As more guests these days carry their business equipment with them, we look at how the role of the business centre within hotels is changing.
How have business centres changed?
Business centres used to be a vital part of any hotel's offering for corporate travellers. They would offer one or more computers, alongside telephones, fax machines, photocopiers, and printers.
These days you will still find business centres in many hotels, but they are being superseded by personal technologies such as laptop computers and mobile phones.
Are they still relevant today?
"The whole idea of going to a business centre to have access to a couple of PCs and to get onto the Internet when I have Internet access in my room is obviously a lot of nonsense now," says Hyacinth Nwana of hotel technology provider Quadriga. "The days of the business centre as we know it today are definitely numbered."
With most hotels that cater to business travellers providing broadband access in the rooms, and with many business travellers carrying laptop computers, business centres are definitely becoming less useful than they were before. Consequently, the large, well-equipped room with multiple PCs may not be as cost-effective for hotels these days.
But not everyone doing business will want to carry a laptop computer with them.
Finn Schultz, who manages IT for Rezidor SAS, which incorporates a variety of different hotel chains, says that business centres will still be useful for guests wanting to perform one-off alterations to documents.
These people travel increasingly with memory sticks or flash cards (identical to the ones you'll find powering some MP3 players or digital cameras), which will hold their documents. Consequently, he advises hoteliers to equip their business centres with readers to accept these media.
Fax machines are being used less, thanks to the advent of e-mail, but it still pays to have one available, either in a scaled-down business centre, or perhaps at reception.
How can I scale down my business centre?
Schultz believes that these days many hotels can make do with a PC and a desk in the corner of a lobby.
From his observations, PCs in business centres are used for between 15 and 18 minutes on average. Attaching a printer to the PC will take up minimal space, and enable people to reproduce documents. Nwana suggests using a shared printer accessible via the hotel's network.
What about security issues?
Should you decide to take this route, simply putting a retail-bought PC into a corner and hooking it up to a standard Internet connection could get you into trouble.
Guests will expect PCs to be secure, and will not want the information they entered during a session to be readable by others.
Companies such as Netpoint provide managed Internet kiosks for this purpose. Such kiosks provide everything in a single package.
The PC can be rented with a flat-screen monitor to save space, along with a colour inkjet printer, and an Internet connection provided as part of the service.
The PC can be accessed via a credit card reader that enables the hotel to charge at the point of use. An added benefit is that when the card is removed, the PC can be reset so that data from the previous person's session cannot be accessed. This prevents website passwords from being read, for example.
How else can I cater for business travelers?
Consider the in-room experience for business travellers. They will want somewhere comfortable to work, with a proper chair and a table with a broadband Internet socket, or wireless access in the room.
Creating what amounts to a business centre within a guest room enables you to charge a premium for accommodation.
The other way to make business travellers feel at home is by providing comprehensive meeting room services.
What should I put in my meeting rooms?
Meeting rooms should have some basic facilities:
Telephones Ensure that house phones are available for in-house dialing, along with call-out capabilities. Speaker phones are useful if you are expecting groups of people to conduct teleconferences.
An ISDN line is a good investment if you expect people to want videoconferencing services at a later date. ISDN can also enable you to provide hook-ups to radio stations for high-quality telephone interviews.
Audiovisual systems A good PA system is a must, especially for larger meeting rooms designed to host conferences. Think about video projection systems so that people can run through PowerPoint slides and screen short films as part of corporate presentations.
An in-house source for music and film, such as a CD and DVD player will complete your offering.
Data capabilities Meeting rooms these days will require high-speed Internet access.
Ideally, the network in a meeting room will be separate from the hotel's main administration network and from the network used by guests to access the Internet.
Many companies using meeting rooms will be concerned about security on the network. It is possible to use a system called virtual networking to separate off your meeting network from the rest of the hotel.
Is there any new technology that I should consider for business travelers?
Quadriga's Nwana believes that the business centre of the future will include videoconferencing facilities, enabling guests to chat to others over a video link.
Videoconferencing is a good idea, but it has been on the table for years, and still few people are using it in earnest.
Companies such as Polycom offer videoconferencing systems designed for desktops or for boardrooms, but the problem is one of critical mass. Not enough people are using high-quality videoconferencing equipment to make it viable.
In addition, cheap video cameras are now available for laptop computers, meaning that tech-savvy guests can engage in lower-quality videoconferencing over in-room broadband connections for a flat rate, and have more privacy.
Higher-end videoconferencing services provide better picture quality and a higher frame rate, meaning that pictures look more like video and less like a series of updated still images.
This technology may be appropriate for business centres, but it will be a few years before usage is widespread enough to generate appeal for the average business traveller.
At the moment it is a niche application, but it would certainly put your hotel head and shoulders above the competition.