High-Tech Hotels Cater To Digital Denizens
By Kathy Chin Leong


Like it or not, we live in a wired society of cell phones, video games, music downloads and "podcasts." And in keeping pace with the digital tsunami, hotels across the board are following this curious and unstoppable phenomenon with in-room gadgets and gizmos that allow guests to magnify their entertainment options.

Today’s Silicon Valley fam is toting a laptop on vacation to watch movies and check email. Kids are snapping photos with digital cameras, and viewing them on the hotel TV at night. In addition to packing blow dryers and Tylenol, Mom and Dad are taking along a gaggle of cell phones to keep tabs on one another in case they get lost in the shuffle.

And if you are concerned that you won’t be able to hook up your devices when you get to your destination, here’s the good news- you can! A snapshot of what’s happening around the country gives you a clue to what’s already here, and what is ahead. According to Doug Rice, executive director of trade association, Hotel Technology Next Generation, the public can expect to see the high end hotels take charge first of technnological innovations in the guest room, followed by the budget inns five years down the road.

FOUR SEASONS SILICON VALLEY, EAST PALO ALTO


At the new Four Seasons Silicon Valley, Internet running at a blinding 10 megabits per second on a T3 line is seven times the speed of household DSL Internet transmission, and equivalent to what large corporations have, explains Ray San Juan, one of the two information technology directors.

Any digital denizen would drool over the Four Seasons’ plasma TVs that serve as PC monitors, wireless keyboards hidden inside desks. And of course, wired geeks need extra-wide safes large enough to stow their precious laptops; and they go absolutely ga-ga over the bedside control panel to open and close the curtains.
And if you don’t get enough of your gizmo-fix in your hotel room, head to the gym which features built-in flat panel televisions on the dashboards of the treadmills, stairclimbers, and bicycling machines.

That’s not all. Soon the hotel will install 42-inch plasma TVs on the walls of every pool cabana for private usage. Clients will be able to use the same screen to check emails over the on-site Wi-Fi network.

ALISAL GUEST RANCH, SOLVANG, CA


Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort may be 50, but it’s young at heart. This resort boasts "telephone and television-free" guest cottages and suites. The rustic 10,000 acre cattle ranch sprawls with greenery, horses, and invisible Wi-Fi Internet vibing all over the premises.

It was inevitable. Sherri FitzGerald, director of sales and marketing newers guests have been demanding it although they still love the canoeing and horseback riding. Now they can go Internet surfing.

But there are limits. The rules of the property are that no laptops or cell phones are allowed in the dining room or the pool areas so everyone can feel like they are away from the stresses of daily life. Guests can rent cell phones, but the management says it is trying to keep the technology low key and subtle.

MANDARIN ORIENTAL, NEW YORK CITY


At the Mandarin Oriental, New York, is already spending $120,000 in room technology to upgrade two suites only after two years. "Our typical guest has come here 20 or 30 times," says information technology manager Eric Cruz. "They expect higher caliber services each time they come."

The Mandarin Oriental is one hotel chain that constantly works to wow every customer. just announced support for the Apple Video iPod. This August, clients at the new Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong will be able to plug in their video iPod cables to a set-top box on the TV and watch Podcasts, explains Monica Nerger, Mandarin Oriental’s vice president of technology for the Americas.

"Last year, we thought we were ahead of the curve when we offered support for the Apple iPod. Then after the video iPod was announced, we had to chase that down and in four months we put developed support for that. It’s that fast. We are constantly upgrading. That what sets us apart in the hospitality technology."

The Mandarin is next poised to offer personalized technology services says Eric Cruz, the information technology manager. If a client laptop’s hard drive goes kaput, the hotel’s tech department will offer data recovery. "We will bring the engineering center out to the guests so that all their toys and gadgets will work. It helps us spend more time with our guests."

BROADMOOR HOTEL & RESORT, COLORADO SPRINGS


Built in 1918, the exclusive Broadmoor Hotel and Resort operates 700 rooms throughout its 400-acre golf course/spa property. Called the "grande dame of the Rockies," even this conservative retreat center and five-diamond parcel is moving forward with vast techie improvements.

A renovation of 144 rooms due to open in May, means the following: guests in these rooms will have plasma TVs with surround sound; they will be able to plug in their MP3 players and iPods for concert-like music amplification in the TV; guests will have HP OfficeJets fax/scan/copies in their own rooms as a complimentary service (bring your own paper, however.

The ten-member IT staff is also responsible for putting in wired Internet in every room. Rooms also feature bedside control panels for manipulating temperature, TV, lights, and drapes. In the public areas, wireless Internet abounds, free to those in the pool and lobby regions. WI-FI is not in the rooms yet, but probably will be in the future, says Greg Dauenhauer, director of information technology.

JW MARRIOTT, WASHINGTON D.C.


This year the Marriott chain of hotels will deply it new connectivity panel to each of its guest rooms, starting with the JW Marriott in Washington D.C. and the Marriott Waterfront, Baltimore. The panel features a plug-in unit with various plug options. It is autosensing, says Lou Paladeau, vice president of operations technology, so that the custom LG flat screen LCD TV will automatically register each device on the screen.

After turning on the TV, users will see icons of their devices and can control them from there. The TV can also be used as an LCD projector so business clients can practice their PowerPoint presentations. Vacationers can also plug in their iPod or MP3 players into the control panel with ease. The 32-inch screen TV has a 2-section split monitor . When everything is connected, just imagine listening to your ipod while watching a TV show on one screen and editing your Word document on another.

Special desks and armoires have been custom built for the hotel chain to accommodate these new high-tech features. The desks feature a drawer with a laptop safe and plug in port so users can charge their laptops overnight, he says.

PENINSULA HOTELS, HONG KONG


At the Peninsula Hotels in Hong Kong, New York, and others in its 7-hotel lineup, patrons can set alarm clocks, temperature, lighting, and TV volume controls by pressing flat keys on an electronic box known as the Bedside Control Panel. If they want to sleep in, guests can depress the panel’s Do Not Disturb key so that a light activates outside the door and silences the doorbell.

It’s not surprising that the Peninsula has such souped up technology. It is the only chain that runs such a huge research and development team dedicated to high-tech. At Peninsula’s incubator braintrust in Aberdeen, Hong Kong, a staff of 19 engineers and designers create the dream room of the future, producing tailor-made products, evaluating off-the-shelf products and services guaranteed to make every guest smile.

In an effort to tap into the psyche of the modern-day traveller, Peninsula Hotel research and development labs create their own products to enhance in-room comforts. They also determine whether off-the-shelf goods and services are suitable for their clientele.

It routinely builds a test room souped up with its latest bells and whistles, and it is experienced by everyone from the chairman on down, says Fraser Hickox, Peninsula’s general manager of research and technology.

While leading edge technology is fascinating, it should be simple to operate, agree experts. Imagine the confusion a guest may go through it he is not tech savvy. Hickox, general manager of research and technology at Peninsula Hotels puts it this way, "It is our belief that if a guest has to read a manual, it is too much technology. The acid test is that my mother should be able to operate any function without thinking."

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NOTEWORTHY HOTEL WEBSITES:

*www.marriott.com
* www.broadmoor.com
* www.peninsula.com
* www.alisal.com
* www.mandarinoriental.com
* www.fourseasons.com


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