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Hotel phone systems

26 April 2005
Hotel phone systems

Hotel phone systems are changing as new technologies are introduced, such as the ability to make calls over the Internet. But just because new features exist doesn't mean that all hotels should use them.

This article explains how to match your hotel's specific needs against the available features, and how to approach the selection process for hotel systems from the perspective of cost and available features.

What developments have been made in phone systems in the past few years?

The introduction of ISDN has made phone systems more efficient in hotels. A single ISDN line can offer multiple phone connections, which makes installation much easier.

A hotel running 30 different connections into the switchboard along a single ISDN line can take up to thirty separate calls through the switchboard at the same time. This compares favourably with the alternative, which involves running multiple phone lines into the building.

Phone connections provided through a single ISDN line can be used to offer direct dial numbers for regular guests.

The other major development has happened within the switchboard itself. Old analogue Private Automatic Branch Exchanges (PABXs) are gradually being replaced by more sophisticated digital versions.

The new generation of digital PABX systems routes calls to the right phones more efficiently, and provides facilities like digital voicemail for each room.

The newest generation of PABX offers Internet Protocol (IP) capabilities (this is the standard used to transmit data over the Internet). The main benefit of an IP system is that you can use the same cable for both voice calls and data services, such as digital television and in-room Internet access.

So, should I install an IP-enabled switchboard?

There are some incidental benefits, such as the ability to use IP phones that include videoconferencing capabilities. This could enable your guests to hold a videoconference from room to room, or with front-desk staff.

It could also deliver all a guest's messages onto one phone, enabling them to read their e-mail using the screen of an IP phone in addition to traditional voicemail services. This is a service known as unified messaging.

But you need to consider whether the investment in back-end software, configuration, and new IP telephone handsets would be worthwhile. Also, be aware that while it can be possible to run IP phone services and data over existing wiring, hotels with older, poorer quality wiring may need recabling.

Luckily, you may not have to make a decision on IP right now. Many PABX systems on the market are already IP-enabled, meaning that you can install the PABX for digital services now and upgrade your infrastructure later, should you wish to take the IP route.

Even if a currently available PABX does not support IP, there may be an upgrade option and hotels should check this with their suppliers.

How much is it going to cost me?

An Alcatel phone system for a guesthouse with ten bedrooms would cost about £2,500, plus installation. A system for 100 users could cost £20-30,000 depending on the services required, says the company.

Look for innovative ways to pay for services. For example, Ericsson integrates various services in its BusinessPhone system that can be turned on for a trial period, so that a hotel can test the service and decide if it wants to buy.

What else should you consider when installing a phone system?

Before deciding on your phone system, you must think about the number of users that you will be supporting, and the number of incoming lines.

Because small hotels will be less inclined to service and support their own systems, they must be easy to use, and have a minimum training overhead.

Think about the phone system in two ways: back-end features that can be offered to guests, and the in-room phone handset that connects guests with the service.

For example, does the in-room offering include a cordless phone option, so that the guests can take a handset to the bar (or use it in the bathroom)? Does the phone handset offer easy single-button dialling for hotel phone services such as wake-up calls? Is there a hands-free option?

Also, think about providing broadband access in the rooms using the same cabling as the phone system. Ericsson offers a system called Ethernet DSL access, which uses a central system installed next to the PABX providing broadband access over a link terminating at an Ethernet modem port or a wireless access point in the room.

Phone systems can also include other features to make hotel administration easier.

For example, hotel cleaners can dial a code in the room to tell reception where they are, and can dial other codes to indicate broken equipment in the room.

Alcatel's OmniPCX Office system, which supports hotels with less than 100 users, provides this feature. Such systems enable staff to tell easily which rooms have been cleaned.

Other features that you may want to look for in a hotel phone system include:

  • Child-friendly features. Phones can connect automatically to a certain extension when the handset is lifted to help children left in a room alone, and some in-room and cordless phone combinations can be used as baby monitoring systems.
  • Door-opening facilities, enabling guests to unlock doors remotely from a phone extension.
  • Room-to-room call blocking.
  • Check-in and checkout services provided through the reception phone, so that guests can be checked out without the use of a computer terminal.
  • The phone system can be used to set up and cancel guest-specific services.
  • Programmable wake-up calls.
  • Different telephone access rights set for different guests (to limit outgoing call destinations, for example).

How can the phone system integrate with billing systems for guests?

To fully use your phone system as a revenue generator, it must connect with your other hotel systems.

Standard interfaces such as Micros (for point-of-sale integration) and HOBIC (for hooking your phone system into an accounting system for billing purposes) should be supported by both your property management/billing system, and your telephone system.

In some cases, the billing interface and/or the accounting features may be built directly into the phone system, but in other cases a third-party accounting system may connect the phone system to the property management system.

For example, Tiger Communications' Hotel Pro interface suite connects property management systems to PABX systems. It includes features of its own, like keeping track of telephone costs and the provision of "happy hour" rates for guests during quiet periods.

Guests can also be given different tariffs depending on the level of business that they conduct with the hotel.

For smaller hotels that prefer to charge a deposit for telephone use, a phone accounting system should include the facility to disable the phone system in a room until a guest has paid a deposit. The system should then be able to deduct phone charges from the deposited amount.

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