Hotel Wi-Fi Gets Useful
By Mike Masnick, Tue Sep 28 23:45:00 GMT 2004

Now that they've realized guests want Wi-Fi, and the hotel staff can use it as well, some hotels are taking Wi-Fi to the next level. They're adding hotel specific applications that add value for guests.

It took hotels quite some time to realize that guests might really like Wi-Fi. A few years ago, while preparing for a long business trip, I spent a dreadfully long afternoon calling nearly every hotel in one major American city to ask if they offered Wi-Fi in rooms. The answer was always the same: "Wi-What?" After explaining that I wanted wireless Internet access, the response was usually something about how the hotel had "dataports" in the room. Dataports, of course, are simply phone jacks moved from the wall to the hotel phone for easier access. Hardly high speed Internet access, and hardly wireless.

These days, the story is quite different, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a hotel that doesn't offer some form of Wi-Fi access. While many still limit it to the "lobby and bar" regions, plenty are making sure that all of their guests rooms now offer Wi-Fi -- usually for free. They're realizing that, like air conditioning, television and some clean towels, this is what travelers expect. Even better, just as companies realized that Wi-Fi did more than just take away the need to string up a wired network, hotels have found that letting the staff use Wi-Fi can lead to much more efficient use of time as it's easy to relay information back and forth between the cleaning staff and management.

This isn't to say hotel-based Wi-Fi doesn't have its problems. There are plenty of complaints that it doesn't work very well, and that hotel staff is unprepared to deal with the technical questions raised by guests. Others complain about overly restrictive content filters or other, similar problems related to offering any kind of Internet service. In fact, a recent study suggested that hotels that offer a bad Wi-Fi experience are better off offering no Wi-Fi at all, since it leaves such a negative impression for guests.

While it's important that these types of problems get worked out, some hotels are taking Wi-Fi to the next level. Rather than just seeing it as a way to guests or staff to access the Internet, they're viewing Wi-Fi as a platform and are designing special applications for hotel guests. Starwood Hotels is creating an internal hotel blog, for guests as they login to the Wi-Fi. It will allow guests to post information about local restaurants, or find out if other guests are interested in meeting up for sporting activities or other local events. While it may not catch on, they clearly are trying to leverage the Wi-Fi to offer an application that adds value to a guest's stay. This is almost surprising, since it was just a year ago, that Starwood was complaining that it didn't see any ROI from Wi-Fi and was tempted to not offer it at all. Other hotels are also adding services, such as the ability to download music for the room, order room service or to update and store hotel preference information.

All of these efforts show how hotels are viewing Wi-Fi as more than just a connecting technology, but as a platform for offering real value to guests, letting them do more than could be done before, and making their stay more enjoyable. It shows that hotels are getting beyond the Wi-What? and Wi-How? stages to the point where Wi-Fi is really useful.