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Hotels Ramp up Hi Tech Gadgets to Meet Guest Expectations

By Richard Newman, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sep. 11, 2009--The 20,000-square-foot spa -- with yoga studio, mineral pool and herbal steam room -- is a main attraction at the new Montage Beverly Hills hotel and resort, where the rates range from $400 to more than $1,500 a night.

Less visible, but equally cutting edge, is the hotel's wireless-room amenities control system that allows guests to turn on the television, dim the lights, open and close the drapes, adjust the room temperature, and set a wake-up alarm with one remote.

Such smart technology may seem like an over-the-top extravagance. But hotel operator and developer Alan Fuerstman, chief executive officer of the developer/operator, Montage Hotels and Resorts, and a native of New Milford, says such amenities are important "differentiators" in the upscale hospitality market, "but they need to be user-friendly."

The system also is an energy saver as it lets the company automatically turn down the air conditioning and turn out the lights when guests check out, he said.

Fuerstman, 53, who got his start in the hotel business as a doorman at the Saddle Brook Marriott, declined to say how much the wireless-control system provided by Salt Lake City-based Control4 cost. It also will be installed in a Montage resort under development in Deer Valley, Utah, slated to open in late 2010.

Fuerstman and other hoteliers who have the cash say they continue to invest in high-tech gadgets for the comfort, convenience and amusement of guests, despite a steep decline in occupancy rates and revenue. Spending on high-speed Internet remains a particularly high priority, especially at properties that rely heavily on corporate clients.

"It has become an expected service," said Al Hamdi, general manager of the Hasbrouck Heights Hilton where guests can check in and out and download airline boarding passes at a kiosk in the lobby.

"Everybody carries a BlackBerry, an iPhone or a laptop," he said.

Hamdi said the hotel, where occupancy rates have fallen sharply, expects to spend about $50,000 later this year to boost the bandwidth in its meeting rooms.

Rates there range from $99 to $189 a night and the hotel charges an extra $9.95 for online access.

The five-year-old Mandarin Oriental in Manhattan's Columbus Circle, with rates from about $800 to more than $2,500 a night, offers flat screen TVs that are at least 37 inches wide in all of its rooms. The rooms also have MP3 docking stations, XBX360 and Wii video games. DS3 bandwidth for speedy downloading of movies and videos is available for $15 a day while lower bandwidth access is complementary.

In response to customers' requests, the hotel, which caters to business travelers in the entertainment and financial industries, is adding iMacs to the scattering of PCs in its "business center," a work station that is shared by guests.

"When they come to the hotel they expect to have the same kind of capability they have in their homes and businesses," said spokeswoman Tammy Peters.

Apple Core Hotels, a group of five Midtown Manhattan properties owned by a group of investors that includes Kenny Greif of Englewood, has installed flat panel televisions and iPod docking stations in all of its rooms.

"We did this a year ago," said Vijay Dandapani, president and chief operating officer.

"I'm not sure we would have done this after the recession took hold," he said.

The company planned to install TVs that double as mirrors in some the bathrooms this year, but because business is slow they put it off until early next year, he said.

According to Smith Travel Research, the occupancy rate during the week of Aug. 23-29 was down 12.4 percent from the comparable period in 2008 and daily room rates were down nationwide by 11 percent to $94.01 on average and by 29.1 percent to $182.90 in the New York City area.

The ongoing credit crunch has put a crimp on some hotel upgrade plans, according to Michael Wasik, chief executive officer of Roomlinx Inc., a provider of wireless Internet services to hotels. He said the company raised $5 million recently in a debt offering so it could provide financing to install the company's new multifaceted TV systems for those hotel customers who have been turned away by banks.

"The credit crunch has been a sales speed bump," he said. "We've had to get flexible with our strategy because of the economy," he said.

The company, which moved a few years ago to Denver from Hackensack, last month announced installations of its Roomlinx Interactive TV, in seven hotels in Illinois and Georgia.

Meanwhile, some hotels are investing in new beds, because for many guests a good night's sleep is what counts the most.

The Westminster Hotel in Livingston last summer announced the installation of motorized Hollandia International "sleep systems," which offer guests a dozen different massage programs.

E-mail: newman@northjersey.com

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.

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