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Smarter WiFi

When the Mandarin Oriental hotel opened in Manhattan in 2003, guests were hardly clamoring for wireless Internet access. But a few years later, Apple released the iPhone and Amazon launched its Kindle e-reader. Then came the iPad, and suddenly guests who once traveled with just a laptop were lugging several wireless devices to the hotel.

By 2011, Mandarin Oriental, New York needed an upgrade to keep up with the insatiable demand for fast and accessible WiFi, says Oscar Gomez, the hotel’s director of information technology. Mandarin Oriental, New York hired Ruckus Wireless to install more than 200 WiFi wall switches, more than tripling the hotel’s user capacity. For $15 per 24 hours, guests can now connect up to four devices to the wireless system.

“The results were almost immediate,” Gomez says. As WiFi consumption at the hotel skyrocketed by almost 80 percent, he says, wire traffic plummeted. And, Gomez adds, “our complaints went virtually to zero.” That’s because information technology has become almost like electricity for hotels, says David Callisch, vice president of corporate marketing for Ruckus. “WiFi in hotels is now no longer a negotiable amenity,” he says. “It’s a required utility.”

RE-FOCUSED ON SERVICE
WiFi access at hotels has become especially important in the last three years, says Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University. But the recession pushed larger concerns, such as declining revenue, to the forefront. Only recently have hotels switched their focus back to guest satisfaction and competitive issues, he says, bringing WiFi service and Internet solutions into the limelight.

While high-speed Internet access was once a plus for a hotel, Hanson says, now its absence, or inadequacy, is a negative in guests’ eyes. Many travelers, especially the younger set, have little tolerance for insufficient WiFi. “It’s an expectation that this is a service that should be available to hotel travelers at any price point,” he says. “It’s becoming more critical.”

Internet access has become “the fourth utility,” says Fred Reeder, chief commercial and operating officer of the Internet access company Nomadix. “Would a guest come back to your property if you didn’t have water or heat or electricity?” he says. “The same holds true for Internet access.” If hotels don’t offer that service or the quality is subpar, Reeder says, guests won’t return. “That awareness is starting to become pervasive in the hospitality sector,” he says.

GROWING DEMAND
For Mandarin Oriental, New York, WiFi was so important that the hotel elected to install wireless wall switches in every room, Callisch says. In each guestroom, Ruckus set up a wall switch—about the size of a pack of cigarettes—to provide round-the-clock WiFi access and wired Ethernet ports. If one access point goes down, another in a neighboring room will pick up the signal. Thanks to the new system, Gomez says, a guest could start watching a movie on her iPad in a top floor suite, take the elevator to the lobby, and “not skip a frame.”

WiFi service solutions don’t just improve guest satisfaction. They also provide a network for back-of-house services. Every hotel device—from minibars to environmental controls—uses computer networks to transmit information, Callisch says. And guests can use the WiFi system to purchase products, like a margarita by the pool, from anywhere on the property. WiFi offers connection without a cable, Callisch says, saving hotels money and minimizing disruption to guests. “Wireless is being used for almost any service you can imagine,” he says.

WiFi use could expand even further in the future, Callisch says, perhaps including online apps allowing hotel staff to check in guests away from the registration desk. And enhanced WiFi could let properties automate services that can be time-consuming and frustrating, such as ordering room service or checking out. “You’ll be able to do it all electronically,” Callisch says.

But as the system grows, Reeder says, so do security concerns. “You can’t just provide an open network,” he says. “It’s fraught with dangers of hacking and viruses.”

As WiFi becomes more pervasive, hotels might do away with charging for the privilege and begin offering the service free of charge. When hotels added phones and televisions, Hanson says, guests weren’t charged for the new utilities. “I do anticipate someday there will be no charge for Internet access,” he says.

Looking ahead, the insatiable demand for bandwidth will only increase, Callisch says. “Hotels will always need more speed,” he says. “You’ll see a constant upgrade of the wireless system to higher speed and higher technology.”

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