Hotels go hi-tech

Features, Back of House

In-room spas and jacuzzis do not impress anymore. Business travellers today look for value in terms of technology that makes their stay more fruitful, be it in entertainment, connectivity or convenience. Hotelier India takes a look at how in room technology is now the ‘in’ thing.

In room technologies that most hotels provide today can be roughly listed under four heads:
• Entertainment technologies i.e. HDTV, Nintendo, Microsoft Media Center);
• In room comfort technologies (i.e. battery charger, flame free candles, walking alarm clock), and convenience products like bedside consol for (i.e. temperature and light controls)
• Connectivity , and
• Green technologies. (i.e. energy management systems, water-saving shower head)

Entertainment Value
It all started with the TV. Entertainment was the first stronghold of in-room technology.

High quality HD programming in the room is now topped with upgraded high end sound systems, both for the TV as well as for the audio output.

IPTV has many takers in the hospitality industry too, and the value addition is a scrollable channel list, for more comfort and convenience.

The TV is also metamorphosing into an interactive hub, maybe even integrating the door camera (digital door viewer) with the screen output.

The future of in room entertainment is even more exciting. Guests may soon have the option of network-based DVRs that will allow guests to access content stored on their home DVRs. Communication companies, Verizon and AT&T are working on it.

Taking the integration of technology in entertainment a step further, some hotels globally have even installed connectivity panels that allow the guests to play any media such as laptops, digital cameras, iPods and game consoles from their portable electronics through the in-room TV.

In addition, a Bluetooth device makes the system wireless, enabling users to stream music from their Smartphone through TV speakers without cables. A guest can then control the music from anywhere in the guest unit, even the bathroom.

Comfort Rules
With remote access to almost all room facilities, TV, AC, lights, sometimes even curtains, there were a number of remote controls in the room and it was difficult to figure out what belongs to which gadget.

One of the earliest ways most of the hotels used technology in rooms was by providing a bedside console unit that housed what would otherwise have been half a dozen remotes and it is now a regular feature in most business hotels.

This is now almost a part of the furniture but customisations are regularly done to add greater value. The step ahead, industry experts say, is a voice recognition panel that will not even need buttons, only commands!

In India, the bedside consoles are used in most brands, including Marriot, Taj, Sheraton, Novotel, Hyderabad, to name a few. Ista, Bengaluru, had installed the panel in 2006, and are quite happy with guests’ feedback.

”We do have an in-room bedside console, with a time image and alarm clock, and the panel controls lights, AC, and shows international time,” says Kiran Kumar, executive housekeeper of the property. The Ista property in Amritsar has a newer version of this panel, in which there is an option of the TV volume being automatically lowered when the phone rings, and also that of room service ordering from a touch screen phone.

Adds Gaurav Arora, Head – Operations, Hospitality Sales and Marketing Company, that distributes Minxon Room management system, one of the most widely used products, “We have two types of systems for guest convenience.
The room management system can integrate lighting, temperature, and a number of other room functions on a single bedside panel. It can also be customised to include dimmers, mood lighting, etc.

This can be integrated with an online hotel management system or building management system to store the guests’ preferences, so more personalised service can be provided.”

As far as customisation goes, the system can provide four dimmer circuits, where the lights can gradually come on and switch off, for dimmer and mood effects.

In this system, the air-conditioning thermostat can also be programmed for a preset temperature and fan speed when the key card is out (which is an energy saving operation). Different settings for summers and winters can also be achieved keeping guest comfort and energy management in mind.

Arora’s Minxon was first installed in Le Meridien, New Delhi, in the year 2004. Apart from Meridian, they now have their bedside console installed in The Claridges, New Delhi, ITC Maurya, New Delhi, Sheraton Rajputana, Jaipur, and ITC Mughal in Agra, Ista Bangalore, Amritsar, Pune and Hyderabd, ITC Windsor Manor, Bangalore, and the Sheraton Chola, Chennai.

Another brand in this line is MK-Honeywell. It also has products like a bedside console unit that can eliminate a whole number of remotes, and can be customised to add functionalities – like curtain control, which needs additional motors that specialised vendors can supply. Honeywell has a hospitality range that starts from switches, cables and goes up to lighting control, LED lighting.

The recently opened Best Western Premier La Marvella, the new luxury hotel in Bengaluru, offers a customised iPod Touch for all their rooms, which allows guests to wirelessly control anything and everything in their room.

Sunil Dutta, EDP Manager, says, “We give an iPod to the guests during check in. This can control everything in the room – the door lock, lighting, curtains, AC, the door camera, the TV unit – its movies, videos, audio, interactive TV, orders for room service and even do their check using the iPod.

The billing can be done directly through it and it saves a lot of waiting time for the guests.” But some guests are not so tech savvy, so he adds, “Some guests find it a bit difficult initially, especially some of our senior guests, but with a little help from the hotel staff, it is not so difficult anymore.”

To mention some more innovations, in some Taj properties, there is a keyboard in the room that gives flight details of some airlines. Consoles can also control the curtains in some hotels.

Another addition is the provision of a red DND button and the green ‘make up my room’ button in the console, with lights that will show outside the room.

One of the newer products is a wireless, battery-less controller that will perform a number of tasks – that of a controlling a Key Card Access Switch, lighting and HVAC in hotel rooms.

It is an energy saving devices that requires no additional wiring so can be called eco-friendly, and also doesn’t add points to operating costs.

Moreover it is connected to a thermostat that will receive a signal when someone inserts the room key card i.e. enters the room. The lights and devices in the room will be on when the guest enters, and not only that, but will be adjusted to the optimal level.

When the room is empty, i.e., the card is not in the slot, the thermostat gets the signal and the HVAC unit is set to economy mode, shutting down power to the AC and lights.

Cisco’s Unified IP Phone 7970, is another intelligent console, designed to provide instant access to essential information including maps, city guides, shops, flight arrivals/departures, and weather forecasts.

It can be used to book wake-up calls, post ‘do not disturb’ signs, and even send automated room service requests. The handset also has the provision to use the colour screen display for playing games or send and receive text messages and e-mail or use it as an IP phone to specify an address, record a personal message and then forward it as an attachment via e-mail.

The next frontier – go green
Green technologies are also fast taking the forefront, shower with controllable pressure that can help economise water consumption, or an air-conditioning thermostat that is set to optimum by the Building Management system, is a welcome addition to the room.

The newer trends are built around the existing access key cards for rooms, but with a difference. These can also control the power consumption in the room.

With an increasing green awareness, guests expect the hotel to keep some basic principles in place, optimal power and water consumption being some. Technology has lent a helping hand to these initiatives in some ways too.

Some hotels use their technology options to conserve energy and water through HVAC Controllers mentioned earlier. Others provide buttons/switches in the rooms to allow guests to use their prerogative to control their water/power consumption.

Where automatically set, some hotels do not allow guests to override energy management systems. The system sets the temperature/pressure levels to pre-determined markups, especially when the room is unoccupied. Sensors that can report the room occupancy status to the controller can help save up to 40% energy.

Connectivity Comfort
For business travellers, connectivity is the mainstay of existence. While Wi-Fi connectivity is fast becoming a regular service in most hospitality business areas, it is basic connectivity that is a point of focus for rooms.

IT majors in this league like Cisco and HP have taken the lead with products like HP’s E Series suite of routers, switches and controllers for distributed network for wireless access.

HP’s E Series wireless multiservice controllers, access points and devices are now in the market, with international brands like Marriot opting for them. A step ahead would be devices that provide access integrating both wired and wireless connectivity ports in hotel rooms.

This helps reduce cabling, switch ports and power sourcing equipment costs significantly.

Cisco’s IP phone also provides advanced connectivity. Among some other brands, Teladapt, a UK based brand, have networking products that allow Wi-Fi access for no Wi-Fi rooms. With products like the MediaHub HD™ TA-7650, with Bluetooth and Auto-Sensing, desk hub and desk cards, PowerHub™ TA-7500 Power & Data, ChargeHub™ TA-9500, iP9 iHome Hotel Mode Dual Alarm Clock Radio, the DeskPoint series it provides a whole range of switches that aid connectivity.

Gaurav Arora, the India distributor adds, “Most of the bigger brands in hospitality in India have been using our products, ITC, Holiday Inn, Royal Orchid and The Oberoi group and we have an increasing number of clients in the industry for these connectivity products.”

The Way Ahead
Says Lalit Kapoor, MD of PMIL, “Motorised beds that can be folded, lights can be sensor-operated in the bathroom too, the whole room should be so high on functionality that there will be no hand usage.

We are now working on those things, and soon the super deluxe plus hotels will go this way. As of now the business category hotels still use bedside panels/consoles. As soon as the new technology gets in hands-free products, they will be soon using those too. So this is a highly evolving world.”

He also feels that going forward, budget hotels will not use too much technology. “There are so many new hotels slated for opening, the market will be flooded, ARRS will ultimately fall and so to squeeze the budgets, the tech spends are likely to be reduced,” he says.

While technology is everybody’s favorite buzzword today, there are still barriers to adoption, mainly brought about by the inability to adapt to change.

The future of in room technology:
• In-room safes now double up as laptop chargers.
• Locking alternatives now include swiping the guestroom key card or fingerprint recognition.
• Mini Bars with inbuilt ‘fuzzy logic’.
• Door locks – with RFID transmitters as well as cameras (some smart cards can also record the state of lock batteries and alert maintenance of the need to change them)

In the next 5 years, hotel rooms could:
• Have floors with built-in sensors that light the way for guests, doors that can be unlocked through mobile phones and alarm clocks that wake guests by lighting up the rooms
• Create an active link between the TV menu and hotel services such as room service and spa bookings, golf tee-time bookings, and wake-up call set-up, and get them golf, spa and other reservations too.

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