits he'll undertake more complex tasks at a wired workstation, which is usually less than 50 feet away. The company is testing larger wireless tablets that will accommodate the workstation interface.

That's not the only obstacle. The cost of installing the hardware that composes a wireless network has some hotels gun-shy. Even relative success story Saskatoon Travelodge "is not at break-even and probably won't be for a year or so," admits Harwood.

Most agree wireless technology itself can be cheaper than running wires. It's the application modifications that constitute a major chunk of the wireless network deployment bill.

But infrastructure still costs money. First-to-market vendors tried business models in which they bore much of the front-end cost in exchange for a chunk of the revenue hotels typically charge for wireless access, usually about $10 a day. But that approach contributed largely to the bankruptcy of vendors MobileStar and Ardent (CAIS Internet). The model has since evolved to a range of shared cost/shared-risk propositions, a favorite of hotels.

"We feel this model works well for us," Wayport's Lowden explains. "We've walked away from deals that have not looked good today but did for the future," since Wayport needs a revenue stream now.

But charging for access can prove a problem for some operators. One Carlson hotel had to drop its fee due to competition. Low-end hotels also struggle. "When you charge $60 for the room and $10 for access, it's a harder sale," than it is for the high-end operator, says Amy Craven, industry analyst for Cahners In-Stat Group.

And installed hotels such as Saskatoon Travelodge report low usage so far. That makes it difficult to cover ongoing costs.

Then there's the economy. According to a survey in Hospitality Technology magazine, Internet, VPN and wide area networks are targets of hotel IT plans in the next year. But a sharp drop-off in travel post 9/11 hit the hospitality industry hard. "Before September 11 this was a booming business," says Rob Karnbach, solution line business manager for 3Com. "Now it's slowed some." With corporations more keen than ever on tying IT investments to corporate strategies, applications with an unclear or longer-term return on investment are likely to be pushed aside in favor of must-haves.

More Barriers
Then there's the lack of ubiquitous wireless consumer devices. To bridge the gap between now and the day when laptops equipped with 802.11b (Wi-Fi) compliant wireless cards are ubiquitous, some hotels issue loaner laptops or PDAs to guests with a yen to surf wirelessly, or loan wireless cards. Saskatoon Travelodge, for example, issues guests a wireless LAN PC card and a CD-ROM with quick-install software. Others employ solutions such as 3Com's Ethernet Client Bridge to avoid the need for configuration or driver installation. The more complex the solution, the more need for a hotel to also become a help desk provider - a frequently outsourced service that must be funded in some way.

Debate surrounds the issue of standards and ease of access. Some, such as 3Com's Karnbach, insist that the struggles some guests go through to properly configure their laptops for wired nets are nonexistent when the connection is wireless. Others say no matter the conduit, it's still burdensome. Virtual private network technology is employed to enable business travelers to access their corporate networks. "Access to intranets is improving," says Cahner's Craven. "There's been a big effort to make sure they're VPN compatible and have enough bandwidth and security."

When to Wire
It remains unclear whether wireless access will eventually be pervasive throughout hotels, or limited to areas where wires would be unwieldy. META Group expects wireless to always remain a supplement to wired connectivity, and guest rooms to largely remain wired. Most hotels are choosing to start small, then expand.

For some hotels, though, wireless is the clear choice. Historic venues are loath to chop through too many walls to enable wired access. Executives at Ice Hotel, a Swedish hotel crafted from ice and snow every winter, reasoned that installing a wired network would prove too cumbersome for the seasonal operation. Vendors Frontec AB and Symbol Technologies modified their technology to function in extreme cold, to facilitate wireless communication from on-site POS stations back to the hotel's guest billing system.

Finally, there's security. Wireless network standards incorporate a minimum amount, so it's up to wireless network providers to add security layers onto a network, and for hotels to make use of them. Properties that exploit the wireless network for both guest and operations applications have particular concern that guests not be able to access their internal applications; META's Gold expects it will be three to five years before shared usage takes hold. "You have to protect the house system from guests, from people on the outside coming in, and guests from each other," notes Carlson's Sjolander. But heavy security can be an obstacle in helping executives navigate out to their corporate nets.

And while Wi-Fi is currently considered the best option for broadband wireless access, it's expected to increasingly coexist with wide-area wireless options, particularly as those technologies get faster. One strong indicator: the acquisition of some MobileStar assets by wide area carrier VoiceStream. Sprint has also expressed interest in the market. Vendors assure hotels a smooth eventual upgrade to 802.11a.

Despite the early obstacles, hospitality industry observers are in unanimous agreement that adoption of wireless solutions is not a question of if, but when. Already, tech-savvy business travelers expect to be able to stay connected while on the road; their home away from home must be part of that equation. It's just a matter of time before a wireless link is as common as an in-room hair dryer, and hotel employees are as well-connected as the paintings are to the walls.

What About Bluetooth?
Wi-Fi solutions appear to have overtaken Bluetooth hype in hospitality, as in many other markets. But some firms are dabbling with using the short-range wireless communication technology within the hotel setting, for such applications as: Using guests' WAP- and Bluetooth-enabled cell phones for reservations and check-in, as well as the room key Wireless connectivity to in-room equipment such as fax machines and printers Interaction with service devices, such as downloading reservation information from a kiosk

While there will be some overlap in applications between 802.11b and Bluetooth, "they can all work in the same space. They serve different purposes," notes Mac Graham, EVP with InnTechnology, which is demonstrating in-room Bluetooth-enabled printers and fax machines.

All this, of course, depends upon widespread deployment of Bluetooth-enabled mobile consumer devices - and when that will happen is anyone's guess.

About Lisa Terry
Lisa Terry is a freelance writer based in Allendale, NJ, who specializes in covering technology and business issues.

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