Look around just about any hotel room and you’ll see items you wouldn’t have 20 years ago: a flat-screen TV, an iPod dock on a clock radio, an Internet port. Now look over at the phone. Unless you’re in a hotel that was just built or an upscale property, it probably doesn’t look much different than it did 20 years ago.
In many cases, it may be a little smaller or shinier, but it still probably doesn’t do much more than make phone calls. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a future for hotel phones; the future might just be in a bit of a holding pattern. Technologies such as convergence, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and all the features they can bring are ready, but adoption just isn’t there yet.
Even manufacturers have to admit that new phone technology is a tough sell to the hospitality world. The fact is phones just aren’t the revenue-makers they were years ago. Not only does everyone have a cell phone, but also people love using them.
“The telephone in the room really only has to do a few things,” says Dean Compoginis, CEO of Bittel Americas. “It has to be there to make emergency calls, either from the guest or to the guest. It needs to be there to order room service or call housekeeping—anything on property. And if, for whatever reason, somebody’s cell phone is dead or reception is bad, it’s there to make a call. But most people prefer to use their cell phones, since they have all of their contacts right there.”
“No one’s really looking to upgrade their phone system,” says Frank Melville, president of PhoneSuite, a provider of phone systems for the hotel industry. “A sales pitch that one of our most successful resellers uses is this: ‘Nobody’s using the guestroom phone anymore anyway. Why do you want to spend 40 grand when you can spend 25 grand on a new phone system?’ So that works to our advantage when they need a new phone system. But if they don’t absolutely need a new phone system today, they’re trying to make that old one work.”
Compoginis agrees, saying most of his business is still analog phones. “What you’re left with is the installed base business, or the replacement business,” he says. “Maybe a hotel buys 20 or 30 at a time so they can have spares on hand for when a phone breaks. Because most of the installed base is analog phones, which were sold over the last 20 or 30 years, most of the replacement orders are for analog phones.”
While hotels wear out their analog units, no one argues that VoIP is the future of phones. And as the technology evolves and new construction starts to heat up again, hotels may soon begin to find reasons to start looking at phones again. There are, of course, advantages to IP. For starters, hotels don’t need to run separate cables for IP phones; they can share the lines used for guest Internet access and other services. Calls are also cheaper than they are over analog lines, so hotels can make more of a profit on the calls that guests do make using their room phones. All of that justifies the more expensive cost of the phones in a new build or if a hotel is undergoing a major renovation.
“In the economic landscape we have right now, there’s just not a lot of new construction and, in fact, there’s not a lot of renovation activity,” says Compoginis. “It’s certainly there, but by any metric you look at over the last several years, renovation and new construction is way off what you’d consider normal.”
John Grubb, director of marketing for Cetis, says many VoIP phones look and feel the same to a guest. “The advantage is what happens behind the scenes,” he explains. “Since the VoIP interface provides more reporting for the back office, it’s possible to support check-in and check-out of rooms through the Internet connection. And we have a pass-through Internet hub on the phone, which is nice.”
VoIP offers the capability for advanced features, like touch screens that offer guest directories for groups, local information, and other features.
From a design standpoint, phones are getting smaller and sleeker. But this has little to do with the technology or features; it’s just an aesthetic decision. “Our Teledex iPhone really started the trend,” says Grubb. “It was designed to save space on the nightstand or the desk and to complement the emerging flat-screen look of televisions in the guestrooms.”
The smaller footprint size of newer phones such as the iPhone and the Cetis E Series leaves more room for clocks or anything else that needs to go on a desk or nightstand.
Cetis also offers some models that come in custom handset colors, so hoteliers can match the phone to the room décor. “They can actually brand their own brand with the phone,” Grubb says. “They can purchase a black telephone with an okra handset to match an okra wall décor and the black to mirror the look of the TV. So there are lots of things being done with phones aesthetically.”
Compoginis says handsets are also getting smaller, because people are so used to cell phones. “When we were designing the handset for our UNO phones, I wanted to create a handset that looked fantastic,” he says. “And if you couldn’t cradle it in your neck when you’re talking on the phone or if it wasn’t as big as a normal handset, our research showed that wasn’t a big concern. People have gotten used to holding a cell phone up to their head when they talk. If you talk on a cell phone the microphone is nowhere near being in front of your mouth.”
Industry experts agree that VoIP phones are slowly finding their way into hotels, but there’s no “killer app” or revenue generator to force the issue or act as a selling point for upgrades. And in this economy, not many hotels are upgrading just to keep up with technology. As analog systems die out, they’ll be replaced, but because of the economy, it’s not happening quickly.
“Pretty much all of the features have been put out there that a hotel guest is going to use,” says Compoginis. “In the past, hotels had a lot that they wanted phones to do because guests weren’t carrying their own cell phones. Now guests have their own devices—not just telephones but smart phones.”