Stay in touch

1 Dec 2005 by business traveller

Dropped connection again?Third hotel in three nights; third different method to access the internet? Hours wasted getting connected only to find the access speed is at snail mail pace? Rushing against the clock to get your email replies done before your connection terminates? These tales are all too familiar to frequent business travellers.  So how are the different hotel groups in Europe dealing with this largely unsatisfactory guest experience?

Connectivity, ease and speed

"Give me hardwired over a weak wifi connection any day!" demands Chris Luebkeman, much-travelled director of global foresight and innovation at architectural engineering consultancy Ove Arup & Partners, of his hotel's internet access provision.  Reliability of connectivity is without doubt a major concern — especially when you are halfway through a reply and the line drops out.

The choice is either a hardwired connection between your laptop and the data port or going wireless. Hardwired is great provided you carry around the necessary cable (the pretty standard RJ45 cable in Europe) and that it is long enough to reach from the data port to your preferred place of work — which could end up being the bed when the only available data port is on the handset of the bedside phone. Anecdotal evidence from those without the necessary cable varies from having it charged on their account to the hotel nipping out to buy one for them. Clearly this is all part of the price of a reliable connection.

For reliability, Malmaison's "plug and play" answer is just that. It is almost too easy to be true. No dial-ups, passwords or scratchcard detritus strewn over your keyboard. And it's free. Introduced soon after his return to Malmaison as CEO 18 months ago, Robert Cook took the view that "it's what our guests wanted and the cost of provision was cheaper than providing a complimentary newspaper". There are also iPod speakers in all the suites.

Speed is also important. The Ku' Damm 101 hotel in Berlin's fashionable Charlottenberg district installed ultra high-speed internet access. Up to 1,000Mbits per second allows for videoconferencing and transfer of video and large files, which appeals to the hotel's target business audience.

Overall, access speeds are constantly improving but they are often subject to infrastructure constraints. Of the hotels surveyed, the average speed is around 4Mbits per second. Certainly this is more than enough for the majority of emails without attachments.

Assuming the connection can be relied upon, most guests would opt for wifi — then the choice is yours where to work. The overall trend is towards the adoption of wireless connectivity throughout hotels of all categories. Of the hotels surveyed, those that were not already fully wifi-enabled certainly had plans to be so. For many groups, wifi connectivity has become a brand standard and any new-build hotel has to include wifi provision. More than likely, new hotels will also be fully wired for IP technology to allow for all foreseeable developments, such as video telephony, self-monitoring rooms and even keyless doors, such as the biometric fingerprint security at the Murano Urban Resort in Paris.

The cost

The offering is most likely to be complimentary.  The introduction of mobile phones sent hotel income from this revenue sector into free fall. It is a logical outcome that, if hotels do not provide internet connectivity for next to nothing, guests will revert to gaining access via their mobile phones or at their nearest coffee shop with a wifi hotspot. The adage "if you cant beat 'em, join 'em" seems appropriate here. And the future may well see further non-price competition in terms of reliability, speed of access and provision of additional services such as power points, wireless printing over infrared or other initiatives.

Free access in public areas might keep guests in the hotel, but Nick Gamble, group operations director at Malmaison Hotels and Hotel du Vin, points out: "Providing complimentary high-speed internet access in the public areas of our hotels has not meant that they have turned into internet cafes. Non-residents and those not using the meeting facilities are asked to pay."

Currently there is a rush to be the first to announce complimentary internet access.  Rezidor SAS claims to be there by the end of the year in all of its Radisson properties in Europe, Middle East and Africa with its Easy Connect service. Fairmont Hotels and Resorts asserts it is the first luxury hotel group to do so throughout their portfolio.

Among those who do charge for access there is wide disparity. Guests can expect to pay from the equivalent of €5 per hour at a Formula 1 or Etap hotel in France to €18 per hour for hardwired connectivity at some Hyatt hotels (based on €0.50 per minute with a maximum of €18 per day). The price of staying connected at Hilton varies from €5 per hour in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (based on the price of €10 for two hours) to over €14/£10 per hour in the UK and Ireland (based on the price of €11/£8 for 45 minutes). A basic rule of thumb would be around €7 per hour to €20 per 24 hours.

And how do you pay?

Options are largely governed by the offers of the service providers, where Swisscom appears to dominate, and range from purchasing scratchcards at reception to online payment via credit card.  Most of the hotels surveyed were able to add the charge to the guest's room bill. However, there is little in the way of loyalty rewards provided by either the hotels or service providers. Hilton expressly does not award Hilton HHonors points for money spent accessing the internet. Others, usually where the charge is included on the final bill, do include the cost towards the total rewarded under the brand's loyalty scheme. However, given the aggravation guests can have trying to work out a new method of connecting at each different hotel brand, there is a form of loyalty by default. Guests will prefer to stay in the hotel where they have grown familiar with the connectivity set-up. In due course, guests can expect to be charge only for time used and not in set blocks of time, in much the same way that telephone bills can now be itemised call by call. 

How many use it?

Statistics on internet usage were hard to come by (especially if the service is offered for free). Anecdotally, usage is definitely on the increase and, unsurprisingly, most hotel groups surveyed reported the main users were business travellers, reflecting their guest profile. Radisson SAS saw penetration of up to 20 per cent of guests in their business hotels with usage per occupied room doubling year on year. The market is only going one way, as the industry standard for laptops increasingly includes integrated wireless functionality and more companies are empowering their staff with machines capable of remote access. 
If the future is free wifi, consider the current offering from Arabella Sheraton, the joint venture partner with Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Some floors of the hotels are being configured not to be wifi-enabled. Guest preferences have shown that a sufficient proportion do not want to sleep in the "electronic smog" purportedly generated by all things wireless. They might have something there; at least guests can rest easy knowing emails are not popping in over their heads all night long.

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