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Forget the Pillow Chocolate and Stick to the Fax


In the mid-1960s, a move by the Century Plaza Hotel to put electric blankets in every room captured the country's space-age fervor for technology.

Suffice to say, few guests ever turned on their electric blankets.

Thirty years later, the Century Plaza and other hotels are searching for ways to wow guests, particularly business travelers, with a new batch of cutting-edge gadgets and gizmos.

Of course, today the hope is that business travelers--hotels' most frequent guests--will find the latest offerings more practical.

And what many business travelers are telling hotel chains is that in-room office amenities are more important than a well-stocked mini-bar.

"Forget all of the intrusive service. I don't need a valet knocking on my door to see if I need ice, or a maid intruding to turn down the bed," says Matt Hamabata, who travels as much as half the year as director of the global business program at the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara. "What I need is what few hotels provide: a good lamp, a data port for my modem and a desktop fax machine."

After hearing enough complaints from business travelers weary of climbing under beds in search of phone lines and pushing desks out of dark corners. Some hotels seem to be getting the message.

Ninety of the 360 rooms at the La Jolla Marriott--dubbed "Rooms that Work"--come equipped with a workstation, halogen desk light, ergonomically designed desk chair and a data port for a computer modem. The rooms are priced in the same $134-to-$154 range as other deluxe standard rooms.

But not every hotel is convinced that turning hotel rooms into offices is what business travelers want. Chains such as Doubletree, which believes its business guests don't want to work and sleep in the same place, provide separate workrooms.

The Hotel Nikko at Beverly Hills takes a hybrid approach: It now offers two-room suites--one room a plush miniature office, the other a first-class hotel bedroom. But at $600 a night and up, these aren't practical for everyone.

The Red Lion Hotel in Costa Mesa is more typical, finding that a business center with a computer, printer, fax, typing service and copier is adequate. Its standard corporate-rate single room runs $114.

At $2,000 a night, the CyberSuite at the Century Plaza Hotel and Tower--its official unveiling is next week()--may be the ultimate high-tech hotel experience.

In the foyer of the lavishly appointed suite, Jim Petrus, a managing director, recently demonstrated the Century City hotel's newest service, a "butler in a box."

"Alexander, party time!" Petrus shouts.

"Immediately," answers the British-accented electronic butler.

Suddenly, sheer and blackout curtains part, lights brighten and Bachman Turner Overdrive wails from the Bang and Olufsen CD player.

Petrus looks pleased. He proceeds to demonstrate the 21st-century butler's four other settings: "good morning," "business," "romance" and "goodnight." This state-of-the-art, voice-activated butler doesn't press slacks: Its service consists of adjusting the drapes, lights, temperature and music--and it can fill the bathtub.

"You could fill the tub to a predetermined temperature by calling from your cell phone while you're still at the pool," Petrus says.

Among the suite's other high-tech features is a miniature security camera hidden in the corridor. Visitors can be watched on a small screen in the bathroom or any of the room's other television sets. Petrus points out some of the suite's other gear: a cellular phone, data ports, motion lights--"so you don't have to hunt for the switch in the dark," says Petrus.

Next, Petrus picks up a lemon-size gyromouse, which he uses to turn on a second TV that simultaneously broadcasts images from a dozen different programs. Suddenly, the suite has the feel of a Circuit City showroom.

"Out-of-town guests unfamiliar with L.A.'s stations can use this feature instead of having to switch from channel to channel," explains Frank Wagner, one of the suite's creators.

Next to a third television is a virtual-reality headset and a collection of games, including Doom, Dark Forces and Mech Warrior II.

And for the business traveler who actually needs to work, the TV set in the living room doubles as a computer, providing access to the Internet and the possibility of conducting real-time, albeit fuzzy, communication with other subscribers to VDOLive, a video-conferencing service.


However, a recent survey of hospitality industry leaders cautions that there are limits to how much automation hotel guests will accept.

"You can't take the 'host' out of hospitality," and "human beings are still the key to delivering high-quality service," summed up the attitudes of nearly 90% of the survey's 500 respondents, says Roger Cline, worldwide director of hospitality consulting services for Arthur Andersen, which conducted the survey.

Another key, says Petrus, is keeping the new technology "goof-proof."

Just ask Hamabata, the Fielding Institute academic. He says he passes on hotel rooms with overstuffed chairs, frilly curtains and throw pillows, preferring those with a straight-back chair, desk lamp and fax machine.

"The Peninsula Hotel may be more elegant, but the Sheraton Hong Kong has a better desk," says Hamabata, who typically spends between $160 and $225 for a U.S. hotel room and about $300 a night for one in Hong Kong or Tokyo.

When a hotel room gets too gadget-happy, says Hamabata, it's annoying. During a recent stay at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, he had to call for a valet to teach him how to operate the CD/laser disc/television entertainment system, when all he wanted was to catch the news on CNN.

So when he awoke the following morning only to be baffled by yet another gizmo, Hamabata lost his patience.

"I just ripped open the curtains because I gave up hunting for the electronic control."

Gali Kronenberg is a regular contributor to The Times.

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