|By Eric Gwinn, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 1, 2008 - Chicago-area hotels are going ga-ga for gadgets in a nod to a world that can't seem to live without its iPods and cell phones.
The Hard Rock Hotel is about to start upgrading to HDTVs in every room. The Peninsula has added equipment to improve cell phone reception in rooms on its upper floors.
The Hyatt chain is about to open its fourth Chicago-area Hyatt Place property, an all-suite spinoff that offers a "Plug Panel" in each room. This wall-mounted plate is covered with connectors that allow you to attach your laptop and use the in-room 42-inch HDTV as your monitor; or plug in your MP3 player and listen to it through the TV's room-filling speakers. The Peninsula is installing new 42-inch plasma TVs in every room and 50-inch plasmas in its suites.
Hotel upgrades in Chicagoland are part of a lifestyles hotel trend to attract a hip, younger, well-connected crowd. But even hotels that cater to the rest of us realize they need at least a flat-panel TV and free Internet access to make guests feel welcome.
"From what I've seen and industry reports I've read," says Jill O'Neill, spokeswoman for the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, "it does seem hotels are going toward an emphasis on lifestyle and catering to people's interests, personalizing things. For example, the Four Seasons wants to know everything about you so you can have your favorite food or robe. Hotels are going toward lifestyle because they want you to feel at home."
To be sure, all this doesn't come free. In most hotels, it's the higher-priced suites that feature extra tech touches, such as in-room Xbox 360 video game systems, a safe for your laptop, and mood lighting you can control with the touch of a button. But one day, even those amenities might become standard; a few years ago, you had to pay extra to have a room with a flat-panel TV and Wi-Fi access.
While catering to tech-loving travelers sets a hotel apart, hotel managers say, it's not as important as the human touch.
"Nobody comes back to a hotel for the toys," says John Price, general manager of Hard Rock Hotel Chicago, undergoing a million-dollar tech renovation it will unveil in 2009. "They come back for the human interaction. You can have all the technology in the room you want, but you want to hire hospitable people who can connect with guests. The hospitality industry is still about delighting someone when they show up at your door."
Here are 10 tech-friendly hotels in the Chicago area:
AFFINIA HOTEL CHICAGO 166 E. Superior St.; 312-787-6000, affinia.com
Why stay here? An iGo charger is delivered to your room so you can charge just about anything. Call ahead to request wired Internet service for extra security.
CONRAD CHICAGO 521 N. Rush St.; 312-645-1500, conradchicago.com
Why stay here? Besides the Bose entertainment system and 42-inch plasma TV in the room, you'll find an alarm clock with a dock for charging your iPod while listening to your favorite tunes, instead of the local radio stations.
DAYS INN CHICAGO 644 W. Diversey Pkwy.; 773-525-7010, daysinnchicago.net
Why stay here? After you've surfed to your heart's content with free Wi-Fi, store your laptop in the in-room safe before wandering East Lakeview, one of Chicago's coolest neighborhoods.
FOUR SEASONS 120 E. Delaware Pl.; 312-280-8800, fourseasons.com/chicagofs
Why stay here? The Compcierge service does more than bring you a missing USB cable. It will troubleshoot your PDA--or if you're like the unlucky guest who dropped and broke her laptop the night before a presentation, it can arrange a loaner while working to recover your data, says Ray Cueto, director of IT. (In that guest's case, it was a happy ending.)
GOLD COAST GUEST HOUSE 113 W. Elm St.; 312-337-0361, bbchicago.com
Why stay here? It's a warm and friendly bed and breakfast in the heart of Chicago. It's not the techy-est place on our list, but it's here because of owner Sally Baker's friendliness and because using free Wi-Fi in the secluded garden is a summertime treat.
HARD ROCK HOTEL CHICAGO 230 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-345-1000, hardrockhotelchicago.com
Why stay here? Tell the hotel your fave musical act, and tunes you like will be pumped into your room.
HOTEL SAX CHICAGO 333 N. Dearborn St.; 312-245-0333, hotelsaxchicago.com
Why stay here? This is the king of next-generation hotels. Suites feature Xbox 360 game systems, laptops and Zune media players that will tempt you to spend your vacation in your room. Tell the hotel your favorite music artist and your suite will have a Zune filled with tunes you like. Leave the Zune or the Xbox games in the room, or take them home and receive a credit card charge later.
HYATT PLACE Three locations: 2340 S. Fountain Square Drive, Lombard; 1150 N. Arlington Heights Rd., Itasca; 2750 Greenspoint Pkwy., Hoffman Estates. 888-492-8847, hyatt.com/hyatt/place
Why stay here? Friendly, laid-back atmosphere. In-room connection station lets you hook up your laptop to the TV. Kiosks near the door let you check in or check out and print your airline boarding pass with a swipe of your credit card.
THE PENINSULA 108 E. Superior St.; 312-337-2888, chicago.peninsula.com
Why stay here? A tech staff in white lab coats assist your every tech need. Forgot to bring your USB charger? The bedside panel--an office phone-size device on a nightstand in every room--controls all 12 lights in the room and can create mood lighting.
W CHICAGO LAKE SHORE 644 N. Lake Shore Drive; 312-943-9200, whotels.com/lakeshore
Why stay here? The W Hotels were the first to bring cool, contemporary lifestyle properties to Chicago. Free Wi-Fi with a view of Lake Michigan? Check.
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