Wi-Fi networks for hotels
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Hotels are embracing wireless technology, both to provide guests with the 24/7 connectivity they expect, and to enable staff to deal with requests faster and more efficiently

Hotels can be like nations within nations. The largest chains are such that you could be anywhere in the world and receive the same level of service.

But as times have changed, so have our expectations of hotel facilities. A kettle, hair-dryer, and some complimentary mini toiletries no longer cut it. It’s unusual these days to find a hotel that doesn’t offer some form of Wi-Fi; whether that’s as a paid-for extra or free as part of the booking.

And it’s no longer an imperative solely for business travellers either. Families, holidaymakers, hen parties… all want 24/7 access to their favourite apps, social media sites and search engines. Hoteliers have cottoned on to this fact, and how fulfilling these wants could boost repeat business, explains Nick Watson, VP EMEA at Ruckus Wireless.

“There’s now an absolute necessity for Wi-Fi. You might not choose a hotel on whether it has good Wi-Fi, but you certainly won’t return to a hotel that lets you down on [it],” he says. “We’re seeing a trend where it’s not [just] the five-star hotels offering this as a fundamental, all hotels now are moving [towards asking if their] Wi-Fi enables guests to do what they want to do.

“The hotels are attempting to future-plan. So they’re putting in [the best technology] they can within budget [so] they will not need to rip and replace in the near future,” Watson continues.

Many people will arrive with more than one device, so to cater for high demand and the latest smartphone capabilities hotels are opting for powerful Wi-Fi. “They’re going for the latest standard: [802.11ac] Wave 2,” says Watson. “We’ve become very intolerant of whether applications perform effectively. Nobody cares how much signal strength they’ve got; they want the application they’re using – no matter how media-rich it is – to meet their expectations.”

However, Mark Campbell, CIO at the Dorchester Collection hotel chain, says: “It’s almost impossible to future-proof something in the wireless arena. You have to look at a four- to five-year maximum investment.” He adds that his company’s strategy is to “put in a first-class service using best of breed hardware and software to ensure the internet is always available.”

Deployment considerations
“As smartphone manufacturers turned down the wireless signal within their devices to save battery life the density and nearness of access points [had to increase],” says Campbell. “Whereas in the past you could have access points in the corridors that would service maybe up to 10 rooms, now they’re much more likely to be in a bedroom and turned down to a lower power.”

A consequence of this is that it increases the need to make Wi-Fi access points as unobtrusive as possible – they’re not the most attractive things for guests to look at. For this reason Ruckus created a device “that is very straightforward to install, very robust and very unobtrusive, [without any difference in performance]. It also enables the hotels to use fewer access points,” explains Watson.

He adds that another key feature of Ruckus’ Wi-Fi access points is its Beamflex technology, which allows its antennas “to select individual devices and track where they’re moving to and avoid tracking other devices”. This addresses radio interference, noise and network performance issues.

Watson says that when it comes to deploying Wi-Fi in hotels it is important to audit systems after they’ve been rolled out, as “people want to use relatively low-skilled labour to do the installations”. Sometimes this results in access points not being installed in the places set out in the RF design. “We’ve had some instances where people have had a fantastic design, but once it’s implemented it wasn’t quite what they expected because of how the technology was [rolled out].”

He adds that hoteliers are looking to better understand their customers’ requirements and the devices they’ll be using.

“Due to antenna strength you get a very different experience using a small PDA compared with an iPad Pro for example. A lot of hotels set up a complete guest suite [to] simulate this. They look at not just the Wi-Fi but also the backhaul capability. The performance of Wi-Fi today is so high that in many cases the limitation is the backhaul capability from the access point, [rather than the access point itself].”

Cutting the Gordian Knot
One of the biggest headaches for hoteliers is how to manage a small army of porters, cleaners and waiters so that guests’ requests are resolved in the most efficient way possible.

The sheer number of ‘moving parts’ can make it difficult to organise staff using voice communications alone. This has led to the use of a number of job-ticketing and dispatch systems that help to improve visibility for hotel managers, such as Motorola Solutions’ TRBOnet PLUS.

It’s also possible to link third-party job-ticketing systems to traditional voice comms. For example, in the US Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide’s proprietary StarGuest application was linked to MOTOTRBO digital radios by Comtran Associates (a Motorola middleware partner) at the Aloft New Orleans Downtown hotel.

However, the rise of Wi-Fi and cellular networks has meant that radios are not always the device of choice when it comes to sending and receiving job tickets.

Dorchester Collection, for instance, uses a cloud-based solution called HotSOS. “It’s a means of managing service requests and pushing those requests out to employees,” explains Campbell. “We’ve been using it for six to seven years. At the end of this year it will be in every hotel in our brand.” He adds that it allows Dorchester Collection to do measurement and reporting across all its hotels, but typically this is done at the regional level.

“Typically [HotSOS] is used on an iPod touch for an entry-level employee; someone who is on the floor. Supervisors and people like that would carry an iPad around with them,” says Campbell.

If a guest needs something they can choose whether to phone down from their room or (if the system has been rolled out in that hotel) use the iPad provided to make the request. “For example, they might order a pillow. It automatically generates a service request, which then goes out to an employee to accept. If the individual doesn’t accept it or it goes to a group of employees then it provides escalations, which enable us to make sure that we deliver on our service standards.”

Systems like HotSOS are also supported by the Vocera platform and its associated B300n Communication Badge, which allows hospitality staff to make and receive hands-free calls over a Wi-Fi network. For customer-facing staff in the airport and hospitality sectors there’s often a preference for small form factor devices, which was recently the inspiration behind Motorola Solutions’ ST7000 small TETRA radio.

Despite using HotSOS, Campbell says the Dorchester Collection does “use two-way radios in certain locations, like the driveways and roles where it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to pull out a device. We use two-way radios for security too.” He adds that all two-way radio usage is local to individual hotels in the chain, with no multi-site capability.

Campbell explains that whenever Dorchester Collection invests in new technology it looks at the service styles in its hotels to make sure they fit the chosen technology. He gives the company’s current investment in its point of sales solutions as an example.

“As we roll out the new POS system in our hotels that have swimming pools staff might now have tablets that they carry around and take orders on, rather than in the past going back to their base to place orders.”

“Mobile is at the forefront of our minds when we’re making decisions. It would be very unusual for us to not continue investing in those areas. As projects come along we’re constantly looking to make sure that we’re relevant and we have the technology that enables our customers to receive the best service available,” he continues.

Campbell explains that the market is always evolving so it requires constant vigilance to keep up. Dorchester Collection, like most businesses, is looking at how apps can enable customers to use their own devices to access services and enhance their experience.

“Sometimes in the five-star deluxe market we need to take a little bit more time to assess whether or not it’s something that the consumer really wants, or if it’s a gimmick,” he says. “We continue to invest in R&D to make sure that when we do bring something to market it meets our guests’ needs and has an element of longevity to it. Three years would be a good investment in that sort of space.”

Marriott’s mobile app: chat and requests
Marriott International added chat and request functionality to the Marriott Mobile App (available on iOS and Android) in May 2015. It allows Marriott Rewards members at a number of its branded hotel chains (including its flagship Marriott Hotels) to have instant messaging conversations with hotel staff. It also features a drop-down menu with ‘most requested’ services and amenities, such as asking for extra towels and pillows.

During testing, it was found to be particularly useful for guests needing to request services and amenities before their arrival. Eighty per cent of trial users preferred to use the two-way chat option when making requests. Guest surveys report that the Mobile Requests feature has contributed to an increase in overall satisfaction.

Location-based services
One of the ways some hotels have been looking to improve the guest experience is through enabling people to identify where they are in the building, to better provide them with information, services, and location-specific feedback. However, while Bluetooth beacons are suitable if a hotelier needs very accurate location data, Watson stresses that triangulating guests’ positions using Wi-Fi can narrow down a user’s location to within five square metres, which in many use cases is sufficient.

He adds that location services are “top of mind for many organisations at the moment. We’ve done quite a lot of deployments. The challenge most are finding is the sheer volume of data that they’re having to process.”

Watson says that there’s demand for analytics engines capable of crunching the resulting big data into something usable, and Ruckus is working with a number of third-party companies to provide this sort of service.

Hotels are using wireless communications in several innovative ways, to benefit both guests and staff. Day-to-day operations have been streamlined, made more efficient, and made safer. And guests can access all the multimedia functions they’re used to at home, while their wishes are catered to quicker than ever before. With the advancement of location-based beacon services their needs could be met before they’re even aware of them.

But as expectations only increase the pressure to innovate isn’t going to fade. Hotels will need to justify expenditure on new technology and systems, and resign themselves to the fact that the pace of change is so rapid ROI is likely to be short-lived. For deluxe hotels, differentiating their high-tech offerings from those of budget chains may also be a future issue as solutions become more affordable.

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