Until recently, hotel and bar entertainment did not extend far beyond a TV in the room or a pianist playing requests, but the explosion in information technology over the past 10 years has meant that the hospitality industry is able to offer far more appealing entertainment options. Hotels and bars that fail to grasp this opportunity could lose their competitive edge - and a valuable source of additional revenue.
Guests may now have come to expect pay-per-view video services in their rooms, but the future will allow hotels to personalise entertainment in ways that have never been possible before.
"We will soon be able to link customer management systems with the hotel video service to create a really personalised experience for the guest," says David McNally, business development director with Quadriga, a supplier of video and entertainment systems to hotels. "At the moment, we do not know what country the guests are from but, once we can link in to customer systems, we will then be able offer films in their own language and even know what their favourite films are, from past experience."
Already, Quadriga's Genesis product is used in 130 hotels throughout Europe. It is one of a number of products that offer video on demand, rather than pay-per-view. This is enabled by broadband internet technologies, centralised servers and, often, a satellite link at the hotel.
The Dorchester in London has been offering guests video in this way for some time. But it is not just available at the top end of the market. Earlier this year, midmarket Travelodge signed a £20m deal with NEC to supply broadband internet access and video on demand to 247 sites around the UK.
Such installations are already providing revenue. McNally believes that video on demand, together with broadband access and gaming, can increase revenue by two or three times relative to pay-per-view.
Mark Bannister, front of house manager at the Crowne Plaza Marlow hotel in Buckinghamshire, which uses the Quadriga system, agrees. "The take-up has been very good and the revenue from the system is now really strong," he says. "Quadriga works closely with us, so if we see something is not selling, we can discuss adjusting the price and other options."
Quadriga charges a monthly fee, while the hotel takes the early revenue. Bannister explains that when the revenue matches the fee, subsequent earnings from the system are split evenly between Quadriga and the hotel.
It is not just hotels that benefit from new entertainment technologies. Bars and clubs are starting to use technologies in new ways, too. As well as the song-and-dance entertainment that karaoke machines and live bands bring to bars, text messaging and mobile technology have allowed more interactive bar entertainment.
Neo One specialises in this service with its Impulse interactive entertainment system for bars and entertainment venues. This enables customers to instantly interact with each other, vote, and make requests. Every message is read by trained moderators to monitor for negative or libellous content.
With picture messaging and videophones gradually becoming more popular, the options available to bars and hotels to entertain customers and increase revenues will expand. But with these technologies will come added responsibilities for customers' privacy and security, together with the need to ensure that the service projects an image appropriate for the business.
Why broadband IP matters A broadband internet protocol (IP) network allows a hotel to manage and control the services it offers to each room on a single system.
Previously, pay-per-view video would be transmitted over coaxial cables while the telephone system ran on copper wires. By running them both on a single system, along with video gaming (for example), they will be easier for the hotel to manage. Since each room can also be given an IP address (similar to an e-mail address), the system allows customers well known to the hotel to be offered their favourite services immediately.
For a new hotel, installation of an IP network could be done along with other essential infrastructure. For older hotels, installation may require additional cost and disruption.
In-bar entertainment Like many licensees in Blackpool's busy promenade area, Keith Slater and partner Barbara Savage were looking for a way to attract customers to their pub and keep them entertained until closing time.
The couple have been running the Pump and Truncheon for the past three years. The town attracts large groups of tourists, which means bars have to provide entertainment to retain customers, often at a moment's notice. "One day we could have a big group of lads on a stag night coming in; the next, a busload of OAPs," says Slater. "So how do we persuade them to stay for more than one drink? How do we keep them in?"
He opted to invest in Mediatheme's multimedia entertainment system, the Entertainer Pro. Operated by staff via a simple touch-screen, the system offers 30 styles of background music, a database of 3,500 music tracks and more than 2,000 karaoke backing tracks, updated monthly. Staff can select, cue and cross-fade tracks via the user-friendly screen, enabling them to tailor music instantly to suit the venue's clientele.
Added to the music functionality is a selection of interactive games, including celebrity bingo (with pro and guest callers), a quiz database with more than 3,000 questions and three levels of difficulty, live-action horse and dog races with fun money and bet tracking, plus raffles and a hi-lo card game.
The Entertainer system was installed at the Pump and Truncheon in December 2003, and Slater noticed an increase in business almost immediately. "The reaction from customers has been brilliant," he says. "We've now got a public entertainment licence until midnight, and we're using the Entertainer almost every night. We put on karaoke every weekend and make the most of all the gaming and music features. It's made a clear difference to sales."
The Grove The Grove hotel at Chandler's Cross, just off the M25 motorway in Hertfordshire, opened for business in September 2003. The renovated stately home is managing to attract guests with a mixture of period charm and the latest technologies.
The Grove, the former home of the earls of Clarendon, contracted Systimax Solutions to install broadband internet cabling during the renovation process. This allows it to offer video on demand, which lets guests access entertainment at a time convenient to them and to pause the film if they need to.
The hotel also offers specialist internet gaming facilities with service partner ETV. Simon Waring, IT manager at Ralph Trustees, owners of the Grove, says: "It's about trying to give the customer value for the money they have invested in staying, so they are getting something they are not getting somewhere else."
Guests do not have to bring their own laptops to take advantage of internet gaming, they can use broadband services via the plasma TV screen, each equipped with its own small computer. The system also offers radio broadcasts from anywhere in the world.
The Grove uses eTV Interactive to supply video on demand and gaming. It also offers access to e-mail and the hotel's own services via the TV screen.
Waring says that the system is making money across the range of Ralph Trustees' hotels. "The main revenue line has been the movies and the internet, and the revenues have gone up hugely on services offered before," he says. "It was not marketed before. Now that we have broadband as well, we are marketing it as a feature in the room. Lots of people are using it."