News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Eric Hübler, The Denver Post
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 29, 2004 - "Must" and "have." "Three years ago wireless Internet and high-speed Internet in guest rooms was considered to be something 'out there,' on the edge," said John Montgomery, a hospitality consultant with Horwath Horizon in Denver.
"Who would have thought that, in a few years, your customer base would demand it?" That's what's happening throughout the Denver area, where hotels are scurrying to add speedy Net links.
Three-quarters of the hotels in Denver International Airport's orbit -- with 5,043 guest rooms, nearly the same as downtown -- have or are installing high-speed networks, said Susan Stanton, a vice president of DIA Partnership.
"We were really stunned by how many were saying, 'Yeah, we're right in the middle of upgrading; we'll have it up by April or May,' " she said.
Sometimes travelers don't know they need high-speed until they see how fast it really is. ("High-speed" generally means 128 kilobits per second or better.) "The business travelers that are coming into DIA, they look at what the amenities are, and if it's high- speed Internet -- boom, you've got their business right away," said Cynthia Milliken, general manager of Red Roof Inn and Suites near the airport, which includes high- speed access in its regular room rate.
The same is true downtown.
Larry Thompson, a commercial real estate broker from California, typically books a room at Courtyard by Marriott Denver Downtown because he likes the ambience.
Now he can exchange image-laden proposals from his laptop at the hotel back and forth to his office.
If the Marriott still had dial-up Internet access, "I'd get up an hour earlier or go to bed an hour later and drink extra cups of coffee while waiting for my programs to download," he said.
The Marriott is one of 115 hotels in 30 states with high-speed access installed by SuiteSpeed Inc., a privately held Louisville company. SuiteSpeed isn't the biggest player in bringing high-speed to hospitality -- those would be Wayport Inc. of Austin, Texas, and STSN Inc. of Salt Lake City. Each has set up about 900 properties, including several hotels in Colorado.
But in a country with 50,000 hotels, "the marketplace is wide open," said SuiteSpeed president Michael S. Wasik.
SuiteSpeed set up its first network in late 2001 at Best Western Hitching Post Inn in Cheyenne, where Wyoming legislators were staying. The lawmakers had been issued laptops to help them stay in touch with their farms and businesses, and the hotel got a quote of $250,000 for a wired network.
SuiteSpeed installed a wireless one instead for less than $30,000.
Wireless networks -- known as Wi-Fi, for Wireless Fidelity -- have many attractions. They're easy to install because they rely on small transmitters that can be hidden in linen closets. Hotels in historic buildings such as Denver's Oxford and Magnolia went wireless because laying new lines would be disruptive.
The Magnolia charges $7.95 a day for high-speed access, while it's no extra charge at the Oxford.
"People really like it," said Kathy Byrne, the Oxford's director of sales and marketing.
But some companies forbid wireless transmissions because data can be less secure than over wires.
So the downtown Denver Marriott has both: wires in guest rooms and Wi-Fi in the lobby and restaurants.
"They could be in the lounge sipping a cold one or a glass of wine in the evening while checking their e-mails, or having breakfast checking their e-mails before they head out for the day. It gives the guest a very different experience than when they were tethered to a cable in their guest room and that's as far as they can go," said David Shanks, SuiteSpeed's director of business development.
Users can log on either way and stay connected for their entire stay at a cost of nothing to $13.95 per day for the fastest speeds. A Marriott guest could, for example, log on through the jack in his room, then unplug and carry his laptop to the Starbucks on the ground floor and keep working.
(The Starbucks has its own Wi-Fi access point. A customer who logged on there and then went into the hotel would drop off the network, because the Marriott's signal covers the Starbucks but not vice versa.) Since only about 5 percent of business travelers have wireless cards in their laptops, SuiteSpeed offers adapters to the hotels it serves. Guests can borrow them from the front desk.
Wasik and Shanks expect the adapters to be obsolete in two years. Then, they speculated, virtually all business travelers will carry wireless-capable computers.
Because it's unrealistic to expect desk clerks to tinker with computers, SuiteSpeed hired a 24-hour customer call center. The handoff worked well when Larry Thompson had trouble getting started.
"I'm an expert in light switches: I know how to turn them on and how to turn them off," he said.
He called the desk; the desk patched him through to the call center; Thompson was online a few minutes later.
Janice M. Lucas, the downtown Denver Marriott's general manager, discovered the importance of customer service on a recent visit to Dallas. She stayed in a Courtyard by Marriott, and it too had high-speed Internet; the company launched a national ad campaign in January telling guests it's now standard.
But the Dallas hotel used a different service provider that didn't offer live customer support at night. Lucas needed help so she called the toll-free number, only to get a recording saying the network was working fine.
But Lucas still didn't know how to access the network.
"It was like: 'Wow. Now I know how important' " customer service is, she said.
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