How Suite IT Is: How Hotels Connect to the Internet to Make It Easier to Work on the Road

Everyone is preaching about how the Internet is changing everything. In the office, the Internet is becoming even more pervasive. E-mail has replaced the telephone call as your preferred means of communication. You're online, researching clients and competitors, and participating in "Webinars." Now, InRoom Connect helps business travelers hit the road without having to "schlep" along their laptops.

So everyone, from Al Gore and Bill Gates to your grandmother and 8-year-old nephew, is preaching about how the Internet is changing everything. You’re being bombarded with entertaining ads from "fill-in-the-blank-dotcom" every time you turn on your TV. You’re ordering more books from Amazon.com than you’ll ever read. You’re bidding on stuff on eBay that you wouldn’t buy at a neighbor’s yard sale. And that’s just the business-to-consumer component.

In the office, the Internet is becoming even more pervasive. E-mail has replaced the telephone call as your preferred means of communication, you’re online researching clients and competitors, participating in online training sessions, conducting Web-based presentations, and buying everything from gas turbine generators to pencil leads (that’s if you actually still write things on paper) through an industrial e-commerce site. You’re fully connected. You’re virtual. Until, unfortunately, you head out on the road.

Although it’s been predicted that advances in videoconferencing would eventually lessen the need for business travel, it hasn’t happened yet, and it’s unlikely to happen anytime in the near future. In fact, according to the 1999 Survey of Business Travelers sponsored by OAG and conducted by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA), business travel has actually increased 14 percent over the past five years, no doubt influenced by the increasing globalization of the economy, the incredible opportunities in emerging markets and the fact that heightened competition has increased the need for face-to-face interaction. However, while more people are using the Internet in their homes and offices and more people are traveling on business, these two trends have yet to converge. Fortunately, all of that is beginning to change out of simple necessity.

While Marshall McLuhan, the mass media expert, is perhaps best known for his famous quote, "The medium is the message," he also said, "Our age of anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools." Once we’ve embraced a new way of doing something, it’s virtually impossible to go back to the old way. After all, as Dan Quayle said: "We don’t want to go back to tomorrow, we want to go forward." Huh? How about this – in the office, when the copier breaks, you don’t see someone breaking out their stash of carbon paper. However, business travelers, now reliant on the Internet for e-mail for communicating and conducting business, have little access to this precious resource while on the road.

To alleviate this problem, travelers have traditionally been equipped with laptop computers, sort of a "bring the mountain to Mohammed" solution. Unfortunately, while this solves the computing need, it’s not a complete solution for businesspeople, spoiled by the ease of access and broadband connectivity that they’re used to in their offices.

One could imagine McLuhan making his comment while spending hours struggling to configure his laptop and download his e-mail from a remote server via a hotel’s antiquated analog phone system. In fact, hoteliers, faced with the prospect of their legacy PBX systems crashing under the stress of modern data traffic, aren’t happy with the current situation either.

The solution, in terms of hotel infrastructure and guest service, has been for hotels to offer high-speed Internet access. And the change is happening quickly. A recent story in Lodging Magazine predicted that, "By the year 2002, 50 percent of all hotels will be wired." However, as is often the case regarding emerging market needs, a number of competing technological solutions, including TV-based cable modem systems, Ethernet jacks and in-room PC systems, are currently in use, with a dominant market leader expected to emerge within the next two-to-three years.

Although Ethernet jacks have taken the early lead due to their low cost of installation and simplistic approach, new trends in network computing and travel in general may make them obsolete before they cross the chasm. Ethernet jacks, of course, require the traveler to carry his own hardware and while the vast majority of business travelers do in fact carry laptops, they’re virtually (no pun intended) united in their distain for the process. After all, laptops are heavy. It’s not uncommon for a laptop bag loaded with its associated peripherals to add another 30 pounds to your load. And with airlines getting more and more strict about carry-on bags everyday, business travelers are as interested in lightening their load as they are in staying connected.

Even if your laptop does make it with you to your destination (more than 208,000 portable computers were stolen last year – up from 150,000 the year before, according to statistics from a computer insurance company, you’re still challenged with the task of making sure that you have the proper configuration to get online. With all of these challenges, it’s no wonder that mobile laptop computing has become somewhat of a cottage industry, spawning Web sites like www.roadnews.com and www.laptoptravel.com dedicated to helping travelers navigate their way to the Web.

Fortunately, here comes the Internet to the rescue. Just as e-business initiatives are changing the way we conduct a variety of business tasks, a number of industry leaders expect the Internet to vastly alter business computing in general. Larry Ellison of Oracle, for example, has described the next wave of business computing as "Internet Computing" and ASPs are quickly emerging as one of the fastest growing segments of the technology market. ASPs, or Application Service Providers, allow businesses to outsource their software needs by downloading their software from the Net, as opposed to running it off their own PCs or LAN. In an era where businesses are focusing on core competencies (what they do best) and are outsourcing or partnering for the rest, ASPs are extremely attractive since they allow them to "pay as they go," as opposed to purchasing software up front. Recognizing the trend, even the market leader in business software, Microsoft, announced last November the introduction of Microsoft Office Online, a new offering of its flagship Office product over the Internet for a monthly fee.

So if we’re moving to a "pay-per-use" model for software, where you always have the newest state-of-the-art version whenever you want it, can hardware be far behind? The answer is no. In the new networked world, one can expect personal computing stations to become almost as ubiquitous as pay phones. "The logical extension of ASPs is to place Internet-ready appliances in places where it’s most convenient for the user," says Barbara Babcock, President of e-Business Services at Unisys. The first logical location is in the hospitality market, and Babcock’s group is working to establish a networked PC infrastructure in hotel rooms worldwide. This system will offer travelers the ability to use the Web for entertainment and communication, whether or not they plug in their laptops for high-speed connectivity, or leave them at home altogether. "In the simplest terms, e-business is about using the Internet to expand performance and ease processes," notes Larry Mays, Director of New Stuff, the new business incubator unit of Unisys’ Electronic Business group. "Just as the ASP model is using the Internet to make it easy and affordable to access the latest version of the software you need exactly when you need it, business travelers can enjoy the same benefits and flexibility. Instead of applications, however, you provide hardware and connectivity for the traveler when they need it and where they need it," adds Mays. As revolutionary as it seems, having the PC where you are instead of you bringing the PC to where you will be is akin to "bringing Mohammed to the mountain" – a far more logical approach.

To accomplish this task, Unisys has created their InRoom Connect e-@ction Solution, a personal computer-based system complete with a full-sized keyboard and flat-panel monitor, as well as a broadband Internet connection. The system was developed, in part, in response to extensive market research which showed that, while business travelers were dependent on their laptops for productivity and communications, almost all said they would "love" to find an alternative to the inconvenience and burden of "schlepping" their computer around. In fact, Opinion Research Corporation found that 59 percent of business travelers that carry a laptop would prefer a personal computer with high-speed Internet access in their room.

While Mays acknowledges the benefits associated with offering an alternative to lugging a laptop, he’s quick to point out that it’s not the only focus of his product. "The PC is a critical component to a solution like InRoom Connect, since it extends the benefits of the Internet to all guests in a hotel, whether they’ve arrived with a laptop or not," he says. "But more important than the simple convenience issue, InRoom Connect’s client-server architecture allows the hotelier to greatly enhance their relationships with their customers through personalized greetings and preloaded preferences."

For the hotel guest, InRoom Connect offers a wealth of in-room services and allows the traveler to be more efficient, productive and comfortable on the road. To satisfy the thirst for Web access, InRoom Connect includes a broadband connection to the Internet at speeds comparable to those found in even the most technologically advanced offices. For travelers that generally receive 20 to 30 e-mails per day, the ability to log on to check e-mail alone can save hours of lost time when they return to the office. For travelers looking for local restaurants or attractions to entertain clients, InRoom Connect serves as a virtual concierge, providing key information on great local bistros, nightclubs, theatres and more. And since all work and no play makes for a very miserable business traveler, InRoom Connect also includes games, movies and even a virtual jukebox that can allow a guest to play favorite music through speakers that rival the most sophisticated sound systems.

It’s those types of personal services that elevate the value of InRoom Connect, not only to the guest, but to the hotel as well. Like credit card companies, airlines and casinos, hotels recognize that cultivating their customer relationships is a key to developing a competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace, and they’re eager to use these new technologies to enhance their communications and to cultivate brand loyalty. To meet this need, InRoom Connect also offers a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) module that allows the hotel to capture key data on the preferences of their frequent guests so that they can better meet their needs. And by integrating this data with the actual InRoom Connect system, hotels can truly "wow" their most valuable customers. For example, imagine checking into a hotel that you visit regularly and entering your room to the sounds of your favorite classical music. It’s not as futuristic as it sounds. If the hotel has InRoom Connect, the Front Desk agent can instantly recognize you as a frequent guest, reward you for your loyalty by upgrading you to a room with an InRoom Connect PC and remotely activate the system to preload your personal preferences.

In addition to InRoom Connect, some small start-ups have placed computers in some small hotels scattered around the country to attempt to answer this glaring need for improved in-room technology.

At present, Unisys is fast-tracking its international beta site at the Unisys International Management Centre, a popular Conference Center in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France that is owned by Unisys, but that serves primarily non-Unisys staff from around the world.

"The Internet is perhaps even more important in Europe than it is in the U.S.," says Peter Bidstrup, General Manager of the Unisys International Management Centre. "Because it’s so important to our guests, we absolutely need some sort of high-speed solution, particularly since we host so many e-business and technology-oriented conferences. Ethernet jacks didn’t seem to be a complete solution since they leave out the guest that doesn’t have a laptop and TV-based systems seemed far too awkward."

Other options for improved connectivity are arriving with the guest as a result of the recent introduction of an array of handheld wireless Internet access devices. The most popular device for wireless Web access thus far is the Palm VII PDA, which allows you to access the Internet and perform a variety of basic tasks, such as checking a stock quote, accessing e-mail or reviewing airline information. And a number of tech companies including Intel and Motorola are participating in the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a consortium that is developing technology standards for mobile Internet access devices.

While these advances are making it easy for travelers to stay connected, Bidstrup says that hotels need to think of more than just host connectivity. "You have to keep in mind that the hospitality market is about delivering comfort and convenience. Sure, laptops might get lighter and PDAs are performing more advanced tasks, such as basic Web surfing, but one of the things that I like best about the PC application is that it allows me to best replicate the home or office computing environment and to give my guests the comfort and familiarity of a full-sized screen and keyboard, rather than requiring them to squint at their Palm," says Bidstrup. Bidstrup’s points regarding usability are critical and it’s that level of comfort and familiarity that’s reversing the death knell that was being sounded for the PC just a few years ago. As Bill Gates noted in his keynote speech at COMDEX/Fall ’98, "PCs are going beyond the desktop and becoming personal companions, giving people vast new capabilities."

Although the competition is underway for high-speed, in-room Internet service between Ethernet jacks, cable modems and in-room PCs, one winner has already emerged – the business traveler. Anyone that has felt stranded without e-mail or unplugged their hotel room phone from the wall to plug in their laptop will benefit from this improved level of connectivity, regardless of how it’s delivered.

About the Author: Michael A. DiLeva is the Program Director for Electronic Business Hospitality practice at Unisys Corp. (Blue Bell, Pa.). He can be reached at michael.dileva@unisys.com.