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ON THE MOVE / CAROL SMITH

Executive Travel : The Future? Hotel Room as Interactive Control Center

October 06, 1994|CAROL SMITH | CAROL SMITH is a free-lance writer based in Pasadena

Business travelers are increasingly being exposed to a fast-growing group of interactive video technologies designed for the hotel room, all usable without any need for a laptop.

In recent years, hotel television sets have been used to speed up checkouts or deliver scheduled pay-per-view movies. On-demand movie systems, which offer a much larger selection of films whenever the guest wants one, have become increasingly available in the last year.

Now companies have begun to test a new group of services, such as pay-per-hour video games, printouts of faxes, local maps and restaurant coupons--all initiated from the room and accessed through the television set.

"Hotels are leading the way in this because we have a greater opportunity to test-market the technology," said Kirk Posmantur, vice president of the Washington-based American Hotel & Motel Assn. Also driving innovation is the financial success of pay-per-view movies in hotels and motels.

One of the newest services, for example, is delivering video games to guests.

LodgeNet Entertainment Corp., a South Dakota-based provider of pay-per-view and other in-room television systems, has a system called On Demand that allows guests to play "Super Nintendo"--even against people in other rooms--using a hand-held controller hooked to the television.

On Demand provides two-way, high-speed digital communications that allow the TV set to act as a remote computer terminal hooked to a large mainframe system, said Tim Flynn, chief executive of LodgeNet. "Anything you can do on a multimedia computer at home you can do through interactive video in a hotel," he said.

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Although the company is first using the system to deliver video games, it can also be used to deliver a host of different information services, such as interactive yellow pages, infomercials or specialized conference information on demand, Flynn said.

The company began testing the interactive games about a year ago and now has systems running in 40,000 rooms. It is adding from 3,000 to 5,000 rooms a month to its network, Flynn said.

"Business travelers don't use the video games as much as the younger market, but they use them far more than we thought they would," he said. It costs an average of $4.95 an hour to play video games, compared to the $7 to $9 for pay-per-view.

Other companies are using interactive video systems to introduce different services.

Comsat Video Enterprises in Maryland, for example, is rolling out a new interactive visitors guide called CityKey developed by US West. The interactive service is delivered through Comsat's On Command Video system, already in about 370,000 rooms. CityKey is now available in 12,000 rooms in Orlando and about 5,000 rooms in San Francisco, Comsat spokesman Paul Jacobson said. In addition, at the Santa Clara, Calif., Marriott, Comsat is testing an interactive yellow pages program called InfoTravel that was developed by Bell Atlantic Directory Services.

CityKey and InfoTravel are interactive video directories that feature information on local attractions, restaurants, shopping and other services that allow guests to plan their itineraries, Jacobson said. Within a few months, guests will also be able to print maps and coupons and make restaurant reservations using a centralized printer at the front desk.

Meanwhile, LodgeNet is experimenting with putting printers directly in guest rooms at the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans, Flynn said. The printers not only allow guests to print maps and coupons, they also let them print their room bills and check out without ever going to the front desk.

Comsat's Jacobson said his firm is using a printer at the front desk because if guests want to print maps or coupons from their room, it usually means they are on their way out and can swing by the front desk to pick them up.

Many hotels now allow guests to view their bills on their television screens, but if you are a business traveler who needs to produce a receipt for your expense report, you still have to go to the front desk for a copy of the bill, Flynn said. Printing the bill in the room saves that extra step.

The interactive video industry is still so new that providers are trying to find out what services guests want most, Flynn said. In the future, for example, guests will be able to browse through a video mall and do a little cyber-shopping by ordering theater tickets or catalogue merchandise from their rooms. Other applications might include specialized training programs for guests attending conferences.

The challenge for in-room entertainment providers will be to deliver these new interactive capabilities through systems already in place. The three main providers of in-room entertainment systems--LodgeNet, Spectradyne Inc. and Comsat--have millions of dollars invested in such systems, Flynn said.

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While applications of interactive video in theory are limited only by the imagination, the application that has proven most popular so far is the on-demand movie, Jacobson said. Even five years ago, if you wanted to watch a movie in the room, you had to choose from only a handful, and you watch them at scheduled times.

All that changed with the advent of on-demand movies about three years ago. Now, in rooms with interactive capability, you can choose from a menu of hundreds of movies and watch them whenever you want.

Between 300,000 and 400,000 guest rooms now offer on-demand movies. For hotels that offer the service, it has increased room revenue by about 35%, Flynn said.

With on-demand movies blazing the way, advertisers are just beginning to recognize the power of merchandising to the hotel guest marketplace through interactive television, he said. For every 100,000 rooms with an interactive video system, advertisers could potentially reach 14 million different consumers.

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