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WiFi, iPod docks, LCD TV: Hotel guests want tech, get it

April 09, 2006|Kathy Chin Leong | Special to The Times

AFTER an invigorating lap swim, guests at the newly opened Four Seasons Silicon Valley Hotel will soon be able to flip-flop over to a poolside cabana to watch "Oprah" on a wall-mounted, 42-inch plasma TV and use the same screen to check Google's stock price on the hotel's wireless Internet network.

At the Peninsula New York, patrons can set alarm clocks or adjust temperature, lighting and TV volume controls by pressing keys on the electronic bedside control panel. If they want to sleep in, they can depress the panel's Do Not Disturb key that activates a light outside the door and silences the doorbell.

Hotel conveniences have come a long way in the last few years. Apple iPods and other forms of mobile media are changing lifestyles. And they're causing an electronic whirlwind in the hospitality industry as hotels scramble to unwrap the latest in-room innovations that match or surpass what consumers have at home.

Hotels such as the Peninsula Hotels chain are running research and development labs to determine how technology can enhance a guest's stay. At its incubator in the Aberdeen district of Hong Kong, a staff of 19 engineers and designers is trying to create the Peninsula's dream room of the future.

Keeping customers happy is why hotel technology managers must stay ahead of the game, says Doug Rice, executive director of Hotel Technologies Next Generation, a Chicago-based industry association of hotel information-technology professionals and vendors.

"Generation Y consumers are well-traveled, and they have lived the good life," Rice said. "This teen generation cannot even conceive of not having WiFi." Baby boomers are almost as dependent. They, too, are tethered to their Palms, BlackBerries and laptops. Chains, independent hotels, even bed and breakfasts have found they need to offer Internet access to compete.

The 50-year-old Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in the Santa Ynez Valley prides itself on operating "telephone- and television-free" rooms.

By day, visitors enjoy such Norman Rockwell-style pleasures as horseback riding, fly fishing and canoeing on this 10,000-acre cattle ranch. By night (or any time for that matter), cowpokes who can't kick the technology habit can whip out their laptops and check e-mail using the resort's WiFi network, which was installed in February.

"The newer guests have been demanding it," said Sherrie FitzGerald, director of sales and marketing. "We finally took the plunge. We had to listen to the concerns of our guests."

To maintain its relaxed, ranch-style feel, no laptops or cellphones are allowed in the dining room or the pool areas. Visitors also can rent cellphones here, but the management says it is trying to keep the technology low-key and subtle. "This is about as far as we will take it," FitzGerald said.

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Tech changes keep coming

TECH trends that are increasingly popular in today's hotels include high-speed wireless Internet that supports many guests simultaneously; all-in-one room-control systems; connectivity ports that enable guests to plug in many mobile devices; flat-screen TVs with TiVo-like features to rewind, record or pause shows or movies.

The Mandarin Oriental, New York, is spending $120,000 to upgrade two of its top-end suites even though the hotel opened just two years ago. "Our typical guest has come here 20 or 30 times," said information technology manager Eric Cruz. "They expect higher-caliber services each time."

At the conservative, historic Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., a May renovation of 144 rooms will maintain the turn-of-the-century feel. But ergonomically designed desks, custom furniture to hold LCD TVs and HP OfficeJet all-in-one printer/fax/scanners will be installed, says Greg Dauenhauer, the hotel's director of information technology.

Last year, the Las Vegas MGM Grand opened Skylofts -- 51 top-floor suites that cost up to $10,000 a night. The two-story lofts, up to 6,000 square feet, lure guests with 50-inch plasma TVs in fully equipped media rooms. Complimentary CDs, MP3 players and Bang & Olufsen stereo systems are part of the package.

Today's vacationers want comfort in their hotels and also expect support for their pocket-sized gadgets, experts say. "We are all about enabling guests to choose their own entertainment, access their own content so they can feel connected and productive," said Lou Paladeau, vice president of operations technology at Marriott Corp.

This year, Marriott is deploying a connectivity panel that lets guests plug in a host of devices as diverse as laptops and MP3 players. The connectivity panel has enough smarts to register each device and display each one graphically on a flat-panel TV.

In August, clients at the new Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong will be able to plug in their Apple Video iPod cables to a set-top box on the TV and watch podcasts, says Monika Nerger, Mandarin Oriental's vice president of technology for the Americas.

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