Hotels are giving in-room entertainment a 21st-century update

February 20

I did not, by any stretch of the imagination, have a deprived childhood. For one thing, my family traveled a lot. But it was on those trips, in hotels around the country, that I got a taste of a technology that we didn’t have at home: cable television.

Of course, traveler expectations, mine included, have changed. A bunch of channels on a hulking TV set just isn’t going to cut it anymore, even if the lineup does include HBO, as some familiar roadside motel signs still boast.

Today’s traveling public is used to sophisticated technology at home. And we want it in our hotel rooms, too.

Let’s start with that TV, which, along with the bed, may be one of the major focal points of your home away from home. Surveys conducted by Hilton Worldwide indicate that guests want their hotel TV to be on the upscale side of things.

“It needs to be a modern, nice TV set of a certain size or bigger,” says Josh Weiss, the company’s vice president of brand and guest technology. Flat-panel is a plus.


(Nathan Daniels for The Washington Post)

When it comes to what people want to watch on those TVs, unanimity is harder to come by. Weiss says that the “sweet spot” number of channels for most people is about eight. But those eight channels aren’t the same for everyone.

To address the wide spectrum of interests, Hilton Worldwide has installed the DirecTV Residential Experience system in more than 200 hotels. It covers more than 100 channels and includes an interactive guide to browsing them all.

Still, more and more people are accustomed to watching content on their own schedule, not the networks’. In the past, pay-per-view movies were the typical alternative. But that viewership is on the decline, says Peter Chambers, vice president of information technology for Viceroy Hotel Group. Pay-per-view systems often don’t make enough money to cover the cost of running them.

Instead, Viceroy is among an increasing number of brands and properties experimenting with televisions that let guests stream the programming they’re already paying for through services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime.

So far, Viceroy has installed Samsung Hospitality Smart TVs in five of its 16 properties, including a New York location that opened in October. To get their, say, “The Walking Dead” marathon on the big screen, guests use a unique code that pairs their gadgets with the TVs. They can also take advantage of the sets’ built-in apps, which include YouTube and Facebook.

Also in New York, rooms at the Pod 39 Hotel include a media center. Guests can plug anything from tablets to camcorders and phones into the Bluetooth-enabled bedside hub, and voilà, their selfies and “Downton Abbey” episodes will appear on the flat-screen, LCD television.

Hyatt went in a slightly different direction when it partnered with Roomlinx for a new in-room entertainment system in 2012. Rather than relying on an external connection between the TV and devices, the Roomlinx system consists of a fully integrated experience in which guests go directly through the TV to log in to their subscriptions or browse the Internet. Other bells and whistles allow guests to make room service or housekeeping requests. And meeting planners can send customized messages to people attending their events.

Similarly, the Aloft Cupertino in California opened last year with digital media hubs in all 123 rooms. The response from guests has been unanimous, says Brian McGuinness, a senior vice president at Starwood Hotels & Resorts. “They absolutely love it.”

Because of the Cupertino location, it’s only fitting that the 42-inch LCD televisions include Apple TV, so that guests can choose from thousands of movies or TV shows. And if that’s not enough, they can also connect to other services or stream their own media.

Hotels have also been experimenting with providing guests devices to control more than the television. The Viceroy Connect system centers on a five-inch Android-based smartphone. It serves as a remote control for the TV but also lets you adjust in-room lighting and temperature as well as take advantage of other hotel services. Europe-based CitizenM Hotels, with two locations slated for New York, puts what it calls a “MoodPad” in its rooms. The tablet works a lot like the Viceroy Connect but also makes it possible for you to change the color of your room lighting, adjust the window blinds and control “wake-up alarm themes.”

All these technological advancements, though, require additional investments in infrastructure and customer service. The equipment needs to work, and customers need to know how it works.

“We need to make sure we have reliable, consistent Internet access in all our rooms,” Weiss says. He explains that previous generations of wireless networks were designed for laptops. Nowadays, people are carrying around smaller, and even more powerful, tablets. This means that hotels need to increase their bandwidth, as well as add more and better transmitters so that everyone can connect.

According to Chambers, the density of hotspots is crucial, and he likes to see bandwidth from two sources, in case one goes down or is overwhelmed.

Vanessa Guilford, design director for the Pod Hotels, says that studying a building’s architecture and the way it might affect a wireless network is crucial to avoiding dead spots. But just in case the WiFi is finicky, the Pods have a hard-line connection for the Internet incorporated into the room phones.

But none of this matters if guests can’t figure out how to use the technology.

Chambers says that the Viceroy TVs are “naturally intuitive.” And if some guests are confounded by the brand’s whiz-bang Viceroy Connect, they can still turn to the old-fashioned remote control, thermostat and telephone.

One reason Hilton has yet to jump on the streaming TV bandwagon, according to Weiss, is that it’s still trying to come up with just the right solution, especially because guests will only have so much patience for learning a new process or gadget. At home, that effort’s worth the investment — for one night at a hotel, maybe not so much.

“It has to be incredibly simple and fast and incredibly scalable across many hotels,” he says of any potential technology. “If it’s something our guests want, then we want to deliver it.”

Technology is moving so fast that it can be hard to keep up with what guests want — even if what you currently offer is cutting edge, says McGuinness. “We will be pushed by the consumer based on their everyday habits.”

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