Where are the wires?: hospitality businesses go wireless

24 November 2005
Where are the wires?: hospitality businesses go wireless

In the business world very few things come with no strings attached but, increasingly, the technology hospitality companies are using to manage their operations and offer services is available without wires.

From PDAs (personal digital assistants) and mobile phones to wireless-enabled laptops, the same basic technology, ie, electromagnetic radio waves, which first made possible Morse code transmitters and radios, is rapidly evolving to use larger parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and has seen the term "wireless" resurrected.

One of the most common wireless technologies to affect the hospitality industry is Wi-Fi, which lets companies extend high-speed internet access to customers without them having to plug in to a phone socket.

This allows hotel guests to break out of the business centre and access the internet from the bar, restaurant or reception areas or from any corner of their room.

According to Mike Goryl, head of IT at Best Western Hotels, UK, it is a service that an increasing number of both business and leisure customers are starting to demand.

"People want to relax when looking through their e-mails. They don't want to be constrained by the length of their cable," he says.

Goryl is halfway through a programme to equip all 312 of Best Western's UK properties with wireless internet access by the start of next year.

Setting up a wireless hotspot, as they have come to be known, is straightforward, he says, and involves adding routers and small radio base stations with a range of about 10-20m to existing computer networks.

Using equipment supplied by companies such as Divine Internet and Zyxel, Goryl says wireless networks can be put in quickly with minimum disruption and - because there are no wires trailing around and base stations can be hidden in cupboards and false ceilings - without a blemish on the decor.

Goryl says Best Western is undecided as to whether it will charge for Wi-Fi internet access in the long run or simply regard it as a value-added service to attract business guests and day visitors.

But it is not just hotels that are exploiting Wi-Fi. According to Chris Bruce, general manager for wireless broadband at telecoms giant BT, as well as working with Hilton, Ramada Jarvis and Holiday Inn, the company has installed hotspots in airports, cafs and motorway service areas and anywhere that business travellers want to "work on the pause".

Interactive map BT has also been involved in some highly innovative trials of Wi-Fi, including setting up a selection of hotspots across Stratford-upon-Avon to establish an interactive map of the town and provide tourists with information to enhance their visit.

This means sightseers in the birthplace of Shakespeare can hire a PDA from the tourist office or local Thistle hotel and access online information via hotspots set up around specific places of interest.

As the technology has become established numerous applications have been developed. Communications company Vocera, for example, runs its Instant Voice application, already used by several hotels in the USA, over Wi-Fi.

Hotel workers communicate through a small clip-on badge - "a cross between a walkie-talkie and a pager", according to Vocera's marketing vice-president Brent Lang - and initiate a conversation simply by saying the person's name into the device.

This clever combination of voice-recognition software and Wi-Fi is, says Lang, designed to help busy workers, such as housekeeping staff, who might not have a hand free to hold a handset.

Electronic point of sale (EPoS) vendor Stewart Roberts Associates, which sells to small independent hotels and restaurants throughout the UK, has also incorporated Wi-Fi into its latest product.

The new system allows the waiter to enter a customer order on to a Dell-made PDA, which is then instantly transmitted to the EPoS machine and the kitchen.

"This new technology will soon be indispensable in the hospitality industry," says managing director Paul Roberts.

Wi-Fi technology has even been adapted to allow companies to pinpoint the whereabouts of their staff who are using the network to within a few metres. This, says Xavier Aubry, chief operating officer at Appear Networks, a company which specialises in use of this technology, is leading to the development of "location-based" services.

These could be used, for example, to push information updates to a maintenance worker in a hotel as he nears the location of his next job.

Mobile phone network operators have been offering location-based services for some time now using the cellular nature of mobile networks as geographical locators.

Orange's 3G service Orange World, for example, offers users lists of their nearest bars, restaurants and hotels, depending on their location, complete with maps and directions.

3G is the latest generation of mobile phone network, heralded as the technology to bring internet-quality multimedia services to our mobiles.

Entrepreneurial chef Jamie Oliver has been quick to embrace its potential and is soon to star in a made-for-mobile 3G TV series, where Vodafone users can pay to download his minute-long recipe shows.

Drinks vouchers Less state-of-the-art but just as commercially savvy is the use of mobile phone SMS text vouchers by London wine bar chain Corney & Barrow, which encourages visitors to its website to buy their friends a drinks voucher and enter their mobile number.

The friend then simply turns up at a Corney & Barrow establishment and shows their mobile at the bar to redeem the voucher.

Mobile networks are also being used to speed up sales, ordering and distribution operations. At Cakes for the Connoisseur, a supplier of cakes and snacks to more than 8,000 outlets across the UK, sales reps enter new orders straight into a handheld device from customer premises.

Using software from mobile data company FlyingSpark, the orders are then sent over the mobile network and processed immediately at head office, gaining valuable time for a company dealing in perishable goods.

"The new system has enabled us to cut our order times from days to minutes," says Wendy Wroe, financial controller at Cakes for the Connoisseur.

"The loading bay at our distribution warehouse used to be busy at 7pm on a Friday, now our logistics staff have completed their jobs by 3pm."

Now, that's what I call a real benefit of mobile technology.

Paying for Wi-Fi

According to Mike Goryl, head of IT at Best Western Hotels, UK, there are two main ways of paying to have Wi-Fi installed.

One is for owners to share the cost of buying and installing the equipment with suppliers and then revenue-share the proceeds as guests pay to use the service.

The second option, taken by Goryl and his team, is to buy the equipment outright - leaving Best Western free to decide how much they charge their customers, if anything, in the future.

While some hotels see Wi-Fi as a revenue stream, charging users per hour or daily rates, Goryl believes that increasingly there is an expectation from customers that it should be free. Not charging for the service may also encourage passers-by to pop in and buy a cake and coffee in order to use the internet, he says.

One supplier that uses the revenue-share model is BT. Chris Bruce, general manager for wireless broadband, says there
are many benefits to this arrangement, such as lower upfront costs and having BT manage the technology side of the operation as well as promoting your location as one that offers Wi-Fi on its hotspot-locator website (www.btopenzone.com/find).

"The nature of the technology is that it will not be ubiquitous, and people need to know where to find it. Part of this is about marketing the service," says Bruce.

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