Providing technology for the self-contained guest

The expectations of modern guests as well as the way that the accommodation industry conducts its business has changed the face of hotel telecommunications over the last few decades.

The industry can only reminisce about the halcyon days of the 1980s; an era of profitable hotel telephone departments. Businesses could easily mark-up calls to a profitable level (some say too profitable) and guests back then had little choice but to use the guestroom phone and grumble about the cost.

Oh, how times have changed! With the arrival of the self-contained guest… Typically this guest carries a laptop computer, a tablet and a smart phone or the newest trend, some sort of wearable technology. All that the self-contained guest wants, apart from a comfy bed, is a convenient USB port and free fast wifi that is seen as a must-have.

Some of the technology trends in the industry have led to great improvements and savings for accommodation industry businesses and are changing how hotel developers plan their buildings, infrastructure, management structure and staffing requirements.

Guests’ expectations to be able to connect to the internet seamlessly and without interruption, has led the industry to invest in better, faster wifi infrastructure so that guests can do business and use their smart devices with ease during their stay.

Besides being able to offer high density wifi for conferences and meetings, hotels also need to be able to offer access to audio-visual and digital facilities for conferences.

For a hotel to offer extensive conference facilities, network design becomes critical to ensure indoor mobile phone coverage, wifi connectivity, VoIP, real time location services and internet protocol television as well as all the accompanying AV and digital equipment is essential.

Guest expectations have also changed the face of check-in and reception areas. Guests demand easy technology-driven check-ins where they can do everything from the venue’s automated kiosk from ordering room service to planning trips with a digital device. Modern reception spaces are designed with this in mind as well as providing mini conference areas and multiple USB ports.

The technological advancements at reception cover smart integration of the hotel PMS, middleware and eco sub systems associated with the PBX, such as voicemail, screen-based attendant, and they also extend to incorporating the building management system. This creates efficiencies in guest services that are customised for each hotel’s needs.

It is important to ensure that appropriate information is made available to the appropriate staff member in either servicing a guest need or in being immediately alerted to a critical situation.

There seems no point though in providing a communications solution that is not integrated and has less useability than the guest’s own smartphone. Therefore, the communications system used must be smart and have intelligent functionality for staff efficiency while reflecting a simple and non-intrusive ease-of-use to the guest.

With effective communication between staff in an accommodation operation vital to the smooth running of the business, voice communications can be used on the evolving carrier based 3G/4G services.

Staff extension numbers can be securely extended from the PBX via the internet to the data pack of an associated smartphone, allowing the end user to have complete voice and application connections regardless of their location within and without the hotel.

Compressed voice allows for extremely cost effective bandwidth utilisation and the guest services applications are equivalent of thin client solutions, so the consumption of 3G/4G bandwidth is minimal and when compared to re-cabling and provision of extensive wifi for voice, this approach can show significant savings and efficiency.

Scott Hampton is a technical expert and the general manager of Powertec Telecommunications. He told us: “It is vital that users research the plans available and costs involved across all the carriers including VoIP, GSM/3G and ISDN.

“Each network may offer differing benefits so if you are aware of the main types of phone activity by your business, you have the opportunity to select the best network option to provide you with the cheapest result. Over the years, this should give you a significant saving in your staff telephone costs.

“However, it is not always easy to interface these networks with existing PBX systems as they are not designed to connect with modern networks. You can of course replace your entire PBX system and install new generation equipment – but that’s costly and really not necessary. You just need to add a gateway that can integrate all the interfaces.”

Mobile coverage…

Mobile integration at the customer level is still very much a new concept with little-to-no adoption globally.

Integration of the room phone with web-based interfaces for room services are becoming more common or migrating the traditional newspaper to a tablet with web services, this can increase the hotel’s REVPar (revenue per available room).

Wifi signal…

In the USA it recently came to light that some well-known accommodations blocked personal wifi usage in and around their property to force guests to use their revenue-making services in order to increase REVPar.

According to The Wall Street Journal Online, “Federal Communications Commission officials warned that the agency will prosecute businesses that block people from using personal wifi networks.

“In a so-called enforcement advisory Tuesday, the FCC said its enforcement bureau has witnessed a “disturbing trend” in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using personal wifi hotspots on their premises. It said it would be aggressive in investigating and acting against any blocking.”

Mobile signal improvement…

Guests want to use their mobile devices easily and without interruption and in and around your property and they value this service highly. So what are the best ways to amplify and disperse signals to give better reception in guest areas such as car parks?

Mr Hampton from Powertec Telecommunications explains that there are three main reasons for not receiving a strong enough mobile signal. These will impact negatively on your business and guests: distance form mobile carrier, materials in your property reflecting the signal away or not allowing it in and being in a mobile black spot.

Having a mobile black spot in and around your property can be due to the “urban canyon” effect. This phenomenon is caused by the density of high rise buildings, where the mobile signal bounces around with the result that small pockets have reduced or no coverage at all.

Every major city in Australia is affected to a lessor or greater extent. He gives an example of a hotel that is centrally situated in the centre of Brisbane, Queensland but despite its fantastic location he explains that certain floors were experiencing mobile signal problems. “The higher floors of the building had great mobile coverage, but the basement and lobby had little or no coverage – from any of the three major phone carriers”.

The solution for all three problems could be very simple, with the installation of a “Cel-Fi Smart Repeater”. This is a new type of mobile phone repeater that is designed to complement an existing mobile network and not interfere with its operation.

“The Cel-Fi can take a weak signal (just one bar is enough) and boost it across a 600m2 area. The device is actually two units, each about 20cm tall; one that sits in a spot where the mobile signal is strongest and the other sits a short distance away from the receiving unit. The receiving unit ‘grabs’ the phone signal from outside and the coverage unit boosts and rebroadcasts it. If needed, an external antenna can also be fitted to further boost the signal,” Mr Hampton told us.

The result for this hotel was that the mobile coverage went from very low and non-existent, to medium and high and allowed the guest’s full mobile access throughout the hotel and staff to be covered by the hotel phone plan in the difficult basement area.

In the vast majority of cases, it is a weak signal that causes problems like drop-outs on phones and EFTPOS machines, not a complete lack of signal and many Cel-Fi customers are based in remote locations and “Cel-Fi fixes this problem in the majority of cases”.

Mr Hampton reminds us that lack of mobile coverage in and around a property can be a serious health and safety issue. In 2008, Southport Central realised they had a problem with coverage in its car parking area. This property is a large three tower development in Southport on the Gold Coast.

Such a large development has large scale amenities to match and the body corporate is the largest in the southern hemisphere with over seven hundred apartments. The car park therefore is huge, with 2900 car parking spaces.

One of the things that couldn’t be predicted during the design and construction phase of the project was mobile phone reception, particularly in the large car park area. This soon became an issue for the body corporate, primarily as a safety issue for people using it.

Safety was of paramount importance to the body corporate and so they spoke to a Powertec expert, who recommended the Cel-Fi unit, solving the problem.

But be warned, Mr Hampton says: “Cel-Fi is the only consumer mobile phone repeater that has been approved by all mobile carriers in Australia. Currently approved for use on the Telstra, Optus and Vodafone mobile networks, Cel-Fi is a mobile enhancement device called a smart repeater. There are other companies selling non-compliant consumer repeaters that appear to be from Australia. Buying non Cel-Fi repeaters from them may result in large fines and loss of the equipment.”

The best way for an accommodation to increase its revenue is always to give guests what they want. This includes providing for their technological needs as best you can. Some of the industry is sadly holding back.

The lesson for all accommodation providers must be not to stand in the way of technology – it makes sense to go forward and provide for those self-contained guests.

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