07/19/2021
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Networks & Connectivity: The Foundation of Today’s Hospitality

Your network is more critical than ever, supporting the customer journey, workforce training and management, and serving as your front line in cybersecurity. Here’s how to stay connected.
Robert Firpo-Cappiello
Editor-in-Chief
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For hotel and restaurant operators, the definition of the word “network” has evolved drastically. Once upon a time, a relatively reliable Wi-Fi, often merely consumer-grade, was regarded as sufficient to meet customer and on-site needs. Now, of course, a hospitality enterprise’s network drives not only the customer journey but also communications, workforce training and development, back office operations, and the security of the data that is routinely collected and transmitted to drive today’s hospitality experiences. 

When we speak of connectivity now, we take for granted that it is reliable and speedy — any disruption or congestion can mean a significant loss of revenue and damage to the customer relationship. In addition, guests and operators demand (whether they understand the underlying technology or not) cloud-based solutions, authentication, indoor and outdoor service on-property, and a level of personalization that requires data and analytics to measure behavior, wait times, and repeat visits. As hospitality leaders make digital engagement with guests an investment priority, they must recognize that that engagement begins with a rock-solid network.

Here, we take a look at the challenges that hospitality brands face with implementing and maintaining an appropriate network, the networking needs specific to the hotel and restaurant industries, and some of the emerging technologies that will continue to transform the way we do business.

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Challenges in Networks & Connectivity

“Hotels have many challenges with networking and connectivity,” says Mark Haley, Partner, Prism Hospitality Consulting. “Aging cable plants that were never installed properly in the first place, lack of staff who understand networking, and a rotating cast of characters from outsourced third-party service providers is not a good equation for a stable, secure, high-performing network.” Haley also notes that outdated servers and switches and concrete walls that limit Wi-Fi signals are a worst-case scenario for some properties. “This is why brands have developed standards and certified vendors for this crucial element of hotel infrastructure.” Hotel chains have suffered from some high-profile data breaches in recent years, and the right network infrastructure can serve as the front line against hacking and other cybersecurity threats. (Haley shares some thoughts on best practices below, in “Communication and Personalization Drive Hotel Networking Needs.”)

For restaurants, a dependence on cloud applications can leave operators vulnerable to spotty networks — limiting their ability to take mobile orders, process payments, streamline drive-thru, curbside, and delivery, and manage employee schedules. (For a look at restaurant best practices, see “Efficiency and Convenience Drive Restaurant Networking Needs,” below.)
 

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Executive Insight Q&A with Robert Grosz, EVP and Chief Commercial Officer, World Cinema

 

HT: How does robust networking and connectivity support in-room entertainment?

Robert Grosz: Networking and connectivity support in-room entertainment by providing faster speeds, greater coverage, increased reliability, low latencies. With the evolution of 5G, hotels and guests can expect:

  • Enhanced mobile broadband for high bandwidth
  • Massive machine communication
  • Ultra-reliable low latency communication

For hotels, connectivity is also a necessity for optimizing operating efficiency and service delivery, which leads to higher levels of guest satisfaction; a Wi-Fi’s reliability can make or break a customer’s loyalty.

Managed Wi-Fi allows an outside party to ensure the system operates flawlessly around an entire property, encompassing infrastructure, equipment, software integration, and system security and stability – from smart room technology and alert systems to wireless and cellular back-up. READ MORE INSIGHTS!

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Communication and Personalization Drive Hotel Networking Needs

The hotel guest journey now includes a range of digital touchpoints, from booking via OTA or mobile app or the brand’s website, arrival (including, in some cases, shuttle service), check-in via mobile device or in-person, the IoT technology that drives some guest rooms, to a personalized guest experience that drives satisfaction, loyalty, and return visits.

One of the ways in which network and connectivity needs have changed at hotels is the rise of in-room entertainment as a means of not only entertaining but also communicating with guests and offering products and services.”With the rise of streaming services, the guest expectation of video on-demand services in hotels completely evaporated,” Haley notes.  “The guest’s desire now is to get their own Netflix, Amazon Prime, or other service on the very large TV in the guest room.” The most effective way to do this is “casting” from a mobile device, where the guest logs into their streaming  account on their own mobile phone and then casts the signal to the TV. 

The rise of mobile technology continues to drive self-service and communication. At our most recent HT-NEXT conference, at least one hotel operator suggested that the most underutilized technology at a hotel is the guests’ mobile devices.

Another area of evolution is that in-room entertainment systems have become much more valuable as a source of communication and important information. Haley says, “First, most hotels removed the compendia from guest rooms with the advent of COVID-19 response measures, and no one is in any hurry to put them back, so the in-room entertainment system becomes a more valuable alternative.  Second, vendors are doing a great job competing with one another on richer and easier-to-use content management systems on the back-end of the systems.  So if an F&B outlet changes its hours, or the fitness center is now reopened, hotel personnel with a minimal amount of training can update the hotel information pages in the in-room entertainment system and publish the changes in real time.”

In-room entertainment is now an extension of a brand’s marketing strategy, with opportunities to reinforce branding, property-management-system integration, and tools that personalize the guest experience. All that communication, which includes not only interactive TVs but also chatbots and text messaging, presents opportunities for sales, new amenities, and revenue.

“From my observations, selling merchandise through these channels is not that effective,” says Haley. “But good content with outstanding photography might get the guest into the retail store. I believe the opportunities lie in selling non-physical hotel services, like a late checkout at noon for $25, or 4PM for $100. And with pre-arrival text messaging, the chatbot can offer an early check-in for an appropriate fee if the timing is right.”

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Efficiency and Convenience Drive Restaurant Networking Needs

Customer demand for efficiency in “transactional” dining — including off-prem solutions such as drive-thru, curbside pickup, and delivery — is a critical consideration for restaurants seeking optimal networking solutions. Indoor and outdoor Wi-Fi (ideally fully managed and bundled) can allow restaurant staff to pivot from front-of-house to curbside or drive-thru using handheld mobile devices such as tablets to “line bust,” increasing customer satisfaction. Reliable connectivity is also essential for the array of mobile ordering options now available to restaurant guests, from apps to third-party delivery, not to mention ordering and pickup options such as food lockers and self-service kiosks.

Restaurants are also deploying digital signage as a solution to engage guests not only with menu options but also important information about health and safety protocols. Digital signage gives restaurant operators a range of options to engage with customers via eye-catching graphics, animation, and video. Digital signage integrated into a restaurant’s onboarding, training, and development program has proved successful as well.

Standardization of networks across multiple restaurant units is regarded as a best practice for laying the most solid foundation for operations. With increased demand on networks from cloud applications, solutions such as SD-WAN and Unified Threat Management allow operators to better monitor and protect data. A standardized network also enhances a restaurant brand’s ability to efficiently implement new solutions at scale.

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On the Horizon

The hospitality industry is at an inflection point, with key lessons learned in adversity during the pandemic now translating into longer-term solutions. Technologies such as voice, facial recognition, 5G, Edge, IoT, and SD-WAN — and the networking solutions that support them — are now front and center as brands evaluate what their future investments and implementations should look like. Brands will assess what kinds of technology experiences they want to implement over the next decade, what that roadmap looks like over time, and how robust networking and connectivity will play a foundational role.

Voice for hotels is very exciting to me,” says Haley.  “In order to drive value and utility to the guest, the voice assistant (typically Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant) needs to be connected to other things on-property: To the in-room entertainment system to turn the TV on and tune to the desired channel, for example; to the room automation system to turn the thermostat up or down, open or close drapes, turn lights on/off, etc.; and the most important class of voice integration is with the service optimization system, where the guest can say “Hey, Google, tell my hotel to bring us four fresh towels.”  The voice assistant’s natural language processor interprets the request and opens a ticket in the SOS, which then takes over and dispatches the ticket to staff for fulfillment. No hotel labor required until someone is carrying the towels!”

Haley’s feelings about facial recognition technology are not quite so optimistic. “Facial recognition is a tough one,” he says. “It has become politicized for the wrong reasons. I get it in casinos and airports, for example, but for most hospitality brands I would counsel caution. Where aspects of facial recognition technology work for hotels is in automating the matching of a photo ID with the person presenting it to fully automate the check-in process.”

“5G is here now from the network perspective in city centers and newer smartphones,” says Haley.  “What now needs to happen are other devices that ride on the 5G network and add value. Suppose your airport shuttles had 5G-enabled devices that not only told when an oil change was due, but also that the shuttle was at Terminal 3 and would be back at the hotel with an estimated six arrivals? Would that help you manage that service better?”

"SD-WAN, when executed properly, should be wholly invisible to the property, and very visible as a cost savings in the company’s network,” says Haley.  “Likewise Edge computing — people have been putting content on the edge to improve performance and reduce latency for years. What is different is how inexpensive and accessible it is now.”