A peek into the hotel room of the future

Within the next few years, any hotel — ranging from limited-service establishments to five-star luxury properties — that does not offer high-speed Internet access in every guestroom will be at a severe competitive disadvantage.

But high-speed Internet access is just the start of the technology trends that will dramatically impact the hospitality industry and guest experience in the coming years. What other products and services is the hotel industry working on? And what can travelers expect from their rooms in the immediate future?

  • Body-heat activated light and temperature controls: These controls turn on when a guest enters a room, and turn off shortly after they leave. This system should be increasingly adopted in the hospitality industry over the next year.

    With this technology, hotels will enjoy greater energy efficiency and lower energy costs. Guests won't have to walk into a dark room. Moreover, when they leave, they won't have to worry about turning off the lights, heat or air conditioning.

  • Hand-held guest detector: These electronic devices, soon to be employed, would be used by hotel staff to determine if a guest is in a room. A maid or a plumber using a hand-held guest detector, for example, would know if the guestroom was occupied and come back at another time to do the chores.

    With this technology, hotels will enjoy a more efficient, cost-saving use of their staff's time. This detector also improves the hotel's relationship with its customers by protecting guests from being disturbed by hotel staff.

  • Wireless networking: This hotel-wide wireless network, which should be in larger hotels within the next year, monitors all transactions among employees, and between the staff and guests. A maid completing a guestroom cleaning, for example, simply clicks a button on a hand-held device, and both the housekeeping department and the front desk immediately know that the room is clean.

    Wireless networking will allow hotels to become more efficient and streamlined, saving both time and costs. Better communication will improve staff productivity and allow the hotel to offer better service. Guests who are checking-in (particularly at midday) gain access to their rooms more quickly.

  • Voice over Internet provider (VOIP): VOIP is simply broad bandwidth communication technology, and is expected to be adopted by the hospitality industry in the next one to two years. Guests will gain lower-cost, higher-quality telephone calls over the Internet from a hotel. However, telecom is a key revenue source for hotels, so there may be some industry resistance to adopting this technology.

  • High-quality video conferencing: Expected to spread throughout the hospitality industry over the next six months to two years, high-quality video conferencing is expected to be commonplace by 2004 or 2005. It will become more viable as broad bandwidth costs drop.

    With this feature, hotels will gain a new revenue source and attract more business travelers and meetings while guests will enjoy low-cost, high-quality communication and meetings with anyone anywhere in the world.

  • Wireless property management system (PMS): This wireless, hand-held unit, slightly larger than a PalmPilot, allows hotel staff to check in a guest, assign a hotel room, issue keys, take a credit card payment, obtain a signature and note guest preferences and comments. All of this information is then sent to the relevant hotel departments. The wireless PMS is in development and should become available in hotels over the next several years.

    With this system, hotels can strengthen their customer relationships with timely, shared information and provide more efficient, less costly guest services. Travelers can check in more quickly with the room amenities they prefer, because their profiles will have been stored on the wireless PMS. Hotels also can recognize their most frequent and/or most profitable guests, so they can offer special services or a complimentary upgrade.

All of the trends discussed above are applicable to both the business and leisure traveler because personal and work lives are blurring: Business people work at home or take their families to out-of-town meetings, while leisure travelers check their business e-mail and voice mail messages while on vacation. This trend impacts what hotel products should be developed, and what services should be offered.

Hotel rooms, for example, cannot be designed for purely business or leisure travelers. They must be designed for people, the way they live today, and what they do when they travel. The most successful resorts don't cater solely to leisure travelers anymore. They target corporate groups and other business travelers as well.

Of course, not every hotel guest has a cell phone or a laptop computer, and not every guest wants to use high-tech products in a hotel. Many travelers prefer human interactions during their stay, so the traditional, classical human infrastructure of desk clerks, concierge and other features isn't going to go away. That human infrastructure, however, will likely use technology to improve guest services.

Roger S. Cline is a partner with Arthur Andersen LLC, where he is director of hospitality consulting services for the Americas.

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