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10 May 2012

Wi-Fi Is The New Four-letter Word For Hoteliers

By Terence Ronson - Hospitality Professional, Technology Consultant, Public Speaker and Inventor

Open up any Hospitality or travel related publication these days, and most likely the first story you will see is about Wi-Fi - the subject has become as omnipresent as the requirement for the service itself - everyone, and I mean EVERYONE is talking about it!

Check into a Hotel, and before you even get to your room, you have an expectation that this Hotel is worth its stars, and provided you (just like general utilities - water, heat, light, gas and TV) with Internet access. If it hasn't, then you'd better do a U-turn before hitting the lift button and selecting your floor!

As mentioned in a previous article, prior to the birth of IOS [Apple's operating system], truthfully, we only scratched the surface and played around with implementing Wi-Fi in Hotels. But now, four years later with millions and millions of IOS devices in the hands of millions and millions of our loving Guests, this has become the most disruptive of technologies in the modern era. That along with the creation of the smartphone and its Big Brother - the TAB - where there are sales predictions of 153 million units next year, and climbing to 232 million by 2016. This has set loose a tsunami of unparalleled demand - for a strangely invisible service! No wonder CIO's call Wi-Fi a four-letter word.

That's one of the incredible aspects of Wi-Fi - it's invisible, and yet mission critical in importance. Not just for the Guest, but also operationally - and most especially, revenue generation and customer loyalty / brand enhancement. Just look at the volume and regularity of surveys being released - by all manner of sources - rating Wi-Fi as the #1 amenity Guests' seek - allegedly, even over free breakfast.

Gone are the days when we could simply place a network connection at the desk in the Guest room and maybe a few Wi-Fi routers in the corridor servicing a bunch of rooms - with spotty coverage at best. Often with good coverage found only at the front part of the room, near the room door since the Wi-Fi signal would not penetrate through the walls to the back of the room. Surprisingly enough - that's where most desks are located and people want to work - go figure the logic of that one!

Sensibly, based on the demand an importance of this service, one should deploy enterprise class, building wide, mobile device supporting networks - just like the TelCos [Telephone Company] would in the street. More on that later.

During refurbishment, some Hotels opt to place Wi-Fi routers into every room for maximum coverage. These neat devices about the size of two cigarette packs [No I don't smoke cigarettes only cigars] usually have one LAN port for signal IN, and three or four ports for Signal OUT and a Wi-Fi antenna using the 802.11n protocol. Contemplating the next generation of these devices, likely they will sport USB connections and some other wireless connectivity modules, such as maybe Bluetooth and 802.11ac - the next speed bump for Wi-Fi.

Being POE in nature (Power Over Ethernet) meaning no additional electricity power source is required for these since they derive power from the network, they are re-bootable on demand. The IT Team can centrally manage them and be VLAN enabled with multiple SSIDs - a good cost effective solution to an increasing problem.

Other possibilities are for IPTV set top box to be Wi-Fi enabled - meaning the service provider can make you a 2-4-1 offer, IPTV and Wi-Fi over the same infrastructure. Also, there is the emergence of the Wi-Fi enabled TV, and when we finally get to the point of having a true Hospitality SMART TV [if ever, since most manufacturers find the sector too small when compared to residential], then maybe, it will have this required functionality built-in. Don't hold your breath though.

For the sake of repeating myself, today's Hotel Wi-Fi network [and more critically tomorrow's] is one of the principal areas in which your Hotel will be judged. Supply anything less than perfecto, and you are liable to end up with an UNlike on one, or quite possibly many, of the overabundance of social media sites quicker than you can say it's Happy Hour. Wi-Fi is part and parcel of the guest experience.

And don't be so naïve in thinking that this problem will go away - or it's a fad. You need a network that is capable of complete support for smart phones and TABs - some of which can be a real pain to deal with - most especially, and surprisingly enough - the iPad. Consider also the number of apps and services that use Wi-Fi - like Skype, FaceBook, WebEx, Email, DLNA, NetFlix and gaming - just to name a few.

Reflecting back, when we first put dedicated Internet access into Hotel rooms during the late nineties, the main way a Guest judged the service was by seeing the speed of the connection 10/100/1000 on the screen of their Laptop [now they are called Notebooks] - which actually was the LAN speed and not the Internet pipe. Then quickly followed Wi-Fi, and the Guest started to make comparisons with cell phone signal meters - 1,2,3,4,5 bars - on their mobile device, and on their Notebooks, they saw 'Excellent', 'Good' and the dreaded 'Poor' rating in front of their eyes. So, we didn't need to go round and check rooms - the Guest would simply tell us: "Hey, I've got a poor signal in my room - fix it!"

So, is Wi-Fi going the way of some mini-bars - free?
As Wi-Fi has technically grown-up, so has the Guest become more tech savvy - originally carrying a clunky notebook and cellphone, now he [no gender discrimination implied] carries a notebook, TAB and one or more phones - usually the smart type - and they all need to get connected to the Hotel's Wi-Fi - simultaneously.

Limiting the number of connected devices to the in-room system no longer bauds well for Guest satisfaction. And besides, it's so easy to carry your own wireless router these days, If the Hotel [or service provider] is mean enough to restrict the number of connections, you simply plug a router into the LAN port [if there is one], and Bob's your Uncle - you have your own Wi-Fi bubble. For heavens sake - a MAC can even do it via the built-in sharing function. Admit it - you've likely used one of these options, or are at least considering it...

Going one step further - guests are BYOB [Bringing their own Broadband] by using a Wireless Hotspot [MiFi] or paying a daily package rate from their provider back home - which gives them an eat as much 3G data as they want in 24 hours. The great part of that, when compared to Hotel Internet is that it's portable - you can take it around town - and not just leave it idling back in the Hotel room - where you may, at best, only realistically use the service 4-6 hours per day. That is unless you are like me, and leave one of your Notebooks in the room doing something so as to max out the ROI/cost of the bandwidth...One Hotel, the Aloft Bangkok even gives you a Smartphone when you check into their Touch Rooms, and this device includes a Hotspot facility that you can use around town at no extra cost. That's pretty kool!

Oh yes, let's not forget the FREE versus FEE issue - which isn't going away.

Cast your minds back to when we first put mini-bars into Hotel rooms. Charge a premium for everything based on the convenience factor was the mantra, and this was when compared to buying your own stuff at 7-Eleven and bringing it into the Hotel.

Then, as the technology developed, Hotels started to swop out some fridges for the automatic type that would charge a Guest (after a reasonable time) for an item they selected - some of those units based on Guest pushback compromised by having a BYO [Bring Your Own] section where you could chill your own stuff - without being charged. Then came along the totally free mini-bar - not just equipped with a couple bottles of water and soda pop - but to also include some higher cost items like beers, up-scale juices and power drinks - plus a few snacks. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Let's compare this to Internet access, or Wi-Fi
Mini-Bars started out as a premium 'convenience' based service. The Guest liked it, and the Hotel made some revenue in the process. Then, the Guest discovered a few workarounds and also started to bring in their own stuff - replacing it for items in the mini bar. Some Hotels audaciously competed against the mini-bar by having a convenience store on-property [popular in the U.S. of A]. Then finally, some Hotels said - let's just bundle the mini-bar, Guests only want a few items - so to save all the hassle and get good consumption and higher volumes of sales plus probably better discounts with suppliers - we should give it free. A nice USP for the Sales team when negotiating deals.

So, next on the Wish List - is Internet. We first put it in, and charged for it. Yes, there was initial resistance because it was a new line item on the Travel Expense form, but it soon gained acceptance from Finance as the business people said - "I can't function with out it."

Just like he did with the Mini-Bar, the Guest started to find workarounds with Wi-Fi: For example, go to a Coffee Shop - buy a Latte and get free Wi-Fi. I even read a recent FaceBook post saying "Starbucks can do great free Wi-Fi, why can't Hotels?"

Then there's the pre-paid 3G card; put it into a MiFi gizmo and away you go. Another option is to bring your own Internet with a daily roaming pass from your service provider back home, and use it anywhere.

We know only too well, budget/economy Hotels started to provide free Internet as a business driver, and so resistance [to paying for Wi-Fi] was NOT futile. People Power came in the form of migration to competitive brands or Hotels, and this has started to impact the bottom line. Shangri-La Hotels were the first group more than eighteen months ago to declare war by giving free Internet access in all their Hotels. And so the war has begun - some are winning a few battles, but the war is by no means over.

So what's the way forward? Honestly speaking - there is no simple answer.

Deploying a good quality Wi-Fi infrastructure has a cost. Running the service also carries a cost - and this increases exponentially as bandwidth demand does. Support costs may have reduced, since some Hotels have opted for the DIY mode - and have transformed this into in-house managed IT service. Naturally, service providers will argue that this has to be outsourced for numerous reasons - and I'm not going to debate those merits here. You have to work out your own Pro's and Con's or hire a Consultant [like me] to assist in that process.

So perhaps it comes down to pure economics - here's a few thoughts:

  1. Do I charge some or all Guests?
  2. Do I give it free to negotiated Corporates with a guaranteed number of Room Nights?
  3. Should I give it free to certain tiers of Loyalty Club guests, or Club Floor Guests?
  4. If I give it free, is it for full bandwidth, or a low speed and the Guest can opt for a premium service?
  5. Should I make it free in F&B areas [not the Lobby] - where a Guest has to spend money, and only charge in the room - for the convenience factor? How would this be controlled - Voucher or PIN number?
  6. Do I give it free in Meeting Rooms to Residential Conference Guests - or make them pay again?
  7. Do I restrict the number of devices that can be connected at any one time?
  8. Will it boost my room business if I give it free, and maybe stop free breakfast - or offer the guest the option - one or the other?
  9. Should I Capex the cost, absorb the running cost and do the whole thing in-house, or part Capex, and go on a revenue share with a service provider?
  10. Do I need a wired connection in the room as well as Wi-Fi?What are the members of my competitive set doing? Should I be the first to go free and rock the boat, or must I follow because that's what they are doing?

These are just some of the many questions you may be asking yourself about Wi-Fi going forwards.

From a technical point of view, this is what's needed for a good Wi-Fi infrastructure:

802.11n AP (or higher) either:

  • Room based
  • Hallway based AP where one AP can provide mobile device coverage in a minimum of 4 rooms (PLEASE do a simple test before committing on one path).
  • DAS solution - Distributed Antenna (supports multiple wireless systems)

Wireless LAN controller

  • Should be able to auto-configure and optimize the system
  • If you use voice over Wi-Fi, this system should include a fast-roaming function

VLAN configurable PoE switch port
Not an absolute requirement, but the PoE feature makes the system more manageable by allowing for remote reboot of the AP, and the VLAN capability allows for the support of multiple services on a single LAN cable to the room.

So now you know why some CIO's can't sleep at night. Wi-Fi is a four-letter word.

© Terence Ronson

Reprinted from the Hotel Business Review with permission from

Terence Ronson

Terence Ronson is the Managing Director of Pertlink Limited. Now residing in Manila after almost two decades in Hong Kong, Terence launched his diversified hospitality career as a chef, later holding various general management positions with well-known hotels in the UK and Asia. In the mid-80s he developed his penchant for technology, and in 2000 started Pertlink Ltd., (Hong Kong) a hospitality technology consultancy, becoming as well the Technology Editor for HOTELS Asia Pacific and authoring since then numerous industry-related articles. In 2001, CNN's eBizasia program featured him for his innovative work at Rosedale on the Park Hong Kong, the first cyber boutique Hotel. It was at that point he originated the first hotel app – HOTELINMYHAND. Terence also helped Langham Place Hong Kong win many accolades for its technology deployment as well as various other well-known hotels across Southeast Asia. In China, Terence was heavily involved in establishing and delivering the IT strategy for Jumeirah Himalayas (Shanghai), Puli (Shanghai), Sofitel Wanda (Beijing), and Guoman (Shanghai). He also participated in the development of the technology vision for Disney Shanghai and Tangula Luxury Train. Terence often chairs and speaks at global industry events and sits on various advisory boards, in addition to holding a Visiting Lecturer position at Hong Kong Polytechnic. He is a CHTP (Certified Hospitality Technology Professional) and runs an active hotel technology blog.


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