Spectrum heating up with hotel hotspots

The Middle East’s hospitality industry is turning to technology in an attempt to attract more guests. High speed connectivity is becoming a must have value add for hotels.

  • E-Mail
By  Anna Karhammar Published  January 8, 2004

|~|hotel.jpg|~|The Dubai Ritz-Carlton director of information technology, Sameh Ibrahim.|~|A number of must-attend business events have converged on the Middle East in recent months. Among dozens of smaller meetings and regional conferences, Saudi Arabia held its International Trade Fair, in Dubai there was the Middle East International Motor Show, and the International Building and Water show packed out Kuwait’s largest exhibition centre. For two weeks, the region’s burgeoning hospitality industry ran at full capacity as businesspeople flocked from around the world. Each one had different demands. For some, a reasonably priced international telephone facility was important. For others, high speed internet meant they could have access to all the information they needed to close vital deals while being out of the office. The more tech-savvy among this group looked for hotels that boasted wireless hotspots before they made their bookings. With them, this army of demanding road warriors brought an array of laptops with different configuration, some had wireless cards, others did not, some had Ethernet adaptors, most did not. Many brought no equipment at all, but still wanted to send e-mail and browse the web in the privacy of their own rooms. Furthermore, round-the-clock assistance was required as businesspeople with various degrees of computer literacy attempted to communicate with offices and partners in a raft of different time zones. The challenge of coping with each of these guest’s different demands was huge. And, in the highly competitive hospitality industry, there is no room for error. Demand can be difficult to predict but the services advertised have to be available when required. “These days you need to provide a full package, our IT kiosks allow people without laptops to connect, our in-room connections allow people that don’t have wireless cards to connect and finally, with our plans to broaden our wireless facilities, guests with wireless capability will be able to roam the hotel,” says Tom Flanagan, hotel operations manager at the 246-room Radisson Diplomat in Bahrain. The ability to stay connected while travelling in this way was once a luxury value-added service, used by a minority of guests. But ‘adapt or die’ has become the mantra of the hospitality industry as the boom in mobile computing surges ahead. According to the Ritz-Carlton, two thirds of the region’s business guests now check in with their own laptops. But merely giving these guests somewhere to plug in is not enough, they expect lightening-fast connections and no downtime. “Fast connections and easy-to-use systems with maximum flexibility are no longer a luxury but a necessity. Therefore, we believe that by including these as standard, they will promote us as being the first choice hotel in Bahrain for leisure and business travellers. We are constantly looking for ways to increase our IT facilities as we understand our guests needs,” adds Flanagan. In response to its guest’s demands for faster connectivity and complaints that its legacy system was unreliable, the Radisson recently upgraded to 512Kbits/s connections in all its rooms as part of the hotel group’s Easy Connect initiative. The Cisco technology, implemented by Danish company Netpoint, supplied the hotel with a fault-tolerant, completely redundant and constantly monitored private network. The hotel now boasts internet kiosks in the lobby and in its business class facility, the Royal Club Lounge, as well as wireless internet access in the hotel lobby, three restaurants and poolside terrace. The hotel has also implemented a range of charges for the service up to US$18.50 for 24-hours’ connection.||**||Installation|~|ib.jpg|~|Ib Drachmann-Hansen.|~|Since the installation, Flanagan says complaints have all but dried up. “Before we had our Easy Connect system we had numerous complaints regarding connections and now we hardly have any,” he adds. “The response can be seen in return guests. No news is good news and we are getting no complaints about our connection — that is our positive measurement tool. Guests expect good connections and are not so verbal when they receive it,” he continues. There are several reasons that Middle East hotels had to get their act together on the IT front. The increasing adoption of technology by businesspeople was one factor. Another reason internet services became essential here was that in the aftermath of 9/11, many of the region’s hotels that had aligned themselves with the leisure market had to re-assess where future revenues lay. The answer for many was catering for the business professional and e-services proved a useful tool in securing a share of the market. It was this latter factor that prompted Dubai’s Ritz-Carlton to fully embrace the networked hotel model. The 138-room hotel was built five years ago to accommodate holidaymakers. As such, there was little demand for internet services. However, as the hotel re-marketed itself to cater for the business traveller, demand for internet services increased. In response, the hotel teamed up with local service provider Intertouch to kit the hotel out with a state-of-the-art data network. Because most hotel networks are retro-fitted into the buildings, implementation within the hospitality sector can pose some challenges. The staff at the Ritz-Carlton had to wait until rooms were empty, or block book them out to install Category 5 Ethernet cables. Every floor was fitted with three Cisco switches, each with ten ports, which in turn was fitted to a billing server in the hotel’s computer room. While there was some guest requirement for internet services before the billing server was installed, a temporary interface with the hotel’s property management system (PMS) was built so guests could be charged for usage. At the same time a wireless local area network (WLAN) was built into the fifth and sixth floors of the hotel, which serve as the executive suite. The hotel’s director of information technology, Sameh Ibrahim, believes the hotspot was among the first in the United Arab Emirates. Now the hotel boasts 128Kbits/s connectivity in every room, for which it charges Dhs2.75 per minute and up to Dhs110 for 24-hours of access. Users of the executive suite can borrow a laptop and use the wireless connection free of charge or configure their own machine to do so. For guests arriving at the hotel with a laptop that is not equipped with a network card, the hotel will provide one for no charge and install it in their computer for the duration of their stay. For those who do not have a computer, the IT department also has standby machines. The hotel reports that the number of business customers frequenting the Ritz-Carlton has increased, as have revenues gained from internet services provision. “We receive many comments from guests that say they chose the hotel because it has wireless, or they need internet access in their guest rooms,” says Ibrahim. “On the reservations side, I know there are a large number of enquiries about the internet from people looking for a hotel room. Demand for such services is very high and growing all the time,” he adds. But in the same way as network implementation in the hospitality sector differs from that in the enterprise space, the hotel support model is also different. Guests must have access 24-hours a day, every day of the week. The Ritz-Carlton has risen to this challenge in two ways. First, all guests are provided with a 24-hour toll-free number that connects them to a helpdesk manned by multi-lingual Intertouch staff. If the guest’s problem cannot be resolved over the telephone, the hotel’s in-house staff are called to deal with the matter. Ibrahim has been responsible for the training of ten hotel staff, including all duty managers, who are now capable of providing technical support around the clock. This service element is an area where the hotel chain believes it can bring its hospitality experience to deliver sterling results. “We always ensure there is someone here who can go an assist the guests. One of the things that separates us from any other hotel is that we try to deliver outstanding personalised services, not just in terms of food and beverage but also in IT,” says Ibrahim. “Our guests can call us at any moment and we go not to meet their expectation, but to go beyond their expectations,” he adds. To illustrate this point Ibrahim recalls an incident where the hotel’s staff helped visiting businesspeople source components for a local area network they wanted to set up in a new UAE office. “There was one guest who wanted to build an office here in the Emirates but didn’t know any suppliers or the specifications required for local networks, so we went with them and explained how to build a small network and we assisted them in buying the equipment,” he says. Such talent for building customer loyalty is a key component in the hospitality industry. And so far the region’s industry has looked upon IT investment as a way of drawing customers in and adding to their satisfaction of the overall experience. But in terms of selling internet connectivity to guests, the region’s hotels have yet to realise significant, if any, profits for their network investment. “We didn’t want a cash cow when we were designing our IT packages,” explains Flanagan. “We treat it as a loss leader that will get customers thinking of us as their first choice for accommodation in Bahrain. The service pays for itself but has much more intrinsic value when you take into account guest loyalty,” he adds. ||**||Investing in the future|~|yatim.jpg|~|Adnan Yateem.|~|Because of this factor, coupled with competition in the market, hotel groups find themselves in a position where they must invest in ever more sophisticated voice and data networks and the support and training services that come with them, while realising little return on investment (ROI). Another hurdle faced by the likes of the Ritz-Carlton is the ongoing issue over wireless hotspot legality in some countries within the region. The hotel effectively had to take a step backwards when it was forced to dismantle a hotspot built to cover its lobby, library, bar and cigar bar because it was technically made illegal by legislation designed to protect the UAE’s monopoly telecoms operator, Etisalat. Similar legislation is also hindering the next stage in the development of voice and data networks in hotels, internet packet (IP) telephony. The potential benefits of IP telephony for hotels are huge. Such networks promise to reduce call costs for the hotel, and therefore guests. IP telephony networks are more manageable and can be integrated with hotel PMS systems. Ibrahim is investigating how such technology may be deployed in line with the letter of the law. “One of my visions is to convert the entire hotel and all the guest rooms to IP telephony. It’s manageable, easy to use through IP addresses and you can integrate it with your current PMS to get the full use of facilities like wake up calls, messaging, and the building of an extension directory. It will increase the communication skills within the hotel and increase guest satisfaction,” he says. For the moment such developments are pipe dreams in the UAE, while in other countries IP telephony is already providing real benefits to hotels, such as the three at Egypt’s US$750 million Citystars Heliopolis development, which have implemented IP systems supported on the Cisco AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data) platform. Another hurdle is the relative lack of bandwidth in the region, Danish firm NetPoint, which operates primarily in Northern Europe, normally implements 2Mbits/s networks, but when addressing the Middle East’s needs, it is limited by the local infrastructure to rolling out a 512K/sec system. “We normally require E1 (2Mbits) lines, but have realised that might be too high a requirement in certain parts of the [Middle East] region,” says NetPoint’s managing director, Ib Drachmann-Hansen. But despite the obstacles faced by the region’s hospitality industry, investments in technology continue to be made and the sector looks set for continued growth as the number of hotels in the region grows even further and guests’ technology needs become more demanding. Drachmann-Hansen says he expects this adoption to drive infrastructure improvements. “I am sure the bandwidth issues will change rapidly when the usage increases. In our opinion there is no doubt you will see a lot of new services coming up [in the Middle East], such as IP telephony and video streaming,” he adds. As well as IP telephony in those countries where it is legal, the ongoing adoption of wireless looks set to drive the sector. Regional hotels investing further in this sector include the Kempinski Julai’a Hotel & Resort in Kuwait, which has rolled out a WLAN access across its beach, restaurant and spa areas and within 133 chalets and rooms — a combined area of 37,000 sq.m — alongside dial-up and Ethernet connectivity. In addition, Radisson SAS has announced it will make wireless available in all its rooms by the end of 2004. The Radisson Diplomat in Bahrain is also scheduled to extend its wireless access to all meeting rooms, ballroom and pre-function areas in the next three months. Wireless technology also promises to revolutionise the market for vendors of hotel information management systems like Micros Fidelio. Hotel managers who previously resisted the lengthy and costly implications of cabling their premises now have another option in wireless systems, which promise to be cheaper to implement and less obtrusive. The sole distributor of Micros Fidelio in the Middle East, Key Information Technologies (KIT), expects wireless to open up new markets in two and three star hotels which have previously been unable to afford such systems. “Wireless is going to revolutionise the business for us. We are using wireless technology on the beach side. By the time the waiter has taken an order the guest’s drink is already arriving because it has gone wirelessly to the kitchen immediately,” says Adnan Yateem, consultant to the board of directors. “The future with wireless is endless, it has opened so many horizons,” he adds. As a result of these developments, KIT is targeting lower-end hotels with light versions of Micros Fidelio systems. The Middle East hospitality sector boom has drawn the attentions of a number of vendors, such as Technology Partners, which argues that it can bring value to an industry that has so far realised all the costs of network implementations with few returns. “The hotels here are beginning to ask what the term intelligent hotel means but they have made their decisions too late in the day to be cost effective,” argues John Matthews, Technology Partners’ finance director. “Some of the major chains here have problems with providing this technology. I would like to encourage Technology Partners into providing integrated solutions to the hospitality sector. I would say within the next 12 months, we will be looking at actively pitching within that market,” he adds. NetPoint is also keeping its eye on the Middle East’s hospitality boom with future growth in mind. “NetPoint is definitely interested in other hotel chains in the area [apart from Radisson]. From a presence and commercial point of view, it could make sense for us to establish a regional office in the Middle East,” Drachmann-Hansen says.||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code