Hoteliers are used to dealing with requests for breakfast in bed and extra bath towels, but questions about bandwidth are a more recent phenomenon. However, whether they meet the technology needs of the business traveller will determine how much they make from this lucrative sector of the market.
Most businesses now rely on computers and telecommunications to keep the cogs turning. From chief executives to travelling salesmen, business people need to keep abreast of company affairs while they are out of the office. This can mean downloading e-mail, reporting sales data and updating presentations. While most business travellers carry laptops and mobile phones with them, if you offer augmented technology you can make their stay that much easier and more productive.
For larger hotel chains the technology investments are now well established. In 2002, Marriott UK began to offer wireless internet access to its business customers, and it also offers broadband internet in its rooms and a range of IT services in its conference hotels.
"It's a response to guest requirements in the UK and in the USA," says Mark Kemp, product manager, corporate and conference, for Marriott UK. "We have seen there is almost an expectation that people can access that sort of facility within the hotel environment, particularly where we're a leading brand.
"The feedback from our national account managers is that this is now part of their procurement process - the requirement for these augmented services. Customers would see [the technology] as an added benefit, and often that can counteract rate discounts if they see there is a service that is allowing employees to be more efficient on their stay."
Marriott has opted not to go out and buy the technology itself, but instead uses a third-party service contract with networking specialist STSN, says Kemp. "We are a hospitality company, and that is our core business; we've outsourced the provision of technology. Our own capital investment has been small but at the same time provides the [technology] services to customers that they need, as opposed to trying to purchase our own infrastructure."
The cost of equipping hotels with modern networking technology inevitably varies depending on the age of the building. In modern constructions the necessary cabling, or at least space for it, is built in to the hotel design. Older buildings may require more work.
STSN supplied the Marriott systems, underpinning the chain's wireless and broadband technology. Graeme Powell, managing director for Europe, says STSN has installed similar systems to about 200,000 hotel rooms around the world. He says the cost varies massively depending on the age and size of the hotel, but a fair estimate would be £100-£200 per room.
Marriott is not alone. The last couple of years have seen significant investments in technology by a range of hotels and chains to attract business custom, including London's Dorchester hotel.
However, the approach of the Dorchester has been very different to Marriott's. It, too, offers broadband connectivity to each room and an additional in-room system offering Microsoft Office business software and videoconferencing. But the Dorchester makes a point of managing all the IT itself and employs "e-butlers" who ensure guests can make the most of the technology. The idea is to rid guests of any frustration they may have matching up the array of technical standards they bring from around the world.
Ed Bayley, managing director of Kingston Smith Consultants, likes the approach of the Dorchester. However, he points out that such hands-on support might not be economically viable for larger chains or those operating in a different sector of the market.
"The Dorchester is aiming at the top end of the market," he says. "Very senior executives are less likely to know how to use technology themselves. Middle management people are better able to use the technology."
Whatever technology you install to entice business travellers, it should be quick and easy to use, Bayley says. "Half measures can be really dangerous. Some systems have a lot of technical barriers in themselves, and guests get a worse view of the hotel if it is poorly done."
Ed Bayley, managing director of Kingston Smith Consultants, who advises the hospitality industry on IT investment, offers these tips:
- Broadband (ADSL) connectivity to hotel rooms is attractive to business customers. Downloading e-mail has become a habitual act and should therefore be as easy and quick as possible to do.
- Hotels should be more cautious about technologies such as wireless hot spots. They could be superseded by mobile phone technologies such as 3G wireless broadband and the GPRS "2.5G" system, so hotels should ensure the demand is there before investing in their own wireless networks.
- Getting the receptionist to ask a couple of focused questions about technology requirements on guests' departure is a simple way to do this.
Marriott case study
The Marriott hotel chain, franchised by Whitbread in the UK, has been providing wireless internet access in hotel foyers and meeting areas, as well as broadband access in rooms, for more than 18 months, supported by technology company STSN. Customers are charged a flat rate of £15 for 24 hours' broadband internet access, £4.95 for the first 15 minutes of wireless internet access and 30p a minute thereafter, paid either on a charge card or credit card. But Marriott does not see the service particularly as a revenue generator; more as a means of retaining customer loyalty and improving its occupancy rates.
The Marriott Conference Solution provides high-speed internet access and internet kiosks, as well as more sophisticated services such as webcasting and videoconferencing, in 45 locations around the UK. There is additional support, such as mini offices and equipped meeting rooms for hosts or senior managers. The fee for these augmented conference services will be negotiated along with other services such as catering and sold as part of the whole package.
The chain plans to roll out wireless hot spots and broadband in-room internet access through all its 69 hotels within the next 12-18 months. Marriott UK's Mark Kemp says: "From the blue-chip companies and early adopters, particularly in the IT sector, they see it as absolutely vital, and there is almost a frustration if a hotel is unable to provide these services."
Dorchester case study
Last year London's Dorchester hotel launched a package of services for business guests and introduced an in-house team of "e-butlers" to support it. "Our approach is quite simple: if we provide the technology in the room, then we are a technology provider," says Luke Mellors, head of IT at the Dorchester. "If we are going to get into the game of offering technology, then we have to have the courage to take ownership. They are our guests, not guests of technology or service suppliers."
The Dorchester's business guests come from around the world with an array of different technology standards in their luggage. With its team of e-butlers the hotel will help guests connect their own technology to the hotel's infrastructure and help connect to corporate networks.
Each room also contains a Pentium 4 computer system that can be accessed using the TV and a wireless keyboard, providing common business software such as Microsoft Word, Powerpoint and Excel. Guests in some suits can plug laptops into the hotel system, allowing them to print documents and use the 42in plasma display, an attractive option for senior business presentations. The hotel has been upgraded with fibre optics to support the new system.