Yaroslav Goncharov, CEO of Hotel Wi-Fi Test, has had a front row seat to the rise of Wi-Fi in the hotel industry. “It’s become a key amenity,” he says. “Some studies even claim it is second only to a comfortable bed.” At a time when basically every handheld device features Internet connectivity, guests place immense value on reliable wireless networks. This means that top-notch Wi-Fi services have changed from a nicety to a necessity.
When it comes to best practices, nothing trumps capacity. “While bandwidth growth has always been an issue for hospitality IT departments, the additional demands of Wi-Fi have accelerated the urgency,” says Alexandra Sewell, executive director, emerging markets, Comcast Business. She notes that many hotel guests carry two or three mobile devices, and they expect to be constantly connected when they travel. “And without the proper network capacity, Wi-Fi will be slow and frustrating,” she says. Kirk Hylan, owner of INsite Networks, a San Francisco IT company, says there’s no rule of thumb when it comes to determining how much bandwidth a hotel property needs. “With bandwidth, it’s really a matter of how much your pocket can afford because guests will use it all.”
“Technology is evolving faster than most of us ever imagined,” says Doug Gehret, general manager at Hilton Orlando. “We must be proactive to remain relevant.” Gehret’s hotel recently upgraded to the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard and now touts its high-speed data rates (up to 10 times standard Wi-Fi) as a key selling point in promotion material. With the AC Wi-Fi standard now over a year old, hotels that haven’t upgraded may find themselves falling behind the competition. And a property’s Wi-Fi speed isn’t a secret anymore, as third-party reviewers like Hotel Wi-Fi Test provide free, easily accessible ratings of wireless services that potential guests may use when choosing hotels for their next stay or event.
Obviously, faster is better when it comes to user expectations, but Wi-Fi service also needs to be reliable. “That means being realistic about your total bandwidth compared with the number of concurrent users,” Goncharov says. Wi-Fi reliability is especially important when it comes to group business. “For events grand or intimate, meeting planners need to feel confident that everyone will experience continuous uptime for wired and wireless service that is both dependable and industry leading,” Gabe Gilligan, senior vice president of global operation and business development for event Internet services provider Xponet, says. That’s why customized networks are the lifeblood of many meetings and events, as well as private, password-protected Wi-Fi networks.
“Hotels can’t be in the business of providing security products for their guests,” says INsite Network’s Hylan. What they can do, however, is encrypt networks so individual users are isolated and can’t “see” one another on the network. Even more important, Hylan says, is separating rooms and meeting spaces from business operations. In larger hotels, this might mean buying two broadband connections—one for business operations, and one for guests. Where cost is an issue, another option could be installing an intelligent switch controller that can create separation.
The emphasis on security should be an ongoing priority for any hotel, says Sewell. “When implementing Wi-Fi, ensure that your network is designed in a way that helps guard against any potential security issues,” she says. “This can be reinforced with solutions that proactively monitor the end-to-end network.”
CONNECT THE DOTS
For hotels, upgrades to Wi-Fi service may require investment in both capital and the expertise required to respond quickly to industry changes. Already, technical planners are looking ahead to the next standard in Wi-Fi, 802.11ax, which should be adopted in less than four years. Comcast’s Alexandra Sewell offers a few tips to keep hotel IT departments from falling behind.
Have a flexible internet solution. Make sure you build a Wi-Fi solution that’s sufficient to meet today’s needs but also scalable to support capacity requirements two to three years out.
Don’t sell yourself short on capacity. Consider that Wi-Fi solutions must have enough capacity for not only guest usage but also back-office usage. You want fast connection speeds when supporting the hotel’s business functions.
Integration is key. Wi-Fi is a business driver that enables a comprehensive guest experience. Soon, hotels will leverage the power of Wi-Fi to expand on loyalty programs, integrate with the in-room TV, and take part in other customer-engagement strategies such as location-based promotions and time-based offers.