Features

Hotel Wifi

29 Jun 2006 by business traveller

Increasingly, hotels have realised that for business guests to be regular guests, they need high-speed internet access in their guestrooms and public spaces, including the lobby and meeting areas. A UK survey by iBahn, the world's leading provider of secure wired and wireless high-speed internet to the hospitality industry, found that business travellers are increasingly relying on high-bandwidth applications while on the road, including voice over internet protocol (VoIP), video and audio. But what is being done to ensure guests' needs are met and what can we expect from our favourite brands, now and in the future?

WHO WE ARE

The first task for hotels has been to identify who we are and what we want in terms of connectivity. At Hilton Hotels, four main groups have been identified with different connectivity requirements. Karl North, director of IT for Hilton UK and Ireland, explains: "The first group is not staying at the hotel, but uses the public areas for meetings; the second enters the hotel without the equipment but wants access to the web and so needs to use terminals or the business centre to do so — one example of this would be the Oscar's bar area in the Hilton at Heathrow Terminal 4 where terminals are available in the bar. Then there is a third group of people who come in for a meeting or an event and want to plug in and play, and might have quite sophisticated requirements such as webcasting. Finally there are those who are staying at the hotel and want to carry on working in their room."

As a result of this analysis, the 70 Hilton hotels in the UK and Ireland now have broadband access in every room (except the hotel in the Isle of Man — apparently this is due to local regulations). Hilton believes it to be an essential component, and at the top end of the hotel market, other brands agree.

"For a five-star brand, high-speed internet access is the price of entry," says Brian Pratt, vice president e-commerce for Europe, African and the Middle East at Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Joe Tesfai, chief technology officer for Jumeirah Group, agrees: "At a minimum [guests] expect broadband wired in the hotel and wireless within the convention and meeting areas."
Starwood has nine global hotel brands, including Westin, Le Meridien and W Hotels. But it is the Sheraton brand that is focusing most on connectivity.

"The Sheraton brand is a connected brand," says Pratt. "And although that's not just about technology — for instance, we give guests a postcard when they check in and we'll post it for free — obviously the internet is a big part of it. Whether wired or wireless, or sometimes both, every Sheraton room will soon have high-speed internet access."

At the Intercontinental Hotel Group, all 3,000-odd hotels have either wired or wireless internet access. "We see the Intercontinental brand as being a seamless experience," says chief marketing officer Peter Gowers. "If travellers can use the internet to book their room, then that technology needs to continue seamlessly during their stay."

Similarly for Marriott, the aim is for all of its brands in the UK — including Courtyard and Renaissance — to have a mixture of wired and wireless access. Roger Binks is director of marketing and communications: "All the hotels and country clubs will have either wifi or wired access in the rooms, and the strategy in London hotels is to have both."

There's more to it than just providing access, however. According to Nick Price, chief technology officer for Mandarin Oriental, the first question to be asked is: "What is the connectivity used to do? Internet does not equal email; it is a wide variety of very personal connectivity options. Trading, web cams, Skype, waving goodnight to the kids, downloading movies or music onto their laptops — and yes, email as well."

It is this wide range of uses that Price believes makes connectivity so important. "It's incorrect to assume that when guests arrive in a hotel, they put their laptop on the desk and then do their email. In fact they might turn on the TV, purchase an internet connection, sit in the lobby, pick up their PDA using the same email connection on wifi, then they might update their iTunes and iPod before they get on the plane. So it's a multifaceted, multi-purpose need that we are seeing.

"What's important to understand is that it is a broad range of services, but many of them are focused on personal rather than just business needs, and many of those needs have specific connection and security requirements. We must support those needs by offering an internet connection that is ubiquitous, which means if you buy it once you can use it anywhere in the hotel. We also need to make sure that it's very fast, very secure, and supported and supportable."

WIRED OR WIRELESS?

For global brands, the challenge is to achieve some consistency in the service offered, but here again, it depends on what guests require. Intercontinental Hotel Group has different connectivity options for its brands, based broadly on the type of guests staying at each one.
Peter Gowers says: "There are three types of traveller; the first are the people who want to be in absolute control — these people bring all their own technology with them and they just want the hotel to be able to facilitate this." These travellers are likely to stay in the group's Intercontinental Hotels. The second type typically stay with Holiday Inn: "These guests will use technology a little but rely more heavily on the hotel's own facilities."

The third type may watch the TV and play music, but they are not using technology for work. These guests are, according to Gowers, more likely to be leisure travellers staying at the Holiday Inn Express brand.

Hilton in the UK and Ireland opted to equip all its hotel rooms with wired access rather than wireless. Karl North explains: "It was as a result of research with customers when we first embarked on this, both because the hardware of our users was not wireless-enabled, and they weren't comfortable with wifi technology. Since then we've been piloting the offer of both in the rooms at the Hilton Paddington, and the requests for it are increasing. But I'd say that even where wifi is offered in the rooms, we can offer wired as well. It's a good fall back. If a hotel guest has problems we can say 'Can you plug it in, can you see two lights flashing?' and we can help."

Wired is still popular at Radisson SAS hotels, says Finn Schulz, vice president of IT: "Guests are still happy using wired internet access. Indeed, some find it easier as in general you just plug in and start using it. With wifi access you need to know something about the settings on your PC, and there is also uncertainty as the connection is not always as stable as a wired connection. Having said that, wifi gives you far greater flexibility — a guest can access the internet in the lobby or read their emails in a meeting room while they listen to the speaker."

John Priznik, director of corporate technology at Hyatt Hotels [encompassing three brands: Park Hyatt, Hyatt Regency and Grand Hyatt], says wired is also the most common form of access: "Within the domestic US market, virtually all the hotels have wired access, and worldwide there are probably 75 per cent which have broadband connectivity — although our goal is to have 100 per cent compliance by the end of the year. Obviously for hotels in some countries it has been more challenging."

SPEED

So how fast will your connection be?

"The speed should be ADSL [over phone lines, with speeds typically 512Kbps] at the very minimum," says Anand Rao, chief information officer for Shangri-La Hotels. "We put in category six cables, which take 1GB traffic, although you can watch a video on category five, then five-E, then six."

For Hyatt, John Priznik says: "It varies from country to country, market to market and even hotel to hotel. However, it would be safe to say that at a minimum it should be a T1 service [digital transmission at 1.544MB] though in some locations it would be lower, while in others it would be much higher."

At Hilton in the UK and Ireland, every customer has a 2MB connection, while Finn Schulz of Radisson says: "We have a minimum of 2MB of bandwidth in all our hotels. The actual bandwidth the hotel is receiving is a lot higher, but 2MB reflects what the end user will be experiencing. Interestingly, we had a lot of discussion about what we would call our internet service — 'broadband access' or 'high-speed internet access'. In the end we went with broadband access as this term is generally understood in the market, but of course we do offer high-speed internet access. You could also say that what is broad to one person is not broad to another."

As Joe Tesfai of Jumeirah puts it, when planning a new hotel, it's now all about "future proofing". "We are putting in the extra cables that are the backbone of both wired and wireless. So now we are putting in seven category six cables: we are using five of them for things such as the minibar, television, wired, wireless and so on, but two are spare for the future. We will also try and put the staff on wifi as well (eg engineering, housekeeping), which makes it so much easier to communicate with the guest."

CHARGES FOR GUESTS

With a few exceptions, most hotels charge for internet access in rooms. In public areas, some charge, some don't, depending on whether they are confident that having free wifi access will draw people into the hotel in a positive way, rather than cluttering up the lobby and coffee shop with low paying customers taking advantage of the offering.

"Within the room we do charge in most hotels, unless there's a marketing reason for not doing so," says Anand Rao, of Shangri-La. "Around an opening of a hotel for instance. In the public areas, however, we would generally not charge for wifi."

"We have a predisposition that it should be free," says Brian Pratt of Starwood. "It's good for someone to come in and have a cup of coffee and experience the brand. We think it's positive but we need to make sure we don't have a whole line of students in the hotel lobby."

Others differ on this. "My firm belief is there will be an element of charging to guarantee the security and speed guests look for," says Hilton's Karl North. "Perhaps we might offer a lower bandwidth for surfing and emails, but if customers want downloading quality then I believe they will be comfortable paying for it."

For those brands which do charge, generally the pricing differs from property to property. At Intercontinental Hotels, charges range from £6.70 to £16.20 for 24 hours' internet access. At Sheraton "...the prices vary across Europe from €8 to €25 for 24 hours' high-speed internet access," says Brian Pratt, while at Shangri-La it's HKD120 (£8.40) at the most, and free for some hotels. Says Rao: "No one begrudges paying for it; people accept they pay for good service."

At Jumeirah it is US$30 for 24 hours within Dubai, but once again the cost varies at properties around the world. Tesfai says that with the Jumeirah Carlton Tower and Lowndes Hotel being so close to one another in London, a consistent pricing policy will be in place there when the Lowndes reopens at the end of the year.

In the UK Marriott has a consistent pricing policy at £15 for 24 hours, as a result of using a single provider, iBahn. The same applies to Hilton in the UK and Ireland according to Karl North: "We wanted to ensure there was consistency across the UK so that, as our guests move from hotel to hotel, they are buying the same quality service and the price is the same (£15 for 24 hours)."

North says this price was determined by looking at the prices charged by Hilton's competitors, though the consistency is also helped by having just two providers: BT Openzone for the wifi areas, and iBahn in the rooms. At the moment this means that a guest has to pay for 24 hours' access in the room, and then might have to pay again to use wifi in the public areas of the hotel, but North believes that this will soon change.
Most hotel brands explain the differences in prices between their hotels by pointing out that the cost of providing the service differs from city to city — as does the price of the hotel room.

"The consistency is in the offering of the product," says Starwood's Brian Pratt. "For instance, in the Westin Turnberry it is significantly more expensive for us to provide a high-speed link because of the location of the hotel [on Scotland's west coast], but we do so because it's a five-star hotel, and we absorb the cost."

Radisson SAS is one of the international hotel chains that does not charge for internet access. Finn Schulz is frank about the challenges the initiative has faced. "The problem is that when you look at providing free internet access, it is hard to look past the costs to see what the benefits will be to the brand. The costs are definite, but you can only hope that the benefits will be as well. We are hoping to carry out market research later this year, but we are certainly happy with the response from customers so far."

Of course, travellers may be suspicious of the "free" element. If a service has a cost someone has to pay, perhaps with the cost being included in the price of every room, irrespective of whether someone wants to use the internet.

Finn Schulz disagrees: "We generally speak of high-speed internet connectivity being as natural as a bathroom and a good bed today. In other words, it is a basic need and not using it does not qualify for a discount. Most (business) travellers today need to communicate, ie download mail."

COST TO HOTELS

How much does it cost the hotel to offer this basic need to travellers?

Says Schulz: "For a 300-room hotel the cost of the service and support of the infrastructure is around €24,000 per year, although the total cost including the actual ISP connection is around €40-50,000 per year, not including the depreciation of the hardware. Previously the cost to guests did vary regionally, but in general it was around €15 for 24 hours, down to around €3.50 per hour."

Schulz says usage is on the up and the Stansted hotel has had to increase the bandwidth as a result. "This is constant usage — guests are logging on and staying on, whether it be to listen to music or watch their local TV channels." Joe Tesfai of Jumeirah agrees: "Uptake is going up. In the UAE the number is as high as 18 and 20 per cent while in the resort areas it is 10 per cent."

With additional research by Felicity Cousins and Mark Caswell.


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