Most users now expect basic Wi-Fi to be free, but setting up and maintaining a high-data service isn't easy. Ross Bentley looks at how to satisfy guests' appetite for bandwidth and make money, too
It comes as little surprise that recent research from Wi-Fi provider iPass found the two issues that irk business travellers the most when they stay in a hotel are costly Wi-Fi user fees and patchy availability.
These two problem areas have been the bugbears of Wi-Fi users for years now.
But while customers expect basic Wi-Fi to be free, setting up and maintaining this service in the face of higher and higher data download requirements costs operators money. One interesting approach to offsetting these costs is being offered by a company called Purple Wifi. Operators using Purple's service can use a customised landing page that users access via their Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account. On the landing page, hoteliers or restaurant managers can promote special offers, while users are asked to "Like" or "Follow" the venue before they sign off.
This online activity around a brand is valuable from a marketing point of view. Chief executive Gavin Wheeldon estimates that each "Like" on a Facebook page is worth the equivalent of £100 of online marketing spend.
"Operators don't have to get too many 'Likes' before they have achieved return on investment on their Wi-Fi," he says.
A solution to the second problem - patchy availability - is to ensure a thorough professional survey of your property is carried out, says Ian Callens, a consultant at Icomm Technologies. This is not just important in order to avoid customer frustration, but increasingly staff use Wi-Fi to take menu orders and payments via hand-held devices.
According to Callens, there are many environmental variables that can affect the availability of a Wi-Fi service, from the thicknesses of internal walls to the influence of nearby broadcasting masts. And these factors will determine where and how many Wi-Fi access points are installed.
Other considerations include creating a seamless service as users move between access points and boosting the service for a new generation of devices, such as iPads, which tend to have weaker antennae than traditional laptops.
Managed service With Wi-Fi now being seen as essential by travellers, many operators are adopting a managed service where specialist providers take on the provision of the Wi-Fi and the technical support.
"Some hospitality operators are uncomfortable with too much technology and just want to stick with what they know," says Oliver Markham at WiFi Spark, which offers solutions ranging from a "hotspot in a box" for small businesses such as bars and coffee shops through to highly scalable solutions for large conference centres.
In addition to internet access control, WiFi Spark also enables operators to offer key features such as managed content, tiered charging and operation with a wide range of other devices such as mobile phones and TV.
Maximise your network
â- When installing Wi-Fi, ensure you have carried out a thorough survey of the property so that coverage of the service is fit for purpose
â- Consider a managed Wi-Fi service that will manage the provision of the Wi-Fi and any technical support needs
â- Guests increasingly expect basic Wi-Fi access to be free, but through a tiered charging model you can charge users who download large amounts of data
â- Use the Wi-Fi landing page to promote offers and deals from your business
Opinion: Bandwidth requires a sliding scaleGraeme Powell, managing director, iBAHN EMEA
"iBAHN has identified that about 50% of the devices on its Wi-Fi networks in hotels are Apple devices. There have been two key knock-on effects of this: the rapid growth of data transfer, and the need to increase the Wi-Fi coverage.
"Our research shows the video-centric iPad makes the biggest demands on hotel Wi-Fi networks, and that around two-thirds of hotel guests now bring two or more devices with them. Metrics show the average amount of data transferred per session on the iBAHN network in Europe is now 370Mb. However, 5% of users transfer more than 1Gb per session. These users account for over 60% of total data transferred across the network.
"Also, many hotels have found that their Wi-Fi coverage is insufficient for hand-held devices, which have lower-strength antennae than laptops. This means many hotel owners are being asked to spend money to improve coverage and enable a service that many feel should be provided for free.
"The solution for hotels is dynamic bandwidth management, where the Wi-Fi service can be adjusted to user numbers and bandwidth needs. For example, the basic service could be offered free and provide an hour's access and 50Mb data transfer, sufficient for eâ'mails and basic web browsing and enough for over half of guests.
Guests with heavy data needs, such as large files for download or upload, would be covered by a choice of paid-for premium options. Hotels may also choose to offer free access to some or all premium services for certain types of guest, such as loyalty programme members.
"In this way, hotels can improve guest satisfaction and strengthen the 'return relationship' with their business and leisure customers."
Satellite connection Eutelsat and OneAcess launched a new service last month that could provide valuable internet back-up for hotels in areas with poor or no internet access.
It makes use of the KA-SAT satellite that is positioned above Europe. Essentially, each hotel installs a small transmitter/receiver to connect with the satellite and a router to provide Wi-Fi in its property.
The companies say this system delivers a DSL-like service for DSL-like prices and that businesses using the service pay for connection and not the amount of data sent.
Wi-Fi gets guest swinging The China Fleet Country Club in Saltash, Cornwall, uses Wi-Fi to enhance its golf offering.
On the driving range, rather than just practising their golf swing, guests can use their smartphones or iPads available free at the club to play 60 60 Golf.
Connected through the hotel's Wi-Fi system, the 60 60 Golf app lets players track their game, compete against one another, monitor progress and take part in competitions, which the club says makes the experience a lot more fun.
Radisson ramps up â¨its Wi-FiThe Radisson Blu and Park Inn by Radisson chains both underwent Wi-Fi upgrades last month. As part of its Experience Meetings initiative, all airport and conference hotels, and almost all of the Radisson Blu UK hotels, now offer significantly faster Wi-Fi, with 100Mb internet cable lines installed in the hotels. Meanwhile, in December 2012, Park Inn by Radisson launched free Wi-Fi for all guests across the group.
There are two options: basic and premium. Basic provides users with a free connection with a download speed of 512Kb/s - enough to check eâ'mails, browse websites and use social media sites. Premium is £5 for 24 hours and gives guests a download speed of at least 1Mb/s - the recommended option for anyone using Wi-Fi for movie downloads, video-conferencing, Skype and other web calls.
Tony Roma's goes social
Restaurant chain Tony Roma's is using Wi-Fi to encourage diners to stay longer and to enhance its social media marketing.
The restaurants in Glasgow and Kingston upon Thames have adopted Purple WiFi's portal, where users access the hotspot via their social media account and are then asked to "Like" or "Follow" the Tony Roma page.
According to manager Tony Levy, the easy access has led to an increase in the number of customers using the Wi-Fi service and the amount of time they are using it. The Purple portal has also been useful in providing information about the preferences of customers.
What's more, the company's Facebook and Twitter pages have been inundated with new entries.
Marston's connects customers and staff
Pub operator Marston's beefed up Wi-Fi services across its 2,000-plus UK venues earlier this year. The company wanted to improve its Wi-Fi to enhance customer experience and increase the efficiency of its operations. It has installed multiple access points from Ruckus Wireless in both indoor and outdoor areas of its properties.
Previously, Marston's had installed a single Wi-Fi access point in each pub, but recently the demand for Wi-Fi access has increased as more users, armed with more devices, try to access the network simultaneously. This raised concerns over capacity, coverage and performance.
As well as serving customers, the new Wi-Fi service supports electronic point-of-sale systems that staff access with tablet devices to provide a more flexible way to take orders, settle bills and provide a greater level of service.
Marston's telecoms operations manager Rob Derbyshire says: "The rise of Wi-Fi-enabled devices of all shapes and sizes means Wi-Fi is no longer simply nice to have but, rather, a strategic necessity."