Room service with a twist

Publication Date: Wednesday Feb 28, 2001

Room service with a twist

Local hotels serving up high-speed access to Internet

by Jocelyn Dong

Attention business travelers, there's a new item on the room-service menu at some Palo Alto hotels: high-speed access to the Internet.

From T1 wiring to wireless communications via satellite dish, hotels like the Stanford Park on El Camino have been busily upgrading their technology infrastructures in the hopes of drawing customers to their facilities.

The improvements are "in response to what's happening in the marketplace," said Kevin Lanigan, general manager of the Stanford Park Hotel. Given the number of business travelers who arrive toting laptops and the desire to connect with their office servers, or check e-mail, hotels are providing the new amenity in an attempt to stay ahead of the curve, Lanigan said.

Check in at a handful of hotels, and "high speed"--or 1.544 MB per second--is the catch phrase. To tech-savvy guests, connecting to the Internet via phone lines--as hotels have offered in the past--is like driving the Indy 500 in a VW bus.

"They don't use it much," Lanigan said. "They'd rather have high-speed access."

The Stanford Park began offering 1.544 MBps Internet connections in its 163 rooms about four months ago. In addition, the hotel has equipped its televisions with WebTV-like technology, allowing guests to surf the Net on their televisions.

Over at Dinah's Garden Hotel, general manager Jerry Matters has been "very happy" at the debut of their T1 service at the start of this year. The installation of underground fiber optics and additional phone lines to the 150 rooms on 10 acres took about 1-1/2 years to complete.

"It's great," Matters said. Referring to the difference between connecting to the Internet via phone line versus T1, he said, "Instead of taking two hours to download, it takes 20 minutes. (Guests) can get that much done that much faster."

Dinah's contracts with CAIS (sm) Internet, which provides access to 800 hotels worldwide.

The Crowne Plaza Hotel--formerly the Cabana Hotel--took a different approach to the access dilemma. The management there decided to go wireless, installing 17 antennae and receiver units, plus a satellite dish nine months ago. Although the project originated with Nokia and Compaq Computers, the hotel has since bought the system and contracts with an Internet service provider, according to Dale Dugan, the hotel's general manager.

To use the wireless service, guests are given software via CD-ROM and a plug-in card for their laptops. One distinct advantage of a wireless network, Dugan said: Guests can work anywhere, from poolside to the lounge.

Agreeing with the general managers of the Stanford Park and Dinah's, Dugan also cited his guests' need for speed as one reason the hotel installed the new technology.

"People are used to high speed. It makes a world of difference. Time is money," he said.

Just as hotels have chosen different technology--wired or wireless--they also differ on whether to charge customers for use of the networks. The Crowne Plaza and Stanford Park charge guests about $10 per day to connect to and spend time on the Internet; Dinah's and Garden Court do not.

As with other amenities, the decision is one that pits the need to recoup costs against the desire to maximize customer satisfaction and loyalty.

"It's dear, but it's justified," said Matters of the cost to Dinah's. "It's so important to us that customers are satisfied in that area."

Dugan said that, while the Crowne Plaza has provided complimentary service for six months as the system was being tested, a fee will be instituted on March 1. "Now it's time to start paying our bills," he said.

He believed companies would be willing to foot the bill for their traveling employees.

"It's a justifiable business expense," he said, likening it to the use of company cell phones.

Despite the hunch that demand for these services will be high, no one's quite sure how popular they will be. The Garden Court Hotel has been wired for more than two years, but IT manager Heather Fry said they don't track the guests' use of the network, since the service is free.

Still, she said, she knows guests are using the system by the calls she receives when there is a problem with service; although, she hastened to add, such problems are infrequent.

The Crowne Plaza's Dugan estimated that about 20 people a day have been using the wireless service during its test period. Come March 1, when guests will have to foot a fee, he guessed the number will drop to 10.

Lanigan of the Stanford Park said that approximately 10 people take advantage of the high-speed connectsion in their rooms per day, while another five surf the Net via TV (a service that also carries a $10 per day charge).

"I expect the adoption rate will gear up quickly over the next year," Lanigan said, as travelers become more adept at connecting with the networks back at their offices.

In addition to the new in-room connections, local hotels have debuted other technological perks to keep up with the times, from in-room fax machines and printers to complimentary "business centers" in the hotel, equipped with desktop PCs and printers.

But it is the high-speed connections that hotels are counting on to help lure new guests in and keep existing ones happy.

Matters said of Dinah's Garden Hotel's new T1 lines, "Guests are enthralled."

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