Hospitality technology trends show hotels rebounding and modernizing

Bouncing back from a drop in domestic tourism, the lodging industry is investing in technology for better efficiency and modern guest amenities.

The lodging industry, rebounding with a post-recession uptick in travel, is eyeing wireless Internet access, telecommunications and cloud-based back-office systems, among other areas.

Some channel executives express caution with respect to the depth of the industry's demand, but generally have seen a higher level of IT interest. Hotels' prospects have brightened considerably since the height of the economic downturn. Domestic trips by U.S. residents have risen steadily since 2009, when the lodging industry experienced a 7.6% drop in revenue, according to IBISWorld's Hotels & Motels in the US: Market Research Report.

"The hotels and motels industry is undergoing a recovery following declines sustained during the recession," according to IBISWorld's report, published in February.

"It certainly has picked up," said Jason Ulm, vice president of sales at Appia Communications Inc., a managed communications and network services provider based in Traverse City, Mich. "We have seen more hotel opportunities in the last year."

Barrett Powell, national sales manager at Clearview Networks, a voice and data solutions provider based in Raleigh, N.C., said his company is expanding. Clearview Networks targets hospitality, among other markets.

"We just opened up an entirely new [sales] territory because of demand, and we have brought on a number of new people," he said.

Hotspots

Expanding and improving Wi-Fi access is one item on the hotel technology to-do list, driven by competitive necessity. Both business and leisure travelers identified free Wi-Fi as the top hotel-selection factor, according to Hotels.com's 2013 Global Hotel Amenities Survey. A dodgy Wi-Fi service can impact bookings. Thirty-six percent of business travelers said that a poor Wi-Fi capability at a hotel would influence whether they would stay at that hotel again, according to an iPass Inc. survey.

Hotels are trying to figure out what is the best mix. There was a time when hotels were charging for Wi-Fi, but that has kind of gone the way of the minibar.

Barrett Powell, national sales manager, Clearview Networks

"Wi-Fi Internet access is the No. 1 amenity right now, so there is a big ... push to get that right," Powell said. "Hotels are trying to keep up with what's needed to compete today."

Some hotels, for example, are looking to boost their Wi-Fi capacity, migrating from services built on the 2.4 gigahertz band to 5 GHz. They are also looking into establishing tiered services: free and fee-based.

"Hotels are trying to figure out what is the best mix," Powell said. "There was a time when hotels were charging for Wi-Fi, but that has kind of gone the way of the minibar."

Marriott International Inc., Powell said, was the first of the larger players to introduce tiered bandwidth, in which all guests have free access to basic bandwidth, and visitors willing to pay a fee can obtain faster Internet speeds.

Appia's Ulm also cited tiered bandwidth as one of the growing hospitality technology trends. He said hotel guests who are traveling for work find it difficult to conduct business from their rooms on a shared connection with limited upload and download speeds.

"The Monday-through-Friday guys are going to require some high-speed bandwidth and dedicated quality," he noted.

But while the largest hotel chains move to improve Wi-Fi, smaller or older properties may lack any wireless service whatsoever. Powell said he sees an opportunity here to use emerging solutions, such as Ethernet-over-Coax products, to bring Wi-Fi to more hotel environments.

Wi-Fi isn't the only hotel communications concern. Ulm noted that a number of hotels are upgrading their telecom infrastructure, suggesting that on-premises private branch exchanges (PBXes) are entering a replacement cycle. He said hotels may look to replace aging phone systems or may want to integrate their telecom and property management systems, but find their older PBXes don't permit that.

When it's time to upgrade, hotels may pursue Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunking, which Ulm said lets hotels use their existing Internet connection for phone calls. The hosted-PBX approach offloads responsibility for managing the telephone system to a service provider.

Many hotels "are going to an outsourced model or cloud-based model to lower the cost of maintenance and support," Ulm noted.

Saving money on phone services, especially at a time when cell phone-equipped travelers don't heavily use hotel phones, can free up money to spend on other services.

"What we have seen is a movement of trying to lower the cost of those services," Ulm said, noting that the dollars saved may be spent on services such as Internet access and video conferencing.

Cloud, mobile POS demand

Hotels are considering the cloud for data, as well as for voice applications, Ulm noted. That cloud interest also extends to the adoption of hosted desktops -- as opposed to traditional, fully loaded PCs -- for hotel managers.

"I see more and more organizations -- big, medium and small -- moving toward cloud-based services," Ulm said.

Jon Inge, an independent hotel systems consultant based in Edmonds, Wash., also referred to cloud-based systems as among the growing hospitality technology trends, noting that remotely hosted and remotely accessed systems have been popular for years. He said cloud-based or remotely hosted applications are more prevalent in hotel back offices -- for accounting, procurement and engineering, for instance.

Inge said hotels have been hesitant to commit their front-office systems -- applications for checking guests in and out -- to the cloud. He said that's because those systems are more time-critical than back-office applications and therefore more sensitive to a lost network connection. He said hotels can work around that issue, putting redundant connections in place or storing critical data on an on-premises computer.

Nevertheless, questions of reliability have created a psychological barrier to cloud adoption, although the barrier is lessening, Inge said.

Hotels, meanwhile, are also exploring mobile point-of-sale (POS) on tablet computers. Inge said hotel and resort personnel have been using handheld POS devices for years at pools, beaches and outdoor events to process transactions. But tablets offer the benefit of a larger display and are not as heavy as the earlier handhelds.

Tablets present a couple of challenges, however, such as Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance.

"Not [too] many of them have PCI-compliant payment systems built in," Inge said.

Credit card readers from such vendors as Square Inc. may be plugged into a tablet, but Inge said such plug-ins don't interface with a hotel's property management system. Another consideration is the need to print a bill for a customer who wants one.

Inge said he believes tablets could become popular as mobile POS devices if those issues are resolved.

"I really see them taking off," he said. 

This was first published in April 2014

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