Hospitality connectivity in focus
Written by: Kate O'Flaherty | Published:

The hospitality industry is ramping up its investment in robust connectivity to give customers the service they expect. But in-building coverage can still pose a challenge. By Kate O’Flaherty

The hospitality industry is under increasing pressure. Hotels are at the heart of this: customers want seamless connectivity to enable the streaming services they receive at home, but this can be expensive and technically challenging. Even so, hotels are starting to invest as they strive to stay ahead in a highly competitive environment fuelled by review sites such as Trip Advisor.

And although super-fast connectivity for customers doesn’t provide a direct revenue stream, the applications it enables are also cutting costs and driving efficiencies behind the scenes. But Wi-Fi is often not enough and many hotels are adding cellular connectivity through small cells to ensure coverage.

Lightning-fast connectivity is essential to the functioning of a modern hotel, says Carla Milovanov, SVP, digital and technology, Accor Europe and Northern Europe. While the cost of connectivity has decreased over recent years, the demands on services are greater than ever before, she says. “Two years ago, fibre connectivity of 100Mbps was breaking new ground, but today most hotels are looking at a minimum of 1Gbps to provide guests with the experience they expect.”

For example, they want to watch Netflix through Google’s Chromecast streaming devices in hotel rooms, says Juan Aguirre, director, EMEA hospitality and MDU Solutions at Ruckus. “But you need bandwidth and quality of service to do this,” he adds.

Adding to this, Milovanov points out that the back office of a hotel requires incredibly “robust connectivity and fast speeds” to manage competing real-time bookings and revenue management.

The connectivity challenge
It’s a well-known fact that getting cellular signal into a hotel can be difficult due to materials used in modern buildings such as double glazing. “Hotels can be using materials that inhibit mobile signal,” says Gearóid Collins, sales director at Vilicom.

The modern cladding glazing standard to get good environmental ratings for buildings can cause issues, agrees Steve Waldron, CTO at Grange Hotels. “Most buildings are concrete. That, in addition to cladding and reflective glass, reflects mobile signals.”

Making things worse, says Collins: “Sometimes, one side of the building may not have coverage and the higher you go up, the worse the issue gets. Each building and room and area needs optimal coverage – not just Wi-Fi, but also mobile as people need to make calls as well.”

Adding to complexity, hotels need to have multi-carrier solutions so each guest can connect to their own mobile operator. “You can ask the carrier to put in a booster for EE or Vodafone if you are in an office, but in hospitality that’s not an option,” Waldron points out.

Most hotels already offer free Wi-Fi, but the quality can be varied, says Richard Bourne, CEO at StrattoOpencell. “If you can’t make or receive a call, it can be frustrating, especially if the hotel is holding a conference.” Bourne says 4G provides a better experience than Wi-Fi. “Wi-Fi gets congested, especially when there is heavy video usage,” he points out.

Customer service
The hospitality industry has started to catch on to the fact that knowing their customer matters, but hotels don’t really understand behaviour, says Patrick Clover, BLACKBX founder. “Hospitality businesses generally know what cash goes through the till, but they want to find out which customers are loyal.”

It is possible to gather this data using Wi-Fi, Clover says. BLACKBX’s experience depends on someone connecting to guest Wi-Fi. “We know how long you are in the venue, how many times you have been and where you came from,” he says.

For example, Clover explains: “Say someone visited 10 times in the past but you haven’t seen them for two months – you can set it up so they get a message saying ‘Hey we miss you, get a percentage off or x for free’.”

Marketing in this way can be effective, but some hotels are attracting guests by using the technology itself as a unique selling point. Olivia Byrne is company director at Eccleston Square Hotel, one of Europe’s most technologically advanced boutique hotels, which uses a Wi-Fi solution to provide connectivity.

Around eight months ago, Eccleston Square decided to change its property management system (PMS). “Opera was very restrictive in terms of what we wanted to do to integrate with partners,” Byrne says. Now the hotel uses Mews, which Byrne says can be accessed from everywhere in the world. The PMS also contains apps, which help make things run more smoothly. “When the housekeeping clean the room they update the PMS – so we know when guests are able to enter the room,” says Byrne.

Eccleston Square Hotel opened in 2011. “We bought an existing budget hotel in London Victoria and closed it down to create a luxury boutique hotel in a year,” says Byrne. The hotel was hi-tech from the start, with iPads in the rooms so guests could use the devices for dining requests. “We also had 3D TVs and beds with a massage feature – and the walls change colour from transparent to opaque,” Byrne says.

Today, Eccleston Square’s clients still use iPads to order food. “I decided not to have a restaurant, so I connect my guests to the neighbourhood,” says Byrne. “We offer a complimentary mobile phone in the room so they can order room service. We have a local restaurant that delivers to the hotel.”

Eccleston Square provides Handy Phone Android devices in the rooms. These work on Wi-Fi in the hotel and 4G when guests take them out.

The Handy Phones add convenience to guests at a minimal cost to hotels. The hotel pays a subscription to include the devices in the guests’ rooms. The fee provides Eccleston Square and its customers with free data, including unlimited 4G and calls to international and local mobile and landline numbers.

Meanwhile, the hotel has just added smart TVs and uses Mikenopa (an internet provider serving the hospitality industry with services such as load balancing) to boost the Wi-Fi signal. Byrne thinks people are increasingly bringing their own content when they stay at a hotel. “It’s an expectation now – you have to offer that,” she says, adding that Eccleston Square offers Google Chromecast on smart TVs as well as a Sonus speaker to allow customers to listen to music.

The hotel is also planning to launch a chatbot that will be integrated into the PMS within the website. It is hoped this will help increase efficiency for the hotel by answering more questions and freeing up staff to better serve customers.

Per Thorsheim is chief security officer at Nordic Choice Hotels, which has its main offices in Stockholm and Oslo. The group contains 200 hotels and has around 16,000 employees. “We have a complex environment when it comes to wireless,” Thorsheim says. Deployments vary among Nordic’s brands. “Some are not so expensive, others are used for meetings and large events – and then we have luxury hotels that are unique to themselves.”

Mobile keys
Recently, Nordic Choice launched mobile keys to replace cards that open doors. “Instead of using a physical key, you use an app

to unlock the hotel door,” says Thorsheim. “Using our app, you
can check into the hotel and you are asked whether you would
like a mobile key. You don’t need to queue; you hold the phone
to the reader in the elevator and then you can go straight into
your room.”

This helps Nordic Choice to improve customer service by reducing or eliminating queuing time. “Most people have experienced having to queue at reception, and you don’t need to. People appreciate the ability to check in and to open the door using a phone with no need for a card or key.”

Meanwhile, in three Nordic Choice hotels, and with more coming, there is the opportunity for customers to use Google’s Chromecast streaming device in the room. “You can bring your tablet and stream to your TV,” says Thorsheim, adding that one hotel in the luxury line also has a loudspeaker on the ceiling in the bathroom so guests can listen to music while they shower.

As chief security officer, Thorsheim works closely with the group’s data protection officer to consider security and privacy as early as possible in technology projects. “We can see customers are using a certain amount of bandwidth, and through security monitoring we can see what kind of services are being accessed, but we don’t use it for that; we use it for stopping viruses and other security measures.”

The group’s Clarion Hotel The Hub in Oslo consists of 810 rooms (each with its own Wi-Fi access point), 22 meeting rooms, a gym, bar and restaurant, with a Commscope solution. A typical Commscope deployment consists of C-RAN antenna systems, DAS and indoor C-Ran small cells for high capacity and optimum coverage. Nordic Choice is also using technology to improve its power consumption, and its security cameras are becoming wireless so there is no need for cabling in the walls. “With 5G this will happen even more,” says Thorsheim.

Another example of technology increasing efficiency is at Ibis in the UK, whose employees are using mobile devices to access information including check-in, housekeeping and breakfast within one app.

“By using the company’s front office light services (FOLS) mobile software, employees can manage their schedules and access information while being freed up to interact with guests, approaching to help them rather than waiting to be asked,” says Milovanov.

The resulting mobility has allowed Ibis to completely remove its traditional check-in desk, with employees now trained to greet guests on arrival with room keys in hand. “Combined with the online fast check-in and check-out capability, this delivers a seamless experience for guests,” according to Milovanov.

Hotels have come a long way in their technology journey, even over the past year. So, what does the future hold? Some experts say there is potential for 5G use in hospitality, especially to provide super-fast connectivity. However, others argue that getting the best out of the technology could be complex and expensive because the higher-frequency bands such as millimetre wave earmarked for 5G will struggle to penetrate buildings.

At the same time, Internet of Things (IoT) technology will likely be a feature in hotels over the next few years. It will see an increasing number of smart door locks, plus energy management solutions designed to cut costs and increase efficiency.

The customer service battle is on – and many hotels are embracing it. As consumers continue to demand high-bandwidth streaming services, those that focus on technology and the underlying connectivity to enable it will ensure they stay one step ahead of their peers.

Building hotels with connectivity in mind
Even a few years ago, connectivity was rarely considered when building a hotel. But this is starting to change: hotels are being designed with connectivity as a key consideration, especially as wireless devices transform guest engagement, says Accor’s Carla Milovanov.

She cites the example of formal check-in desks being replaced by roaming employees armed with tablets, through to smartphone-enabled access to rooms and amenities. “Modern operators can’t afford to treat technology as a bolt-on after a build or redesign, it is integral to the infrastructure of the building.”

In new buildings, Milovanov says there has been a shift from “widespread cabling” to “new network architecture where we reinforce connectivity to a distribution panel and concentrate most of the investment in wireless and Wi-Fi technology”.

But Ingo Flomer, vice-president, business development and technology at Cobham Wireless, says connectivity “is still an afterthought, sadly” – at least when considering cellular deployments. “Often, it comes as a surprise that coverage is needed. For Wi-Fi, it’s there, but for cellular it’s not – even though it’s expected today.”

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