Bigger TVs, better sound, more bandwidth — hotels gear-up guest rooms

It’s an enduring arrival ritual for many hotel guests: take off your shoes, visit the head, flop on the king-size and, inevitably, flip on the TV. Tuning in CNN, the ballgame or a local rerun of The Simpsons makes a strange room feel homey, and offers a little relaxation after the tribulations of airport and boardroom. In fact, a straw poll of frequent travellers ranks a good AV set-up as more important than the mini-bar.

“You want to create an environment similar to what people have in their residences and make them feel close to home,” says Navid Sariolghalam, executive assistant manager of the 560-room Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver. And with high-tech goodies falling in price and home entertainment systems becoming more elaborate, many hotels have felt the need to catch up.

The luxury property’s recently renovated 46 suites and 164 residences offer 42-inch high-definition (HD) plasma TVs with DVD player and Dolby 5.1 surround sound, and at least four HD satellite channels, plus an iPod docking/alarm combo and a digital music library. “We cater quite a bit to the entertainment industry, and they are always [tech savvy], so we have to maintain the same level,” Sariolghalam says. “The HD is our newest toy. Sports channels (in HD) are very big, especially golf and tennis in summer, and also the Discovery Channel with its nature films.” Many pay-per-view movies are also available in HD, and Sariolghalam says the hotel has seen a rise in both users and revenues.

Of course not everyone needs — or even wants — a thunderous Imax experience in their home away from home, and most hotels offer more modest set-ups. Additionally, few large organizations are willing to experiment with the bleeding edge of technology. No one wants to be the “visionary” who approved a 10,000-unit buy of Betamax players.

“We are concerned about that,” says Robert Radomski, Atlanta-based vice-president of Brand Management with Staybridge Suites, IHG’s upscale extended-stay brand. But he says by talking to the right experts you can get a good idea of where the tech is headed and allot your resources accordingly. Like any FF&E purchase, it’s about making the biggest impact on guests for the most reasonable outlay. Staybridge’s current brand standard is for 25-inch TVs, but it’s planning to upgrade the whole chain to 32-inch flat screens. A new standard for mp3 docking stations — already a popular feature at some properties — is also in the works.

However the biggest entertainment challenge for hotels in the future may be a surprising one: bandwidth. Radomski says the company’s research shows more and more travellers using their laptops as an in-room entertainment device, particularly among Staybridge guests, who usually settle in for at least two weeks. In fact, among all of IHG’s brands, the extended-stay lodgers were the most likely to use high-speed Internet. Even when rooms have DVD players, Radomski says many guests still pop movies into their laptop, and the really early adopters are already streaming programming from their home DVR devices to keep tabs on favourite TV shows. “Not a whole lot of guests are doing that heavy streaming activity today — maybe one or two per night — but that’s going to increase,” Radomski says.

In fact, it’s probably just a matter of time before the hotel room TV evolves into more of a “portal,” with guests using it to viddy all manner of content —movies, music, games stored on peripheral hardware they’ve brought along. To enable this, Radomski is already looking into what are generically called “connection devices.” “Right now it’s a wired device and somewhat clunky, but we see the technology moving pretty rapidly to wireless, so you can place it anywhere in the room.” While all this activity will chew up bandwidth, at least it’ll mean an end to unsightly cables.

Toronto software architect Wesley Nelson travels at least eight days a month, staying in four-star properties in San Francisco, New York and Miami. While he has plenty of toys at home, on the road his concerns are a little more prosaic. “It drives me absolutely crazy when the field of view TV’s is limited to sitting on the bed,” he says. “I like to use my computer while watching television and about two-thirds of the time the desk with the wired Internet connection has you oriented with your back to the screen. If I can’t enjoy the amenities while I work, they may as well not exist.” Nelson’s other pet peeve is bland pay-per-view content. “I wish they’d include some international films — I’m so tired of only seeing what’s in the megaplex two blocks away.”

At Saskatoon’s 38-room Hotel Senator, a European-style boutique property, GM Chris Beavis wishes he could offer pay-per-view of any type. “It’s frustratingly hard to find a good in-room entertainment system for a hotel under 100 rooms,” he says. “You can do it, but it’s cost-prohibitive. I’m patiently waiting for an online TV technology or something similar. They seem to be pretty close, but it’s not quite there.”

Part of the reason Internet TV appeals to Beavis is the success he’s had with online music in Winston’s English Pub and Grill, the Senator’s watering hole. Winston’s switched over to digital tunes about three years ago, and put in a Symphonex Music Automation System last year. Plugging into an existing amp and speaker set-up, it uses a touch screen to download and program licensed songs (so it’s all nice and legal, not a claim every lounge can make). “I can program music for a particular time of day, put on 30-second advertisements or turn it [into] a jukebox for customers,” Beavis says. “We also had a full range of Irish music for St. Patrick’s Day, and there are all kinds of world music for promotions.”

When moving to any kind of more elaborate new AV equipment, the Sutton Place’s Sariolghalam suggests seeking professional help to choose units and position speakers. “You can’t just buy these things, stick them together and expect to the get the effect,” he says. “You also need to make sure purchases are upgradable. The technology is way ahead of what we are implementing, so in our negotiations we are always adamant about having flexibility for the future.”

So while there’s an alphabet soup of new entertainment technology on the horizon — SED, IPTV, Blu-Ray, UHDV — for the next few years, at least, you can’t go wrong with more bandwidth and bigger screens. In the early 1960s, Newton Minnow may have famously called TV a “vast wasteland,” but today’s hotel guests only feel lost in the desert when they discover a 19-inch tube set with — horrors! — no remote.                                       


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