To lure an increasingly savvy crowd, the hotel industry continues to up the ante—rolling out wireless Internet access and even installing self-check-in kiosks in lobbies. T+L examines the latest trends and how you can make the most of them
Unplugged and Hardwired
Hotels have taken longer than expected to adopt high-speed wired Internet access and Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) connections. But now, according to Henry Harteveldt of Forrester Research, almost half of all chain hotels in the United States have high-speed Internet access, and approximately 15 percent of hotels have wireless capability in lounges, meeting rooms, or guest rooms. And these numbers are rising sharply: by the end of this year, says Harteveldt, most hotels will have some form of high-speed Internet access (cable, DSL, or Wi-Fi).
Because wireless access is inexpensive and easy to install, some hotels are forgoing traditional high-speed connections in favor of Wi-Fi. Midlevel hotels that attract frequent business travelers, such as Courtyard and Holiday Inn Express, have already begun offering Wi-Fi instead of DSL or cable access. Among the higher-end chains making a commitment to wireless are Omni Hotels (Wi-Fi is currently in all guest rooms and public areas at 30 of its 40 properties) and the boutique Kimpton Group (at 16 of its 38 hotels).
Here's where other chains will be in the near future:
• About 80 percent of domestic Hyatt hotels already have wired or wireless access; all Hyatt hotels will have high-speed access by the end of the year.
• Either Wi-Fi or high-speed Internet access will be available in all guest rooms at 3,300 InterContinental Hotel Group properties—among them, InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, and Holiday Inn Express—by early 2005.
• Marriott International is putting high-speed Internet access in all guest rooms at 1,700 of its hotels. Wired access is free in guest rooms at midlevel Marriott properties, including Residence Inn, TownePlace Suites, SpringHill Suites, and Courtyard. Wi-Fi is already available in the guest rooms and public spaces of 1,200 Marriott hotels worldwide.
• All 130 Radisson SAS Hotels & Resorts properties (in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East) will be totally Wi-Fi-equipped in guest rooms, meeting rooms, and common areas.
• Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which already has high-speed Internet access in all guest rooms, will roll out wireless access by the end of 2004 in the common areas of 150 Sheraton, Westin, and W hotels in the United States. All W Hotel guest rooms in the country will have Wi-Fi by the end of the year. (The W New York-Times Square went totally wireless in late 2002.)
The Hotel Within
Many hotels have long offered club floors to those guests willing to pay a bit more for extra perks and a higher level of service. Lately, hoteliers have taken these floors to the next dimension by creating what are in effect exclusive hotels within hotels. This broadening of the club concept is especially important at large properties, where personal service is often at a premium.
The 911-room Wyndham El Conquistador Resort in Puerto Rico constructed a 90-villa enclave, Las Casitas Village, in 1993. The idea—luxurious and discreet villas with highly personalized service and access to resort facilities—has proved so popular that Las Casitas Village is now expanding to 157 villas. Similarly, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa in Waikiki, guests can pay an extra $30 for a room at the Ali'i Tower, a semiprivate resort with its own entrance, concierge, and pool deck. Recently the Gaylord Texan Resort near Dallas opened, offering guests the Lone Star Tower—a nine-floor boutique hotel with cashmere throws and dark wood molding. Vegas is getting in on the act too. The MGM Grand has the Mansion—29 secluded villas with pools, 24-hour, multilingual butler service, and access to a private wine collection. Last summer the Venetian unveiled Venezia Tower, with rooms priced at just $30 more than those in the main building. This negligible difference buys guests a separate check-in and concierge. Last winter Mandalay Bay added the 1,118-suite THEhotel where for a premium of $70 per night, guests get a high-tech suite with a living room and plasma TV.
Is the extra expense worth it?The answer depends on how you use the hotel. Additional service can be costly (Las Casitas Village rooms run $80 to $216 more a night than El Conquistador's) and may be wasted on guests who prefer to spend a lot of time away from the hotel. But for those who want the amenities of a large hotel and require more attentive service, the hotel within a hotel can be a great value.
Where the Deals Are
A glut of rooms may keep hoteliers up at night wondering how to fill beds, but for travelers it heralds lower rates and easier upgrades. Looking for a bargain?Head to one of these cities, all of which face room oversupply.
HOUSTON The city, which added 2,970 new hotel rooms last year for the Super Bowl, is building another 18 hotels this year.
BOSTON Room rates here are among the steepest in the nation, but a slowdown in tourism, along with the recent construction of seven hotels, has created greater capacity. Nine more hotels will open this year.
BUDAPEST Occupancy rates are hovering at 50 to 60 percent, so inexpensive rooms are plentiful. Several luxury hotels are slated to open by the end of the year, including the 179-room Gresham Palace, a restored Art Nouveau building, and the 182-room Majar.
MELBOURNE With the 2006 Commonwealth Games approaching, local developers have added about 1,200 hotel rooms in recent months. According to D. A. Dransfield & Co., an Australian consulting firm, rates have already dropped.
You've chosen your destination—now you just need to find a place to stay. We hit the Net to see which booking sites are doing the best job now, based on usability, selection, prices, and more. Lisa Kalis reviews our top picks.
Best Feature Giant selection
And the Verdict Is... This site's first suggestion when we searched for New York "luxury hotels": a two-star motor inn in Queens. You can't search by neighborhood, only by price and name. And compared with other sites, it doesn't give as many details on the properties.
Best Feature Useful hotel descriptions
And the Verdict Is... You can sort results by price, name, class, and neighborhood; the site has great specifics on each property's location and features. The unique Virtual Tours option lets you browse through 360-degree views of guest rooms, restaurants, and lobbies.
Best Feature Long lists of landmarks help you narrow your search
And the Verdict Is... In Dallas alone, you can search for hotels near 49 attractions or neighborhoods. The site has good details on each property and a range of quality hotels. Too bad you have to wade through so many sold-out properties, but at least no-vacancy status is mentioned up front.
Best Feature Very user-friendly
And the Verdict Is... Although properties aren't listed by neighborhood, you can search for hotels near a specific address. We love the Matrix Display, which lets you quickly sort properties by three criteria: price, quality (from one to five stars), and distance from the city center.
Best Feature Only shows hotels with availability
And the Verdict Is... The selection may be small, but we found a decent range of hotels—each inspected and approved by Quikbook's staff. The search results page lists only name, neighborhood, and price. However, there are links to full descriptions, and sometimes photos.
Best Feature Traveler reviews and AAA ratings
And the Verdict Is... The Travelocity descriptions are helpful, but it's the write-ups from individual travelers that really give the site an insider edge. Travelocity also lets you search by any of 15 amenities—from swimming pools to on-site dry cleaning.
Best Feature Some good bargains
And the Verdict Is... Hotels on this site, which is run by a consortium of five big chains, are randomly listed—forget about searching by price. (You can narrow lists by rankings or names.) Its prices are competitive, though. We found a $150 rate for the Millennium in New York City.
Self-check-in kiosks, already ubiquitous at airports, are turning up in hotel lobbies. Hilton and Sheraton recently tested new machines at a handful of properties, with plans to roll out the technology in business-traveler hubs by year's end. To find out whether kiosks are really a worthwhile innovation, Amy Farley gave them a whirl.
HILTON NEW YORK
The Lowdown Helpful graphics take you through the process. After confirming your identity, the kiosk gives room details (floor number, type, and additional amenities). The machine spits out your keys and a welcome document with room information and personal messages.
Additional Options The machine allows you to enter and update your Hilton HHonors and frequent-flier partner information.
Coming Soon Floor maps displaying room location; on-screen room selection and upgrades; airline check-in and boarding-pass printing.
Kvetch Pushing certain buttons more than once may cause the machine to stall and print an error message. Our credit card was swallowed for a few minutes.
Troubleshooting A special kiosk-service agent with a wireless handheld device is on hand to answer questions and, as necessary, change reservations.
Average Check-In Time Less than two minutes.
Best For Low-maintenance guests in a hurry.
SHERATON NEW YORK HOTEL & TOWERS
The Lowdown The kiosk locates your reservation and gives you the option to change rooms (the screen lists all rooms available in your category by floor and view) or upgrade. The machine then ejects your keys, a welcome document, and any messages that have been held for you.
Additional Options You can return anytime during your stay to get extra keys and a reprint of your bill. At press time, kiosk users received 500 extra Starwood Preferred Guest points.
Coming Soon Airline check-in and boarding-pass printing.
Kvetch None—the system worked smoothly.
Troubleshooting Kiosk ambassadors are available to assist guests with technical problems and escort them to the front of the check-in line if all else fails.
Average Check-In Time Less than 60 seconds.
Best For Anyone wary of lines.
Fares in Flux
In recent years, hotels have streamlined their pricing practices. Using a technique pioneered by the airline industry known as yield management, they've been adjusting rates up and down in a predictable pattern based on demand forecasts and actual bookings. They've simultaneously simplified the search process for travelers by making prices more consistent, from Web sites to 800 numbers. Now, however, industry experts are noticing new volatility, in part because some consumers are returning to their old habit of booking well in advance, rendering the calculations that corporate offices have had in place less effective. According to Bjorn Hanson, an analyst for PricewaterhouseCoopers, "Hotels have been overriding yield management systems," with individuals at properties making more intuitive decisions about rates.
What does this mean for cost-conscious travelers?It's once again a good idea to call the hotel directly and ask for the lowest rate (in addition to checking other sources), since any changes will be made on-site. One more tip: Double-check the rate as your arrival date approaches. If it has dropped, you can often cancel your previous reservation and make a new one without penalty.
In an effort to spur business, many hoteliers have been lowering room rates. But buyer beware: to maximize revenue, these same hotels have begun charging guests for services that were once included gratis. And more often than not, guests don't learn about these add-ons until checkout time. Some common fees and their average amounts include:
• Resort fee (towel service, fitness center access, newspaper delivery, etc.), $20
• Housekeeping, $12
• Early departure fee, $50
• Mini-bar restocking charge, up to 20% of prices
To avoid unpleasant surprises, inquire when you're booking whether the hotel automatically charges anything beyond the room rate and tax. (Be sure to note the reservation agent's name.) Verify this information when you check in. If any fees still sneak their way onto your bill, don't be shy about contesting unexpected charges at checkout. Most hotels would rather avoid a scene in the lobby than adhere strictly to their$20 towel-fee policy.
—Jennifer V. Cole