The ongoing transformation of in-room entertainment shouldn’t catch anyone off guard. The groundwork for the changing landscape already had been laid by Apple’s release of the iPad and iPhone, and before that, the Slingbox and laptops that played DVDs. With each advance in mobile technology came a shift in the expectations of hotel guests.
For most travelers, smartphones and tablets grab most of their attention nowadays, since these devices provide access to almost all of their favorite movies and shows no matter where they go. A SmartBrief poll showed 45 percent of hotel guests travel with two devices and 40 percent with three or more. According to a Smith Micro Software survey, 81 percent of travelers desire access to mobile video content at hotels, and 55 percent indicate the availability of mobile content influences where they stay.
Given the new bring-your-own content trend, hotels now are tasked with the challenge of giving guests a way to access or upload their personal content on guestroom TVs. In the past, this meant adding jack packs outfitted with HDMI, USB, and PC monitor connections to guestroom furniture, giving guests a direct link to each room’s TV. Pod 39 in New York takes this a step further with a Bluetooth-enabled station by the bed that guests can use to wirelessly zap their content to the big screen. The Aloft Cupertino has Apple TVs in each room to do the same thing, wirelessly displaying whatever appears on guests’ iPads and iPhones, as well as serving up content from Apple’s online providers.
To address the fractured landscape of online content, TV makers and tech companies are creating all-in-one content delivery systems. A good example of this is Roomlinx, an interactive TV platform that allows guests to do anything from book a local tour to stream a movie from their Netflix account to view their Facebook account. More than 60,000 rooms at full-service Hyatt properties in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean have or are scheduled to upgrade to this service in the next year. Another example is Samsung’s Lynk Sinc, which can provide guest services information, area resources, and entertainment options as well as access to apps and widgets that connect to Netflix and other online streaming services.
BRING ON THE BANDWIDTH
Going hand in hand with the increase of mobile-device usage among travelers is a need for faster and more consistent Internet access for hotel guests. Many hotels already have jumped on the bandwagon of luring customers with free WiFi—64 percent of hotels offer it, reports Hotel Chatter—but the customer will be disappointed if the bandwidth is insufficient. According to Weiss, necessary today is “a guest-facing Internet infrastructure that is solid, stable, consistent, user-friendly, reliable, and maintained and offers plenty of bandwidth. It’s not the most glamorous part of running a hotel operation, but just like plumbing, it’s an absolute essential part of hotel operations.” To ensure consistency, Hilton embarked on the StayConnected program, consolidating its properties’ disparate Internet providers under one umbrella. The program also established standards for bandwidth, set up a system to monitor guest demand for Internet access and system health, and created a 24-hour call center to handle guest tech problems.
“Cut to four years later, and 95 percent of our global hotels and nearly 100 percent in the U.S. are on this program, which means they are delivering to rigorously set standards,” Weiss says. “It also means the guest or user-experience is consistent.”
Constant monitoring of network usage to ensure there’s sufficient bandwidth is critical for hoteliers, Weiss adds, noting that StayConnected includes a monitoring system that alerts the property and corporate if bandwidth consumption exceeds certain predetermined thresholds.
“The idea is that we get that alert far enough in advance that when it hits 100 percent, they can work with their bandwidth provider, get the circuit upgrade scheduled and provisioned, and have additional bandwidth online before things become an emergency that they are reacting to,” he says. “Then, you’d be at that point where guests are disappointed, and you never want to get to that.”
More and more hotels are working to prevent that disappointment by having two different sources of bandwidth. “It’s a good way of saying, ‘Let’s make sure my primary bandwidth is ultra-high reliability, and then my supplemental bandwidth I use can flex up when demand requires it,’” Weiss says.
THE TIERED POTENTIAL
Where guests were once willing to pay for video-on-demand content, today’s travelers are more likely to pay for fast Internet speeds—making bandwidth a potential revenue stream for hoteliers. For hotels looking to recoup investments in high-def content delivery and robust WiFi networking systems, this development couldn’t come at a better time.
The appeal of free WiFi notwithstanding, hotels continue to accrue expenses for beefing up bandwidth to meet the demand of guests streaming movies, downloading and sending files, and performing other high-consuming functions. To combat that (and the lost revenue of services like video-on-demand), some hotels are switching to a tiered bandwidth model, which gives guests free access to the Internet so they can check their email or post messages on Facebook, and charging fees for heftier activities.
One such company adopting this model is Marriott. “Similar to cellular and residential data plans, a tiered Internet access program offers our guests a choice of bandwidth speeds to meet their needs,” says Violeta Seidell, vice president of project services for Marriott International. “Guests can choose high-speed Internet for tasks such as checking social media and email and surfing the web or enhanced high-speed for streaming movies, video conferencing, and gaming.”
Seidell adds that about 30 percent of Marriott hotels have a tiered model, and more are moving in this direction. The Internet offering is rolling out at the Marriott, JW Marriott, Renaissance, Ritz-Carlton, Courtyard, Fairfield Inn and Suites, Residence Inn, SpringHill Suites, and TownePlace Suites brands, she says. And loyalty has its rewards too, since Marriott’s gold and platinum rewards members receive the tiered service without being charged. The fee for accessing the higher-speed Internet reportedly ranges from $5 to $7 per day, depending on the property.
Regardless of whether their service is free or not, even hotels featuring the strongest and fastest Internet possible can’t rest on their laurels—personal and home technology continues to evolve at an even faster speed. Paying attention to what lies in the pipeline for consumers will help hoteliers better manage and meet guest expectations.