Hotel brands are improving their Wi-Fi speeds and services to keep pace with guest demand for connectivity and continually improving standards.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—What is among the top concerns of guests staying at hotels? Wi-Fi. Is it free? Is there a signal in the room? Is it strong enough? Will the hotel have enough bandwidth so guests can fall asleep while binge-watching Netflix on a smartphone or tablet?
As guests’ expectations of hotel Wi-Fi continue to grow, hoteliers in return are trying to at least keep up with the demand. Some hotel brands are trying to get ahead of the game and take in-room Wi-Fi to the next level.
Guests want to know not only that a hotel has Wi-Fi, but that it’s good Wi-Fi, said Andrew Alexander, president of Red Roof Inn. It’s the No. 1 amenity all guests of each hotel segment want, he said.
To meet guests demand, Red Roof Inn has started a verified Wi-Fi initiative that will guarantee a level of service to allow guests to stream video in their rooms, he said. For a franchisor to receive verified status with the company, a third-party monitor will test the system and determine eligibility.
“We’ll promote that on our website and billboards as locations that people can be sure have the guarantee they’ll have that level of Wi-Fi performance,” Alexander said.
The company supported its initiative with research that shows 80% of economy travelers have favorable opinions of hotels with free Wi-Fi at guaranteed speeds. The research also showed that millennials in particular are two times more likely than other age groups to stream video and music as well as play games online with hotel Wi-Fi.
The company started rolling out the program over the past spring and summer, Alexander said, but it recently began going to the franchise community to verify locations at a much faster level. There will likely be between 70 and 100 verified properties by the end of the year, he said. Most locations will need to invest in more bandwidth and access points to meet the standards, but the company has seen a great reception from the franchise community because of the demand for Wi-Fi.
“Right now it’s on a voluntary basis,” Alexander said. “How that progresses depends on how the public responds. Ultimately, having a high level of Wi-Fi across the brand would only enhance the brand’s existence.”
Guests are using more and more devices to connect online when staying at hotels for both leisure and professional reasons, said Jeff Eckard, VP of Americas technology at InterContinental Hotels Group, and they’re using those devices more during their stays.
“Hospitality has to be ready for the tsunami of guest demand and change,” he said.
IHG recently launched its new Wi-Fi program, IHG Connect, as a way to improve its wireless service to guests. Eckard said the program is based on four pillars: dedicated connections at each hotel, a four-fold increase in minimum bandwidth standards, the ability to better manage “bursting” and bandwidth demand and price protection for owners.
IHG began piloting this new initiative at the beginning of the year and made its public announcement at the end of October. At the time, the company was on track to have more than 1,500 hotels in the U.S. offering the new program in the following month and a half, he said.
To make it work, it generally requires a large pipe to connect enough fiber to connect the hotel to the network, Eckard said, which might require some new trenches for hotels, depending on its size. Hotels already have wireless access points, he said, but IHG is replacing them with new service-oriented architecture technology that allows guests to have faster wireless performance.
The SOA connect through a cloud-based centralized platform that allows IHG to conduct proactive monitoring of every access point in each hotel offering IHG Connect, Eckard said.
“If a point goes down, we can see that and let the hotel know and they can take different actions,” he said. “They might not put a guest there, or they can let the guest know about the issue. It lets them be proactive. We all know hiccups happen. While we’re fixing it, we can be proactive in helping hotels.”
The new program also allows the company to introduce new amenities faster, Eckard said, and it means the company doesn’t have to go from hotel to hotel. One such feature is “auto guest recognition,” which means when a guest goes to a hotel and logs in, the system recognizes them and they never need to log in again while at the hotel. Guests can also go to a different IHG Connect hotel that will recognize them and welcome them back, he said.
The centralized system also allows the company to monitor usage at the hotels so they don’t hit their bandwidth limits, Eckard said. If a hotel experiences a surge in usage, the cloud management system can leverage a giant pool of bandwidth and allow that hotel to draw on it.
“Not everyone (in the system) is at max capacity at that time, so depending on the architecture and design, we can move bandwidth around to let the pipes draw where they see a surge,” he said.
Meet the new standard
The hotel companies that are pushing improvements on their Wi-Fi networks are progressive, said Dayna Kully, co-founder of consulting firm 5thGenWireless. Because hotel brands are so far ahead of other companies, they’re beyond what’s standard and can be asking a lot of their properties, she said. Some of the new standards require small changes, but others can mean changing out cable.
Although it might not be a silver bullet, but one of the things hotel companies need to accept is they need to budget not just for bandwidth but for access points and moving to new standards. Keeping up with newer standards means more than adding access points, she said. It’s about reviewing properties’ cabling, switches, end switches, core switches on a continual basis.
“It used to be standards changed every 10 years,” Kully said. “Now it’s five years, and now they’re getting even faster. Consumer devices come in with the newer standards, so you can’t just ignore it.”
As guests come to expect Wi-Fi for free, companies must accept and adapt to not receiving revenue directly from Wi-Fi, Kully said, but they still need to invest in it.
“They have to use it as a tool instead of as a cost center,” she said.
Hotel companies have started looking at things like central authentication or identity management systems, Kully said, which basically are cloud-based. Look at Wi-Fi as something to collect information on guests, she said. Such a system could potentially deliver a splash page to guests connecting to Wi-Fi saying “Welcome” or Welcome back” while offering a previously used amenity at a discount, she said.
This can tie back into a brand’s loyalty program, she said, which is a natural connection as many programs offer free basic Wi-Fi through their loyalty programs. Not many guests are part of the loyalty programs, so this is a way to entice them to join, she said.