Few areas of a hotel have undergone such radical change in the last few years as in-room entertainment. New technology that puts guests in control of their own content offers a fresh opportunity to not only market your property, but help your bottom line. Tom Vaughan reports
It's no exaggeration to say that the past six years has seen a revolution in the way we access digital content. And hospitality has been far from immune, as during that timescale the landscape of hotel in-room entertainment has shifted beyond what anyone could have possibly imagined. "2010 was when the iPad was launched and that fundamentally changed how people consumed content," says Cannon. "It's hasn't been the same since."
So at a time when almost every traveller carries their own mobile device, what do guests want from in-room entertainment and what opportunities does this brave new world present to hoteliers?
Since launching in 2014, Amba Hotels has swiftly built a reputation for its in-room technoloy (see panel). "As part of launching the brand, we did research to find out what guests want in their rooms," says chief executive Belinda Atkins. "The key thing was people wanted to do whatever they did at home. Because our homes are equipped with so much, it was our job to replicate that simply - whether that's keeping in touch with friends and family or seeing more of the latest show you have been watching."
Cannon agrees: "What hoteliers aspire to now is creating a home from home. What you want as a hotelier is something that everyone will be comfortable with and walk into and interact with just as they do at home."
The key to this - and one of the biggest topics in the industry right now - is streaming your own content to a hotel television. "It goes without saying that every guest brings a screen with them, so hoteliers must be ready to support the bring-your-own-device revolution," explains Peter Torbet, director of product innovation at Acentic.
Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Spotify - now that we can listen to or watch whatever we want at the push of a button, guests don't want that to stop just because they are in a hotel room, especially one that they are likely to have paid good money for.
"We want to allow people choice," says Atkins. "We don't decide that people want to watch a predetermined selection of movies and charge them for it. We provide them with the technology in their room to do what they want to do, when they want to do it."
This desire to stream content has had a radical effect on how in-room entertainment is viewed by the hotel itself, says Cannon. "Hotels used to talk to us about Wi-Fi, or in-room entertainment, or mobile devices. The conversation is different now - it's about converging those technologies."
The danger, of course, is that any big investment could soon be rendered obsolete by the relentless march of technology. You only have to witness the iPod docking stations with old adapters to realise how quickly that can happen. But for Atkins, the key to future-proofing is a foundation of exceptional Wi-Fi. "Our 1GB Wi-Fi pipe allows us to be flexible as new technology comes into the marketplace. It's future-proofing in a world where things change so quickly. At the moment, we have iPads in all the rooms. They are relevant for now, but when they aren't, we will have the technology to support the next thing."
That anyone these days would charge for this Wi-Fi is incomprehensible, she continues: "I still find it astonishing that anyone deems it acceptable to charge for Wi-Fi. It's like hot running water - it's not a 'nice-to-have', it's fundamental to everything we do."
While Cannon agrees with this, he argues that the in-room entertainment revolution offers some new marketing opportunities where Wi-Fi and connectivity is concerned. "Once upon a time, we solely dealt with the IT department. Now that conversation is taking place primarily with the marketing department. Why? One of the biggest costs for hotels, after staff and rent, is the cost paid out to travel agents and online travel agents who market on their behalf."
The lure of technology is a powerful new tool in a hotelier's belt when it comes to marketing a property direct. "You can use that technology to take back some of that marketing control. Yes, most guests expect Wi-Fi to be free. But you can have free Wi-Fi and even freer Wi-Fi. If the guest books direct, they will be rewarded with superfast Wi-Fi. It is not breaking any rules and it is taking back some of the marketing initiative."
High-tech, high prices
Technology also offers a means of enhancing a stay and altering room rates. "If every one of a hotel's bedrooms is the same, why charge more for some?" says Cannon. "We encourage the use of technology to differentiate between room types. Hotels can create tech-plus or connected rooms and use technology as a differentiator to upsell."
It's not just the way we digest digital content and stay connected that has changed, but the whole way that guests interact with a hotel. Take room service as an example, says Cannon: "F&B is one of the best revenue lines for a hotel. If you aren't going to go to the restaurant, hotels want you to eat in your room rather than leave the property. Smart TVs and tablets make that a whole lot easier. They can be connected, via an app, to integrate the order with the point of sale so it goes straight to the kitchen."
Tolbert is finding that guests are increasingly using in-room entertainment to manage different parts of their stay - not just their food and entertainment. "As well as paying for bills and ordering food, we are seeing a spike in interest for bespoke concierge services through the TV screen," he says.
Meanwhile, at brands like Hub by Premier Inn, guests can even use their devices to alter room temperatures, adjust the lighting and control their TV.
The whole nature of in-room entertainment has radically altered. "Personalisation within our sector used to be limited to ensuring the on-screen user interface was brand compliant," says Tolbert. "Now we are going beyond this by personalising to a guest level the very entertainment and experience offered."
For the savvy hotelier, that increasing desire to personalise is the perfect opportunity to attract and keep a new generation of guests.
Amba Hotel Marble Arch
Rooms designed by guests
Launched in October 2014, Amba Hotels has become one of the market leaders for in-room entertainment and connectivity. The group has two properties: the 692-room Amba Hotel Marble Arch and the 239-room Amba Hotel Charing Cross, with room rates starting at £179. The group's claim that all rooms were "designed by our customers", is no marketing spiel - it undertook extensive research to understand what guests want from a modern hotel.
At the heart of the offering is connectivity. "The basis of everything we do is Wi-Fi and we've got a 1GB pipeline," says chief executive Belinda Atkins. "That allows everyone to do the same thing at the same time without buffering or having to put on limitations."
So that guests can enjoy a home-from-home entertainment experience, each room comes with its own iPad. "They allow guests to do whatever they want - such as stream content from their own Netflix or Sky on the Go account onto the room's smart TV."
An app on the iPad contains a digitised guest directory, allowing people to order food up to their room, order a taxi, or even ask for a toothbrush. And the group has worked hard to reduce the impersonal nature of technology. "When you order room service, you can even have a conversation about it. When you order on the iPad you get a message back to check that what you ordered is correct. It takes away that anxiety that you have ordered incorrectly. And then you get a message when it is arriving so you are not in the shower."
Another downloadable app allows guests to order food on their own phones when out of the hotel so that it has arrived on their return, while a concierge service can be used to book taxis or buy theatre tickets.
However, rather than dehumanising a hotel experience, all of this technology only works with the extensive and thorough support of staff, says Atkins. "The way we combine technology with service is what makes the difference. Anyone can put technology into a hotel, but unless you have the team to support it, it is useless. It's all well and good ordering a toothbrush on an iPad, but without someone to pick up that message and deliver the toothbrush, it all falls apart."
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