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Tech advances

Hotels look to enhance guest experience


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Technology is becoming an expected part of the hotel experience, from electronic message boards to Internet access that lets users pay to boost their capacity.

At slightly more than 2,100 rooms, the Hyatt Regency Chicago's size benefits conventioneers looking for a central location, but it can be difficult to navigate.

Three years ago, the city's largest hotel contracted with AVT Communique, a division of Hospitality Partners, to overhaul its way-finding system and bring digital solutions for upselling to guests. The $600,000 project has allowed the hotel to formalize its way-finding, replacing paper copies of a day's schedule on message boards to one system that broadcasts to 60 NEC LCD screens and another 20 projector-based systems, says David Alter, director of engineering and project management with AVT Communique.

In addition to freeing up staff, the LCD monitors at the front desk help upsell guests to the club level and tout the hotel's breakfast, business services and other amenities. When the monitors were taken out as part of an upgrade to touchscreen units, sales of suites dropped nearly one-third, Alter notes.

The hotel also is exploring the use of virtual menus on tablet PCs, a technology that's been installed at other Hyatt properties, and RFID technology that's currently being used by sales agents to wow prospective clients. RFID tags embedded in convention badges to help people find their way or receive targeted information or advertising is used on an as-needed basis, Alter says.

 

Link@Sheraton Lobby

The Link@Sheraton concept includes a separate lobby area where guests can check e-mail, surf the Web or print boarding passes.

While franchisees in the hotel industry face mandates on just about everything from signage to front-desk uniforms, individual properties still have considerable leeway to build a guest experience that fits with the market and target demographic.

But one of the biggest corporate-wide technology initiatives has to be the Link@Sheraton Experienced with Microsoft that will be in place in 95 percent of hotel lobbies this month (March).

Hoyt Harper, senior vice president of brand management, likens the experience to visiting a park. Some people want to hang out and interact, while others want to be alone but in a community setting. The Link@Sheraton concept, a separate lobby area with lattice walls and controlled access, was tested in four worldwide locations in 2006 before implementation began in 2007.

Guests can check e-mail, surf the Web or print boarding passes using their laptops or Internet-enabled computer workstations. Microsoft-branded Webcams allow guests to shoot and e-mail video postcards. Communal tables encourage interaction, and the area also features televisions, daily newspapers and The Link Cafe, which Harper says was not in the original plan.

 

Electronic Hotel Signs

Even hotel signs are showing off the latest technology.

"We found that food and beverage revenues went up three-fold in locations with the Link," Harper says. Some franchisees are taking advantage of the mandated Link@Sheraton to reconfigure lobbies or food and beverage operations, he says, noting that each property is spending an average of $250,000 to incorporate the concept.

Vantage Hospitality's agreement with Lexington Hotels Worldwide franchisees requires two-thirds majority vote to implement changes. Recently passed technology initiatives include 26-inch flat-screen televisions for guest rooms and new clock radios with MP3 capabilities, explains John Burkard, vice president for information technology at the company based in Coral Springs, Florida. Burkard also oversees technology for Vantage's Americas Best Value Inns Worldwide chain.

High-speed Internet access is mandatory and generally free, and guests at most properties can enjoy Wi-Fi connectivity in common areas, a business center, premium in-room cable channels (including HBO) and pay-per-view movies.

"Internet access has quickly become one of the core things guests expect," says Burkard. "TVs are up there with newer flat screens, and they want a safe, clean, comfortable room and a comfortable bed."

The surging popularity of Internet access can create hassles for guests dealing with connection problems or slow download speeds. Technology firm eTelemetry has adapted a product it uses for enterprise data networks for the hospitality industry. President and CEO Ermis Sfakiyanudis said the product allocates a certain amount of bandwidth to each guest, enough to check e-mail and do light Web surfing.

Guests who try to download documents remotely from their home computer or use streaming media will receive a message asking them to pay for a premium Internet experience with greater download speed. Guests can tolerate the slow speed or pony up for greater bandwidth.

"As the Web becomes more media-rich, bandwidth pipes installed 12 to 24 months ago just aren't sufficient," says Sfakiyanudis. "Offering a premium tier keeps one person from eating up the bandwidth and starts to generate revenue for hotels."

The CEO says that ROI generally takes less than a year and that eTelemetry also works with smaller hotels on a revenue-share arrangement.

InterContinental Hotels Group allows each franchisee to create an experience that reflects its locale and the needs of its guests. For the InterContinental Cleveland, which sits on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic, that means taking care of patients and their families, says Craig Campbell, director of sales and marketing.

 

A good portion of our capital expenditures will end up earmarked for technology upgrades...we feel that staying on the forefront will give us a competitive advantage in Cleveland and the region.

- Craig Campbell InterContinental Cleveland

The lobby was designed to encourage quiet, reflective time and an ambient sound computer linked to the audio system of the restaurant Table 45 automatically controls the music level, which reduces cross-table yelling and the risk of awkward silences.

The proximity of the hotel to the Cleveland Clinic means that many medical meetings are held here. Meeting space features drop-down screens, built-in projectors and computers, DVD capabilities and touch-panel controls to give presenters great flexibility from an audio/visual standpoint. The hotel's 500-seat Bank of America Conference Center has the ability to input video from the Cleveland Clinic to show surgeries, for example, or broadcast to any location in the world. The amphitheater also has laptop hookups, translation equipment and audience polling capabilities.

"A good portion of our capital expenditures will end up earmarked for technology upgrades," Campbell says of the 5-year-old hotel. "As the medical field continues to grow and new types of presentation capabilities emerge, we feel that staying on the forefront will give us a competitive advantage in Cleveland and the region."

And isn't that the reason that hotel brands and franchisees ultimately invest in technology?

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