All too often travelers find themselves crawling around on their hotel room floor looking for telephone jacks, waiting ages for room service, and stumbling in the dark during late-night trips to the bathroom. Such inconveniences—however minor—may soon be a thing of the past as hotels scramble to keep up with these high-tech times.
And it's not all about super-fast Internet service, the industry's key passion in recent years. Hotels are now using technology to streamline every aspect of their operations, testing and installing new gadgets and software: handheld computers for curbside check-in; mini-bars that know your likes and dislikes; thermostats that adjust the temperature according to whether you're in the room; digital movies on demand; biometric scanners for tighter security; and electronics that alter everything from the firmness of the mattress to the art on the walls according to your preferences. In other words, hotels may soon be delivering a highly personalized experience using highly impersonal machines.
"Why not give customers only what they want?" asks Ely Dahan, professor of marketing and new product development at MIT. "Today, every room is identical, which hotel companies believe is more efficient. But why give everyone HBO when only some people watch it?What if rooms changed to fit your needs?"
One product making it easy to accommodate guests' personal preferences is the Bartech "e-fridge," currently installed in 19 U.S. hotels such as the Nikko San Francisco and the Hay-Adams in Washington, D.C. The Maryland company's mini-bar has sensors that detect when a beverage has been removed. The front desk is alerted, your bill is updated, and room service knows what to replace in the morning. The e-fridge can also be programmed to change drink prices throughout the day, lowering them, for example, during happy hour. Frequent guests at the Nikko will find their mini-bars stocked only with their favorite drinks, preferences gleaned from past selections.
The beauty of the e-fridge is that it looks like any other, non-computerized mini-bar, so the guest doesn't even have to know what's happening behind the scenes. "Every technology should be discreet and intuitive," says Fraser Hickox, general manager of research and technology for Peninsula hotels, which has set an industry standard with its bedside control panels. "If you have to sit down and read a book to figure it out, we've lost you."
No need to read up on "smart" cards, keys that do more than merely open the door. NTRU Cryptosystems Inc., an encryption company based in Burlington, Massachusetts, recently created the security feature for a chip-equipped key card that uses radio waves to send information. Flash it in front of your door to enter, or just keep it in your pocket and aim. The same key could also be linked to your credit card and used to pay for dinner—no need to sign anything—and even assist with luggage transfer: Place the card in your bag, and when the luggage comes off the conveyor belt the airline can retrieve it, scan it, and send it straight to your hotel.
Ultimately, the card might also contain a biometric record of your face, a feature that's already being used in other industries. Virginia-based EyeTicket is testing iris-recognition technology at London's Heathrow airport that lets frequent travelers on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic bypass long immigration lines. In seconds, the machine can verify your identity. Hotels could use the technology for security and to make guests' lives easier: eventually, you could unlock your door just by looking at it.
Another way to get in might be by "beaming" your PDA at the lock, which would be precoded for your arrival. Remote check-in via PDA is now being implemented at a handful of hotels, including the Muse and the Bryant Park Hotel, both in New York. PDA-toting staffers check you in curbside and issue you a key card on your way upstairs, then check you out the same way. In the future, you could check yourself in using your own handheld—even ordering room service while you're at it.
Motion detectors might soon become commonplace as well, meaning no more pesky mid-shower knocks at the door. The same infrared sensor that tells housekeeping whether you're in your room can also tell the digital thermostat—accurate to within half a degree—to turn on and off. Last year, Connecticut-based inncom introduced its Ethernet INNweb system, which not only controls a room's climate but also provides high-speed Internet access and digital movies on demand.
London's Dorchester hotel is undergoing a yearlong renovation during which every room will be equipped with a digital library of 60 films that can be started and stopped at whim. DVD players and flat-screen plasma televisions are already finding their way into top suites worldwide. Last month, the Four Seasons New York unveiled its $9,500-a-night Royal Suite, with flat TV's in each of the three bedrooms and three bathrooms. (These are the same screens that industry insiders say could one day make bad hotel art obsolete—when you're not watching TV, you'll simply choose a masterpiece for the screen to display, anything from Dal to Degas.) In the Royal Suite, if you get up to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night, a bedside switch illuminates a pathway. Wires are virtually invisible, hidden in the hollowed legs of tables.
Perhaps the ultimate in invisibility is a new protocol for wireless Internet networking. It's 20 times as fast as a dial-up 56K modem and nearly five times as fast as DSL. At Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, 45 newly installed antennas—each one no larger than a shoe-box lid—make it possible to stay connected wirelessly in your room, in the lobby, by the pool, or on the beach. All you need is a card for your laptop from the front desk. (Many computers, including models from Apple and Hewlett-Packard, now come with the cards already installed.)
Will travelers take advantage of all this new technology?Maybe not, at least not right away. In a recent survey conducted by Hotel Business magazine and Unisys, 67 percent of hotel CEO's reported that only a fraction of their guests use available in-room high-speed Internet access. The most common reasons included guests' inability to log on to their company's network, and their unwillingness to pay fees that can top $10 a day.
"In the late nineties, hotels had something of a high-speed free-for-all," says Alan Zingale, a manager of PricewaterhouseCoopers' hospitality and leisure division. "But it turned out that the equipment was more expensive to install than predicted and that guests weren't quick to adopt the service."
And although a variety of new technologies are being tested, it may be a while before they're in general use. Some tech companies have fallen off the map altogether, leaving hotels with the infrastructure but without the necessary maintenance or support. And the lumbering economy has forced many hotels to rein in their spending. Chains that once vowed to install high-speed access at all their properties are making fewer promises. Only 28 of Hyatt's 204 hotels, for instance, are wired for fast Internet. Marriott should have zippy Web connections available in 50 percent of its U.S. properties by the end of this year, but won't say when the count will reach 100 percent.
Still, when the economy rebounds, and as travelers become more familiar with—and dependent on—advanced technology, it's likely that hotels will continue to innovate, delivering an even more seamless experience. When the clock strikes five, who could argue with $2 happy-hour microbrews from the mini-bar?