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The Hotel Room of the Future

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."


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