Leave Your Laptop At Home

BOSTON (05/23/2000) - The next time you check in to a hotel during a business trip, don't be surprised if the desk clerk hands you a laptop along with your room key. Hotels that cater to business travelers are installing new network infrastructures and developing new guest programs - such as offering loaner laptops - to make their properties more business-user-friendly. The renovations range from wiring for high-speed Internet access to providing full computer, Internet and LAN facilities.

What's driving the technology boom at hotels is the realization that good computer facilities can help capture a larger chunk of the lucrative business travelers' market. A survey that Opinion Research Corp. in Skillman, New Jersey, recently conducted for Integrated Network Technologies Inc. in Eagan, Minnesota, found that 66 percent of the 300 frequent business travelers polled said they would choose a hotel based on its in-room technology services.

Seventy-three percent said they wished that available services were better.

Faster, Faster, Faster

The most common improvement hotels are making is the installation of high-speed Internet access, such as Digital Subscriber Line service, T1 lines and broadband connections. What's making it easy for hotels to offer these alternatives is the emergence of companies, such as Tut Systems Inc., Suite Technology Systems Network and Wayport Inc., that specialize in retrofitting hotels with network access. By relying on Ethernet and Universal Serial Bus connections for now, while developing wireless services for the future, these services let travelers with network-enabled laptops plug into the hotel's LAN through ports in the rooms to reach the Web.

Hotels are also catering to those who travel without laptops, offering in-room systems such as those provided by Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based Lodge Net Entertainment Corp., or supplying loaner laptops, as is the policy at San Francisco's Nob Hill Lambourne. The disadvantages of these types of solutions for business travelers is that they usually offer only Internet access, Post Office Protocol mail services and popular productivity software; using corporate e-mail and specialized applications and data is difficult. In addition, TVs often serve as the monitors for in-room systems, and they suffer from the low resolution of today's TV technology.

But savvy hotel managers recognize that pure Internet access is of limited use to their business traveler guests. The key need of these customers is connecting to headquarters. Virtual private network (VPN) facilities aren't yet common, but they are on the rise. LodgeNet, for example, and DataValet, a service offered by Bell Nexxia (the data communications arm of Bell Canada International Inc.) and joint-venture partners, offer VPN access to laptops hooked into their Internet services.

Hotel Help Desk

Hotels are also paying attention to the needs of computer users when they're outside their rooms. Some now offer network access in conference rooms - and even restaurants. The Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel added Internet access ports at tables in the Bistro on Two restaurant so that diners can work or play online while they eat. Seattle's Hotel Elliott, a 424-room facility scheduled to open next April, will offer wireless access throughout the building, enabling travelers to work on laptops in the lobby.

The lobby is also the likely spot for Internet-enabled kiosks that will allow guests to access their own records for tasks such as checkout; to find out about the hotel, such as the location of the fitness center; and to search for nearby restaurants and entertainment.

But the main activity is renovating conference centers, which traditionally have been wired by hand for each group using them, resulting in snaking lines of duct tape pinning cables to the carpet. Hotels now are planning conference rooms that include desks with integrated electrical outlets and network ports, and they're adding videoconferencing facilities and projection technology to match the facilities in modern office buildings.

With the technology at hotels getting more and more sophisticated, visitors are running into connectivity problems. Several hotels have hired help desk staff, sometimes called computer concierges, to unravel any trouble that guests have with their computers or with the hotel's network.

At the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, information technology manager Mike Demir and two other IT staffers are available to guests from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Demir's main job is to support the hotel's back-office systems, but for the past 18 months, he says, he's been able to help guests with a variety of problems, including fixing a recalcitrant TelePrompTer, lending a laptop power supply, and resetting dial-up properties for the many guests who stumbled over their laptops' modem settings. For less urgent tasks, he directs guests to the hotel's staffed business center. Eventually, the business center will have a full-time IT staffer to take over guest support, he says.

Before You Go

These new technology services won't appear at all hotels, even those that are part of a chain. That's because hotel owners often pay for the use of the hotel brand name, and each owner makes individual decisions about amenities at his hotels. Plus, many owners choose to upgrade only a portion of their rooms, based on the theory that not all guests will require the extra services. So before you go, find out what amenities are available in the room you reserve.

Also, check which services are included in the room price. There are three cost models: Some hotels charge an extra flat fee for business-class rooms, such as Chicago-based Hyatt Corp.'s $20 fee to upgrade to the Business Plan; some charge for specific extra services, such as Marriott International's $9.95 daily fee for high-speed Internet access; and some charge a premium room rate, such as Seattle's new Hotel Elliott's anticipated $350 per day rack rate and the Chicago Four Seasons' $450 per day rate for its Technology 2000 suites.

Johnson is a Computerworld contributor based in Seattle. She can be reached at amyhelen@pobox.com.

E-Hotel

Dick Hedreen is taking a gamble. He's building a luxury hotel that will offer guests new technology, hoping that the premier computer facilities will lure always-on-the-road warriors, dot-com millionaires and other laptop-toting travelers to his Hotel Elliott in downtown Seattle.

R. C. Hedreen Co. owns two other hotels in Seattle - the Seattle Hilton and the Madison Renaissance Hotel. But the Elliott won't have a chain affiliation, says information technology chief Derek Bottles, so it needs competitive advantage beyond name recognition. The advantage chosen was technology, which the company hopes will swell the percentage of the more valuable business travelers and conference groups - which account for 33.3 percent of the guests at its other properties - to 40 percent at the Elliott.

The E-Services Menu

Among the services that Bottles is developing for the Elliott are 100M-bps high-speed Internet access, video-on-demand systems; limited videoconferencing in all the rooms; monitor-quality TVs - perhaps flat panels - and TV-based Internet and application access in every room; VPN facilities; wireless access throughout the building; Internet kiosks in the lobby; connectivity to the Washington State Convention Center across the street; a theater-style conference center with Internet-wired seats and built-in videoconferencing; customized applications that let guests tap into the back-office systems to order food and services and to pay bills; personal profiles in the guest database that specify guests' preferences for stocking the minibar and for room amenities; password-protected areas on the local hard disks for storing and retrieving files; and a nine-person IT staff that will serve both hotel employees and guests.

The idea for the Hotel Elliott began in 1996, when Bottles joined the company to help upgrade its infrastructure. At the time, according to Bottles, the company ran on a few outdated minicomputers that were kept alive by cannibalizing surplus machines for parts. As Bottles researched the company's needs, he kept stumbling across an unfilled need to provide technology services to guests, he says. When Hedreen decided to build a new hotel in Seattle, he gave Bottles full rein to fill that need.

Preparing for Change

To keep from chasing an ever-out-of-reach definition of state-of-the-art, Bottles has laid out a strategy of overengineering the whole hotel. Where the recommendation was to lay one cable conduit, he put in four, he says. Fiber runs to every room; it's dark now, but Bottles feels that sometime in the future, the bandwidth will be needed.

All these technology features are going to cost about 5 percent to 7 percent of the total construction budget, Bottles explains, but he declines to provide any number more solid than "millions." Although pricing for each service hasn't been worked out, many services will be included in the room price - the anticipated rack rate is $350 per day for a standard room. Another possibility is to share costs with technology partners; Bottles says the tech-savvy businesspeople he hopes to attract will also form the market for the companies supplying the hotel's network hardware, servers and software. He's also investigating charging transaction fees for information services, such as making restaurant reservations through the hotel's Internet portal.

Although the bones of the Elliott and its computer network are already fixed in the Seattle skyline, the company is still working out the best choices for decor and computer services. In a room mock-up a few blocks from the hotel site, Bottles and the interior decorators are testing such details as the placement of electrical outlets and the usefulness of having an Internet appliance in the bathroom.

Whatever choices they make for the scheduled April 2001 opening of the hotel won't be perfect, Bottles says. But he's confident he has the infrastructure in place to make whatever improvements may be called for.

Office on The Road

Here are new computer services being installed by some of the major chains favored by executives. Because chains are often operated as franchises, however, amenities may be offered only at certain sites.

-- Hyatt: In-room multifunction printer/copier/fax machines, high-speed Internet access and video-on-demand-- Hilton Hotels Corp.: In-room computer system with Internet access and office applications-- Intercontinental Hotels: Help staff, high-speed access-- Marriott: High-speed access via Ethernet or USB ports-- Radisson Hotels: TV-based Internet access, kiosks, high-speed access-- Renaissance Hotels: High-speed access via Ethernet or USB port-- Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. LLC: Help staff, high-speed access-- Sheraton: High-speed access-- Westin Hotels: High-speed access, Internet access in conference rooms Beyond the Business CenterThe days are long gone when services for business travelers meant a converted broom closet off the lobby where you could bring a floppy disk or your laptop.

The latest trend in the hotel industry is to offer computer services that mimic those provided by your company's IT department.

-- Networks: High-speed Internet access and wireless networks to get you connected to headquarters; VPN capabilities; bandwidth to the room that supports video and voice-- Internet access: In-room systems that use the TV and wireless keyboards for surfing-- Equipment: Loaner programs that provide laptops with standard office programs and modems-- Help desk: On-staff expertise to help you connect to the network and the Internet or to diagnose application problems-- Intranets: Kiosks in the lobby to access hotel information and local travel guides; space on the local server to store personal files and retrieve public or limited-access files such as conference notes.

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