Your WiFi is more than just a way for your guests to binge on boxsets – you can use the data from what they do in your hotel to plan marketing, send personal greetings and offer discounts. Just make sure your system is up to the task. Elly Earls looks at the latest in in-room WiFi.
When guests visit a hotel they expect to be able to carry on their digital lives just as they do at home – whether that's responding to work emails, making video calls, posting to social media or streaming the latest series they're catching up on Netflix. And if their demands aren't met, they won't be coming back.
"It has been known for guests to check out if the WiFi is poor or doesn't work," says BT WiFi account manager Matt Dormer. "It has become a utility – it must be free, fast and everywhere. Guests expect a hotel to have an experience at least on a par with what they have at home if not superior.
"If the WiFi is poor, they won't return, they will leave bad reviews and all of this means less custom and reduced revenue. Maintaining a high quality and high experience service is the same for WiFi as it is for food in the restaurant or service at the front desk."
The three rules of WiFi
So what does that actually involve? According to Dormer, there are three factors that contribute to great WiFi in a hotel. First, it's coverage – making sure the signal covers all the areas that guests occupy. Second, it's density of coverage, which is making sure that in busy areas of the hotel, like the F&B areas, everyone who wants to can get online. Finally, it's employing the latest technology. Right now, that's the new WiFi 6 standard, which has greater capability for streaming and video call experiences.
The challenge is that technology moves fast, and while many hotels may have invested in good WiFi a few years ago, demand has now moved on. As Dormer explains: "Every five years or so the technology changes, and with the advent of WiFi 6, we are at one of those inflection points.
"Some hotels are now looking at investing in that technology, enabling them to be ahead of the game. At present there may only be a handful of devices that can take advantage of WiFi 6, as it requires device manufacturers to adopt it as well as infrastructure providers, but within a year it will be the standard for all new devices.
"Hotels that are upgrading now are making sure they are at the forefront and investing in the latest technologies and infrastructure to make sure they have best-in-class WiFi in the coming years."
Of course, the level of investment and complexity will vary enormously depending on the size of the hotel operation, as Tom Worley,
head of WiFi at Virgin Media Business, explains: "Larger hotels will need a bespoke service with plenty of bandwidth and enough WiFi equipment to ensure guests have access to a consistent signal and a fast, reliable service. Large hotels also need to consider setting up dedicated networks for staff, conference or event spaces, and for essential services like payment machines and check-in kiosks," he says.
"Small guesthouses won't need such a sophisticated set-up as it's likely to be used just by guests, but they should give thought to who manages the network and keeps it secure."
How to avoid data breaches
Apart from pushing guests elsewhere, a substandard WiFi network can put both guest and hotel data at risk. "Unsecure networks can be used to intercept data coming to and from the internet – be that important emails, credit card information and even security credentials – and be used to distribute malware," Worley says.
Most WiFi solutions have a core firewall to prevent external attacks and WiFi isolation, which means each device can only see and connect to the web and not another device on the same network.
It's also important, according to Worley, to have a clear separation between private/corporate traffic and public/guest network traffic. "If a hotel is still charging for WiFi, all payment portals must be PCI DSS [a security standard for organisations that handle credit cards] compliant to ensure customers' payment details are secure," he adds.
Although according to Patrick Jones, general manager of Tewkesbury Park in Gloucestershire, this really shouldn't be an issue. "It makes me smile when other operators seem to offer a basic internet connection for free but a better one that is chargeable," he says. "That's like saying cold water is included in your rate but hot water's extra. It shows they don't really understand how essential it is for us all to interact with the internet."
Patrick Clover is the founder and chief executive of Stampede, which helps operators turn their guest WiFi into a marketing platform. He says operators must also have a system that is compliant with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). "Guests should be given the choice of sharing their data; it shouldn't be a requirement of accessing the WiFi," he stresses. "This is against GDPR regulations, since you shouldn't offer a free service in exchange for data in this manner. Many do, of course, and lots of hotels still put their passwords on a blackboard or out in plain sight."
He advises hotels that don't know where to start with security to outsource the problem. "A captive portal provider with a cloud-based system can provide another layer of data security behind the scenes, without the hotel lifting a finger."
The worst-case scenario is a data breach – and all the issues that come with it. "If customer details or payment data is lost, hotels can expect a large fine from the Information Commissioner's Office and a lot of negative headlines," Clover says. "This reputational damage can last years and cost even more than the initial data breach in terms of lost business. Other organisations in the travel industry have already been stung by data breaches, but there's not been much of a wake-up call for hoteliers – yet."
Creating a personal experience
The benefits of good WiFi go beyond meeting guest demand and avoiding data-related disasters. Like any good infrastructure, it can also be an enabler to staff efficiencies, thanks to improved communications and information sharing. At Tewkesbury, Park, the property's paging system makes use of the WiFi. "There's barely an occasion in a hotel when something has gone wrong and the solution can't be attributed to better communication," says Jones.
"However, the flipside is that the more you hang off a WiFi network, the more dangerous it is for your business if the WiFi goes down. You can immediately lose large parts of your business and sometimes bringing it all back up means real expertise."
The collection of data is also a fantastic opportunity for hotels, although Hospa chief executive Jane Pendlebury says it will be the larger groups or resorts that reap the rewards more quickly.
"The ability to identify dwell time in restaurants or at resorts can give real-time feedback on demands, peak periods and even measure queues and their movement through a resort," she explains. "Location services can be used to direct guests to their room and an outlet and, if used with complementary technologies, deliver personalised services."
Callum Short, founder of WiFi marketing platform Beambox, agrees. "WiFi data capture not only provides insights into who is in the hotel, but it also knows when they are visiting, how frequently, and when they leave. This enables the hotel to engage with their guests in a highly personal way at exactly the right time."
Some Beambox clients use this functionality to send welcome packs via email within an hour of arrival, leaving emails when the guest has left and birthday invites to guests a week before their birthday.
BT WiFi's insight service also allows hotels to collect data responsibly and use it in many different ways. Dormer suggests: "As an example, you see that someone is regularly using the WiFi in the restaurant area, then there's nothing for three months, you can set the system to automatically send an email to that person offering them a discount at their next meal or stay at the hotel.
"You might see that someone visits the coffee area every week between 10am and midday. You can see they are male, mid-40s – potentially they are holding a regular meeting. Why not push a notification to them that says, ‘Have you thought of hiring our meeting rooms and you'll get a discount on your first booking?'
"Most guests now have a digital journey with a hotel as well the physical one, starting with the booking process and ending with the checkout and booking onward travel. Technology smooths the whole process."
When to upgrade
Because the rate of development of personal WiFi-enabled devices is much greater than the rate at which the technical infrastructure in hotels is advancing, Pendlebury says that hotels should replace their system with the latest technology when upgrading and plan to refresh on a three- to five-year cycle.
As the number of devices we carry with us grows, it's the density of the WiFi signal that's going to be one of the most important things to look at. "To mitigate this and improve connectivity, most new hotel WiFi installations are in-room, so the access point is in the actual bedroom," Pendlebury says.
Investing in an upgrade is time-consuming and disruptive, which is why it's important to work with installation teams who have done it many times over. Generally, and this depends on size and building type, Dormer would allow between four to eight weeks for an installation, with a planning period before that.
He advises operators to check in regularly with their staff so they know when to upgrade. "When poor WiFi is in the top-three complaints, it's probably too late," he says. "Seeing the early signs is key to a timely upgrade and staff will be the most important here, as they will be able to tell you the guest feedback and if there are dead spots where the WiFi doesn't reach."
Connectivity with a competitive edge at Tewkesbury Park
Tewkesbury Park is a Georgian manor house hotel in the Cotswolds. General manager Patrick Jones has always considered WiFi connectivity to be a utility and not a chargeable service.
"The rule of thumb is that guests shouldn't come away from your hotel thinking it's inferior to what they'd get at home," he says.
Tewkesbury's system, which was installed two years ago, is a Ruckus System with a fibre connection of 200Mbps over a 1GB bearer bandwidth. "It does give us a competitive edge in the marketplace, but the reality is that it shouldn't," Jones says. "The investment in infrastructure is not cheap and to get it right you need to invest in quality kit."
The hotel makes use of data that shows how the WiFi is used so that the connection, speed and bandwidth are suitable. However, the hotel feels strongly that the collection of names and email addresses is not necessary. "We think that our business should stand on its own two feet based on the quality and service it provides and this will dictate our repeat business," Jones says.
"Collecting personal marketing data, usually through WiFi providers, is of no interest to us here. If we want to communicate with our guests, we know them and their details anyway from other sources."
His advice for other operators is to make sure you know your business. "If you're a hotelier and you don't know if your WiFi is a problem, you've probably not got your finger on the pulse," he advises. "However, getting the design of the infrastructure right is important and you need to take time to learn how it all will work and the capabilities to grow in the future. You need experts to assist."
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