Hotel technology is changing so fast, you need to predict what tomorrow's developments might be to keep your guests satisfied. Ross Bentley reports
Nick Price is a man ahead of his time. As director of technology for luxury hotel chain the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (www.mandarinoriental.com), he believes a major shift is happening at the top end of the industry, as guests drive it towards an ever more technology-dependent future.
But technology demands change quickly and this has significant implications for Price. When it comes to fitting out a new or refurbished hotel, he knows he must anticipate how guests will be using technology tomorrow.
And being accurate with these predictions is particularly pertinent for hotels because of the service they offer.
"A hotel never closes and because guests are essentially paying for space and privacy, they don't expect repair men in their room during their stay," Price says.
This makes a major installation of new technologies once the hotel is open particularly awkward. That's before you even consider that retro-fitting a property will inevitably be much more expensive than if you factor in future technology requirements at the design stage.
Designing new hotels is a subject close to Price's heart as Mandarin Oriental, which has 20 properties in its portfolio, is developing another 14 hotels worldwide.
But he is not really interested in how the lobby will look or where best to profit from natural light. His preoccupation is with the back-of-house operation, its data centre and the quality of the network that will serve the rooms.
Price surmises that on average a hotel comes into its prime five years after it has opened and that it must, in technology terms, stay relevant for at least another 10 years after that. Considering it can also take up to three years to get from the design stage to opening, a worst-case scenario for those responsible for technology in hotels is that they must be able to see 18 years into the future.
In the world of technology, this is an eternity: no one can realistically hope to predict exactly what technologies and gadgets will be commonplace in 2025. (Think back the same number of years to 1990: most of us had never heard of the internet and Sony Walkmans were all the rage - and a quantum leap away from the iPod.)
But, says Price, looking at current guest behaviour there are a few fundamental assumptions that can be made about how the use of technology in hotels will evolve, inferences hoteliers should heed if they want to future-proof their property.
For him, the most critical investment in technology any hotel can make is to install a well-designed cable network that has the capacity to scale up and evolve over time.
This is because Price predicts huge growth in the demand for bandwidth and applications running over Internet Protocol (IP), the standard format for transferring data over the internet and across internal computer networks.
"Those who think internet use in hotels will be limited to guests accessing e-mail fundamentally fail to understand what the internet means," he says.
"Guests already want to get new music from iTunes and download movies from the internet. They want full access to their digital life and want to incorporate it into their life at the hotel."
To give some idea of the exponential leaps in bandwidth demand expected from the next generation, Price says the bandwidth required to download a high-definition movie to a single guest is about 15Mbps (megabits per second). This is 10 times the incoming bandwidth that the average hotel currently has for all its guests to share.
Price believes the quality of a property's internet service will gradually become one of the main ways that a hotel differentiates itself.
"After price and location, guests look at the internet provision. It's more important than breakfast," he says.
And bandwidth won't be required just to download movies. Luke Mellors, IT director at events and hotel booking specialist Expotel (www.expotel.co.uk) and former IT director at the Dorchester Group, envisages a not-too-distant future where every device in a guest's room will be connected to the network.
Temperature and lighting controls, television and telephone settings and even the coffee machine can all feasibly be controlled remotely using IP.
And by integrating these controls with a CRM (customer relationship management) system, guests' rooms in the future will automatically be set to their preferences as they book in at reception, Mellors says.
At IBahn (www.ibahneurope.com), a high-speed internet provider to the hospitality industry, managing director Graeme Powell has already seen a trend towards hotels substantially upping their incoming bandwidth. He says requests for an uncontended 10Mbps service are not unusual, while several hotels have already gone as far as having 100Mbps services installed.
"For hotels in big city locations it is becoming very important that a large amount of bandwidth gets to the rooms," he says.
Powell points to online services such as Slingbox and BitTorrent, which allow users to download large amounts of data from the internet as driving the trend (see below). He suggests hotels of the future might start offering guests a range of differently priced packages based on the application or the amount of bandwidth they need.
The trend towards guests using the hotel's internet to download music and movies is part of a development that Price calls DIY entertainment. Other examples include the widespread use of the iPod, laptops, mobile phones and cameras to carry digital distractions.
"People are either bringing the entertainment with them or going out on to the web to find it," he says.
In response, Price says Mandarin Oriental is planning to install auxiliary panels at some of its hotels that offer a set of standard wall-mounted sockets, such as USB connections, that guests can plug their devices into. This will allow them, for example, to play their iPod over the room's sound system or pull up digital images or watch a downloaded movie on the room's TV monitor.
"This is another set of wires that hotel planners should be aware of," he says.
But while this solution requires a socket connection, Price also predicts a massive upsurge in the use of wireless devices, be it through the GSM mobile networks, Wi-Fi or the burgeoning WIMAX technology which offers greater bandwidth and range than Wi-Fi.
This, he says, means hotel planners should think about building in a distributed antenna system throughout the hotel from the start to ensure all rooms offer cell phone and wireless internet access.
At CellAntenna (cellantenna.com), a company that produces and installs equipment that boosts wireless signals, UK operations manager Phil Whitting says the classic locations for patchy signals are underground meeting and conference centres.
Signals can be boosted by installing a number of repeater antennas that connect back via a cable to a booster in the computer room. Whitting says the same system can carry data traffic from both the GSM and Wi-Fi networks - cutting down on the number of antenna points required and the number of systems to manage.
But, Whitting says, in a lot of cases hotel designers don't take wireless coverage into consideration when drawing up their plans. Whether guests can get a signal on their mobile phone or not usually only becomes an issue once they have moved in and they start to complain.
"The hotel then phones us to say the builders are finished and all the ceilings are sealed, and can we now come in and install our antennas," he says. "And when we tell them we will have drill back into those ceilings, that is when they burst into tears."
The future is tangerine
If you want to know what TV content upmarket hotels will be purchasing in the future, then a clue is in the work being carried out by programme supplier Tangerine Global.
The California-based company provides both the Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula hotel groups with TV content and is on the cutting edge of programme provision for the luxury market.
"Our task is to give the guests something beyond the TV-watching experience they get in their homes," says chief executive officer Stu Levin.
To achieve this Tangerine Global commissions, buys in and edits footage of fashion shows, wine-tasting tours, yoga classes and car road tests - subject matter chosen to match the interests of the hotels' upmarket guests.
"This is not your standard CNN and MTV material," Levin says.
All the footage is shot in high-definition (HD) TV format - a digital technology that, according to Levin, looks set to dominate programming in years to come and one that brings out the best in the flat-screen TVs that are now commonplace in five-star rooms.
"HD makes a hotel's investment in flat-panel screens look worthwhile," he says.
Typically, the hotel will order a set of programmes each month. These are downloaded on to their central server and then delivered on request to a guest over the internal network. Should the hotel be expecting a delegation of guests from a certain country then programmes that cater for their culture and interests can be ordered.
Standard Hollywood blockbusters are eschewed in preference for the latest independent films while downsized IMAX movies and music concerts shot in HD are also popular.
"We strive to offer programmes that guests won't see anywhere else and to be another factor in making their stay memorable," Levin says.
Here are three technologies that are transforming the way people access their media and vastly increasing the amount data circulating the internet.
http://uk.slingmedia.com/page/slingbox.html" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Slingbox
If you have sat in a hotel room abroad and felt annoyed to be missing Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, then your troubles are over. Slingbox is a device that connects to the back of your TV and redirects the TV signal from your cable box, satellite receiver, or personal video recorder (PVR) to your computer or laptop no matter your location - so long as you have a high-speed internet connection. See also Sony's Location Free TV (www.sony.co.uk/locationfree).
BitTorrent claims that more than 135 million people use its software to download movies, TV shows, music tracks and PC games via its website. The company uses the peer-to-peer model of distribution, which means users host and share content between themselves.
The latest version of this iconic mobile device now has video capability and an impressive hard drive of 80Gbyte. This means users can not only keep their entire music library in their pocket, they can also carry movies, TV shows, videos, games and audio books around with them.