Hoteliers try to keep up with the technology demands of guests, but older properties weren’t designed to accommodate the functions of newer tech.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Hotel guests want the newest and best technology available to them during their stays, but older hotels and adaptive-reuse properties weren’t built to work with things like Wi-Fi and mobile devices.
Concrete and older design styles made the buildings structurally sound, but that also means weak signals and dead zones. Hoteliers can retrofit newer technology into older properties, but there are challenges and sometimes higher costs involved.
When trying to design a high-speed wireless network, hoteliers need to know what building material they’re working with, said Martin Thornros, principal at tech consultancy firm Convergent Services. Even with thicker walls, it’s possible to transmit signals through the wall if the material isn’t dense, he said.
“If it’s concrete with rebar, you have to make serious adjustments to it and get a higher density of antennas or Wi-Fi antennas,” he said.
Thornros described changes made at a hotel in Philadelphia’s Independence Square that was largely concrete. He said designers had to double the number of access points per 18-room floor from three to six to give guests decent coverage.
“This system was poorly designed from day one,” he said. “It was probably done seven to 10 years ago.”
Richard Jones, SVP and COO of Hospitality Ventures Management Group, said his company had to make changes to account for both Wi-Fi and cellular signals at an adaptive-reuse project of an office building from the late 1960s.
Jones said adjusting for cellular dead zones is often overlooked by hoteliers and can require costly fixes like expensive signal repeaters.
“It’s one of those late-game surprises you put on the list for next time around to test it out,” he said. “You get a vendor to make sure we’ve got the coverage.”
All about infrastructure
The technology in general isn’t the issue with retrofit projects, Thornros said.
“They do the same thing in old or new buildings,” he said. “The infrastructure is the tricky part. It’s potentially very disruptive.”
Thornros said installing a Wi-Fi infrastructure can be particularly difficult at some properties. One hotel in Chicago had Mexican-style clay tiles on the walls, which would shatter anytime someone tried to penetrate through them.
However, without the correct cabling in place, he said, the technology won’t work. A Wi-Fi mesh network can somewhat replace the need for cabling, but that’s not a viable option in anything but small hotels.
Thornros said the existing cable at older hotels that haven’t been recently recabled is likely “garbage” and should be removed if the property is going through a major renovation.
“It’s almost never worth saving it,” he said. “It becomes such a complex process of knowing what is good, what is bad and what to move out. Recabling or at least partially recabling is almost always the way to go.”
Sometimes the market can create an additional challenge, Jones said. Hotels with certain government and banking customers require the more secure cabled internet access, he said. Other times customers have high expectations for technology and entertainment, particularly with how they integrate with the guests’ mobile devices and computers. He said some people regard Wi-Fi access like oxygen.
“I don’t know the exact stat, but it’s something like the average guestroom has three-and-a-half devices sucking down bandwidth,” Jones said. “Compounding that now, the brands are rolling out the latest and greatest entertainment systems with smart TV tech for Netflix, Hulu and other subscription services.”
That requires heavy-duty cables and data capability to get the signal to every TV in every guestroom, he said.
Infrastructure for back-of-house systems tends to be easier, Thornros said. Most employees work on PCs, and conduit can go in the ceiling because it’s not in a guest area, he said.
“You can get away with ugly much easier in the back-of-house than the front-of-house,” he said.
Sam Selim, senior director of IT at First Hospitality Group, said he had an interesting challenge in converting a former financial institution into the Hilton Garden Inn Indianapolis Downtown—figuring out how to work around all the building’s safes.
“We had to build around them to where, in the lower level, the employee break room is in the main safe,” he said. “That was a challenge to get any technology into. Unfortunately for them, there’s zero tech in that room. The steel safes were too difficult to penetrate.”
Oddly enough, Selim’s company faced a similar challenge in revamping the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Milwaukee, but FHG found a workaround for the server room located inside a vault at that hotel. Crews had to feed conduit into the computer room from another vault opposite that room.
“That was a very interesting project,” he said. “It was a little more time consuming than the other repurpose sites.”
Working around these immoveable objects in general presented challenges to the general contractor, the electrical contractor and the low-voltage contractor, Selim said, and required a great deal of coordination to successfully figure out the pathways for the conduit.
“We’ve been extremely successful overcoming all the challenges at repurposed properties,” he said. “It was not as quick as new construction, per se, but nothing’s easier because there’s nothing there. You just plan it out well ahead of time and then just make it happen.”
To redo all of the high-speed cabling in a hotel in Philadelphia, Thornros said he had to figure out how to install the cable when the walls, ceilings and floors are concrete. There are no drop ceilings, he said, and zero access.
“In this case, we’re expecting to be able to cheat,” he said. “The hotel will have an upgraded sprinkler system. We will tag along with the sprinkler guys.”
Another hotel is going through a project gutting the guestroom bathrooms, Thornros said. The plan is to put the cable through the bathrooms and feed it across the hallway to get into the room on the other side of the hallway, he said. It still requires putting holes in the walls, but there will be fewer by going through the bathrooms.
In each of these cases, Thornros said, it’s easier to do this work while the property is already going through renovation work.
As in any aspect of business, you must perform due diligence when choosing vendors to provide new systems, according to Diego Lowenstein, CEO of Lionstone Development. Make sure those vendors will still be around in the future, he said, as it’s common to see companies disappear after three to five years because the company was absorbed by a competitor or the technology went stale.
“The big part is getting it right through figuring out vendor capability to serve you as a client in the future,” Lowenstein said. “You guarantee making an investment that’s going to have a return. When you invest in hotels, they’re long-term investments.”
Along with that, hoteliers should pick vendors who are in tune with changes in the market and can provide a platform that has the ability to upgrade and regenerate itself, Lowenstein said.
Design a distribution system and a cabling and conduit system that will be the most efficient going forward, Jones said. When running cable through an older property that doesn’t have the tech infrastructure it needs, Jones said it’s smart to build as much future capacity as possible.
Use whatever is the latest tech, because it’s not worth saving $5 to buy last year’s tech, Thornros said. Sometimes that means holding off on a project if a newer, better version of a product is expected to come out in the near future.
“You would be at the beginning of a new generation instead of the end of the last generation,” Thornros said.