Hoteliers are trying hard to offer their guests the same quality entertainment experience they enjoy at home. From content casting to temperature controls, Elly Earls finds out what that entails
But although we're fast becoming a nation of binge-viewers, we don't necessarily want to watch our own content when we're on the road. At least not all of us, all the time. Nor do we want to watch it from our tablet or iPhone when there's a perfectly good TV in the room.
But in a growing number of hotels, we're no longer forced to make that choice. 'Connected' hotel rooms, which have the TV at their heart, allow guests to stream their own content on the big screen and watch the latest movies, series and sport on demand. Some TVs also feature apps to book spa treatments and order room service, while others are linked to in-room iPads or mobile apps that can control settings including lights, temperature, window blinds and alarm themes.
It may be far from commonplace, but the industry is moving towards a point where hotel guests can enjoy the same level of choice and functionality they have at home.
"There's still a bit of a mismatch between what guests want and what they get, but hoteliers are working very hard," says HOSPA chief executive Jane Pendlebury.
Your own content – on the big screen
Streaming's growing popularity has hugely influenced content offers in hotels. Two of the main options hoteliers are using to enable their guests to watch their own content on the in-room TV are Google Chromecast-powered casting solutions like Staycast, which are quickly gaining momentum because they're low cost and easy to install. Apple TV isn't being taken up quite as rapidly because of its considerably higher price tag, but it is being embraced by tech-focused brands like citizenM.
Darren King, chief executive of RoomNetTV, which provides citizenM's Apple TV-based in-room entertainment systems and has mainly focused on streaming solutions, says the next step for the company is to enable hotel guests to use the Apple TV directly.
"Instead of it being about bringing your mobile device and streaming your content wirelessly to the TV, you'll log into the Apple TV as if you're at home and watch your Netflix, Amazon or live TV," he explains. "We know that's what consumers want to do because that's what they're doing at home. They never click on the TV and start casting from their iPads or their mobiles – they just click Netflix or Amazon and off they go."
Premium content options
According to Pendlebury, we're not going to reach the point any time soon where in-room entertainment is limited to guests bringing their own content. "Lots of people don't carry their own content yet, and even within the same travelling party there will sometimes be one person who has their own content and another who doesn't," she says.
"One customer might behave in a completely different way during the week when they're travelling for business to how they behave during the weekend when they're travelling with their family," adds Carl Weldon, chief operating officer for Europe at Hospitality Finance and Technology Professionals (HFTP).
Alongside the bring-your-own options, on-demand content offers are also improving. On RoomNetTV, for example, guests can access movies on demand and smart TV apps, as well as their own content. Video on-demand company Techlive provides the latest movies in up to a dozen languages, international channels and Airtime, cloud-based movie streaming designed specifically for hospitality businesses that can be installed remotely.
With Sky's dedicated hotel product Sky Select, hotels can choose from 96 satellite channels with seven channels in HD as standard, while also incorporating Freeview and foreign channels distributed over the existing infrastructure.
They have the flexibility to swap existing channels, add more to suit a guest profile at any time and incorporate a tailored welcome channel to greet their guests.
"The Sky Bright Box, the technology behind Sky Select, delivers amazing HD entertainment across hotels from one centralised HD distribution system. It's a reliable, scalable, purpose-built and space-saving solution," says Andy Kydd, head of product at Sky Business, adding that when it comes to streaming and premium content, it doesn't have to be an either/or scenario.
"Our hotel partners who have implemented Sky Select are providing premium content to their guests via the Sky Bright Box, and they are making it easy for their guests to access any content they have brought with them through better Wi-Fi and screen integration technology. They recognise that even the most tech-savvy guest will be frustrated if the hotel-provided content is poor, and they have not had time to prepare some content to bring with them."
The logistics and limitations
Finding the right in-room entertainment offer for your property depends on a few factors according to Weldon: the building (its age and structure will impact the type of cabling that can be installed and how challenging it will be to implement a full IP network); the brand and brand standards; and the TVs you already have. "You could criticise some of the industry for not coming forward too quickly, but all of these factors create a set of limiting factors on what the hotelier can or can't produce," he says.
Olivia Byrne, director of the London-based Eccleston Square Hotel, adds that if you're going to move towards an IPTV option, you need to make sure you have enough bandwidth to support it. "Putting smart TVs in every room is a lot of pressure on the internet," she says. Carla Milovanov, vice-president of digital services at AccorHotels UK & Ireland, agrees. "Bring Your Own Computer (BYOC) has been deployed in a number of our properties in the UK, such as Novotel Canary Wharf. The end goal is to give our guests the same experience of streaming TV, accessing online content and managing other room functions as they would in their own homes. One of the biggest limitations we are seeing, however, is cost.
"To successfully offer these services the industry needs to improve its infrastructure, particularly connectivity, including better Wi-Fi services and internet bandwidth, so that the guest receives a quality experience. To achieve this will require investment in most cases."
The good news, according to King, is that bandwidth is getting both cheaper and faster and the likelihood is that guests are already watching Netflix on their laptops and mobiles in your hotel. "If your network is already coping with it, the chances are you'll probably be fine," he says. "We generally allow for a 20% uplift based on your current bandwidth utilisation if you're going to allow streaming to the TV."
When it comes to hardware, hotels should be using hospitality TVs from either Samsung, LG or Philips. On the casting front, industry-specific solutions are also a must. A hospitality casting solution with dedicated security features will ensure that other guests can't interfere with devices and content in surrounding rooms.
Room controls: keeping it simple
Through app-based systems, technology providers are allowing guests to engage with hotel services – such as booking a spa treatment or ordering room service – through the TV.
RoomNetTV is one example. "With iPads coming along, the TV has become less important in the hotel room over the last few years, which has consequently made it a more difficult place for hotels to market and sell themselves," King says.
"We want to make the TV an engaging platform again by making it an app-driven experience. We're all used to apps in our worlds and this is the same. Guests can watch their own content, live TV is there if they want it or they can use the guest services app to order their pillows or book a spa treatment."
Some operators such as citizenM and Hilton have gone one step further and introduced iPads or mobile apps through which guests can control anything from the lighting to the room temperature to the window blinds.
For Pendlebury, citizenM has got it right with its MoodPad. "It's very obvious when you get into the room and it allows you very simply and easily to shut your curtains, pull your blinds down and change the lighting," she says.
"With room controls, it's about keeping it as simple as possible or it's just a frustration. Sometimes you go into a hotel room without switching the TV on and don't realise you have the option of controlling the lights through the TV. It has to be very obvious and very easy to use."
The next step – and something Pendlebury believes will start to become more commonplace – is voice-activated technology. "At the moment, there's still that fear from hotel guests that everything is being recorded in the room, but I think the Internet of Things and the connected room is becoming something people expect because we have it at home," she says.
King agrees. "It will start with searching for content and asking about the weather or the football scores but then the technology will become familiar and room controls will come into this in a big way," he predicts.
In the meantime, Weldon concludes, there's one simple rule hoteliers need to live by, "Make sure the TV delivers what the customer wants in three clicks or less," he says. "After that, they're probably going to give up."
Hilton's Connected Room In December 2017 Hilton unveiled its 'Connected Room', a high-tech guest room that enables guests to personalise and control every aspect of their stay from their mobile device.
When it's fully rolled out, guests who stay at Connected Room-enabled properties will be able to use the Hilton Honors app to control the temperature, lighting, TV and window coverings. Hilton is also working with popular streaming media providers to enable guests to watch their own content on in-room TVs.
In the longer term, guests will be able to use voice commands to control their room or access their content, upload their own artwork and photos to automatically display in their room and set various preferences in their Hilton Honors account profile to further customise their in-room experience to their individual preferences.
For operators' part, the high-tech room has implications for Hilton's corporate responsibility programme, Travel with Purpose. The technology will give guests the option to help conserve energy by syncing the air conditioning with their schedule and allow hotel operators to monitor how their hotels are managing energy in real time. Hilton team members will also benefit from Connected Room since the platform will provide them with better insight into guest preferences.
The beta version of Connected Room uses a physical remote control to manage the experience, with the goal of supplementing it and all traditional remote controls with the Hilton Honors app before deployment at hotels across the portfolio.
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