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Clearly Speaking

By George Koroneos • Contributing Editor - 11/01/2006
Hotel operators have taken a massive monetary hit from guests using their cell phones rather than their room phones to make local and long distance calls. It makes sense. Why spend up to a dollar a minute to make a call that costs pennies from a wireless provider?

"The cell phone is predictable, where as the hotel phone costs are not predictable," says Gustaaf Schrils of the Intercontinental Hotels Group. "Very few guests know what it costs to make a call from a hotel, while they know exactly what their costs are on their cell phone. Cell phone plans are just too difficult to compete against."

In an effort to provide additional telecommunication options to guests, some properties have started replacing their antiquated analog-phone systems with high-tech, touchscreen phones that run over an Internet protocol (such as Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP) using a digital or hybrid analog/digital switch system. While this new technology won't make guests leave their cell phones at home, the features offered in these smart phones give customers service in the palm of their hands.

With great tech comes great responsibility

Rather than trying to recoup lost revenue from increased cell phone use, some hotels — such as the recently rechristened London New York in Manhattan (formerly The Regal)— have put guest satisfaction first by providing state-of-the-art technology through their telecomm systems.

"We made the decision that great technology is really an amenity and no longer a source of revenue for us," says Dave Coler, information technology advisor at the London New York. "So we are really focused on technology as something that enables guests to enjoy our hotels better."

Every room at the London has two Mitel ( XML-enabled display phones. XML phones allow the property to create virtual pages, similar to a Web site. Using the phone, guests can find information that would typically be written on paper collateral or viewed on the in-room television such as the dining menu, room service and concierge information, or a list of hotel happenings. "In a hotel where you want to create a clean design, this helps eliminate the litter on the desk," Coler says. Other functionalities include local weather, a music jukebox, call waiting, call hold and wake-up calls.

The screen is two and a half times the size of a Palm Treo ( screen. It has a monochrome display with black text on white, and is touch sensitive. "Originally, the phone was selected based on its aesthetics," informs Coler. "It fits the motif of the hotel and the style we were going for," agrees David Thor, the property's advisor of enterprise infrastructure. "Even at the hotels that aren't being renovated, we are looking to upgrade the phones and deliver those services," Thor says.

For the London New York, the return on investment (ROI) is not even a question. "It's all about amenities," Thor says. "We really have given up on the idea that phones will generate revenue. It's all about us delivering more services to the guests. Anyone can pick up a cell phone and make that same phone call."

End-to-end solution
While some hotels are purchasing smart phones to help streamline their hotel rooms, other establishments are focusing on the quality of phone lines to ensure a crystal clear connection across the globe.

The Intercontinental Hotel Group, set to open the Intercontinental Boston in November as of press time, will be the company's first hotel to feature voice over IP from end to end. VoIP consists of three main sections, the VoIP-enabled phone in the room, the VoIP switch in the hotel mainframe, and the broadband signal running over the public network. Many hotels have converted to a VoIP network, but still have an analog phone in the room. "Very few hotels have a VoIP end-to-end network because VoIP or IP phones are still at a premium and significantly more expensive than the analog phones," Schrils apprises.

End-to-end IP is the ability to have a telephone connection from one side of the world to the other at the cost of a basic Internet connection, because the digital phone line uses a common Internet protocol that is used across the globe. "Right now we have a regional telecomm provider like BellSouth ( with a local exchange," Schrils says. "The call has to be transferred to another provider to go out of state and then back again to terminate the call. You don't have a way to bypass those carriers in the traditional digital/analog world."

However, the cost of the phone units isn't the only price paid by switching to a total digital phone system. An end-to-end VoIP solution could have a weaker phone signal and more line noise depending on the class of service. Voice quality is significantly better on pricier services and bandwidth packages, whereas there appears to be no discernable difference in sound quality between the different analog and hybrid analog/digital services.

Another potential dilemma is power. As long as the Internet is on, the VoIP phone is on. However, in the event of power failure, all Internet phones are useless unless the hotel has a battery back up or power generator. "The other issue is that in a pure VoIP world you need to be concerned with call routing," Schrils says. "When someone calls 911, you want to be sure that the call goes to the local station and not a different city's emergency response unit. That is one area where you need to be careful to properly program the phone."

Viva Las VoIP
At the Red Rock Resort and Spa in Las Vegas, guests actually have a peculiar connectivity problem — they can't get their cell phones to work. Due to the amount of digital noise and interference surrounding the city, many guests found that their cell phones weren't receiving a strong signal and calls were being dropped or never received.

To give guests a better connection to the outside world, the resort installed VoIP handsets in every room. These Nortel ( smart phones feature a small footprint and allow guests to make their own reservations to the spa or dining rooms. In the future, the resort can install plug-ins for weather reports, calendars and menus. "You are limited by space on the screen and you don't want to get too deep into multiple levels of menus or the phone will become confusing for the guests," says Bryan Miles, director of networking technology at the hotel. "You want to make it very simple."

One unique feature of the Nortel phone is its ability to run advertisements. Hotels that don't have in-house restaurants or entertainment could lease space on the phone screen for small ads. "If I'm on a property where we have a live stage act, and if they have situations where the show hasn't sold out, they could promote specials or reduced prices for that night's performance on the screen," explains Doug Sorvik, director of IT at the Red Rock.

Red Rock management has decided not to use the ad feature for the time being, as they don't want to do anything too "outside of the box" until they feel that the guests are comfortable with the technology. "We have a variety of clientele and guests that come into the property," informs Sorvik. "If you start throwing something at them that's intimidating, they get turned off really quickly."

Miles recalls another property in Las Vegas that opened up within the last year and tried to add a plethora of plug-ins to its phones, but had to turn those features off very quickly when guests began complaining about how difficult the phones were to use.

"There are all these bells and whistles that you can put on these phones, but you have to take it slow," Miles says "When cell phones first came out, they didn't have text features or Web browsing — they added that slowly. We are trying to go the same way. Get people comfortable with the technology and introduce them to new features one at a time.

"One of the questions we always ask ourselves is, •How did we get along with out cell phones?' Before that it was pagers. Pretty soon it will be the same thing with IP rooms."