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?